Manual transmissions are an essential part of the tuner culture before the early 2000s. Having three pedals in the footwell and rowing a 4, 5, or 6-speed in the car meant you were a serious driver. In actuality, most old torque-converter automatic transmissions back then really were quite terrible. Automatic transmissions shifted when you didn’t want them to, they couldn’t hold back higher torque and power modifications, and they had huge efficiency losses compared to their manual counterparts of the day.
Of course, I worded the above with past tense because, frankly, the “slushbox” automatic transmission is here to stay. With recent durability and speed improvements, along with other automated variants like the DSG dual-clutch transmission, automatics have virtually replaced all manual shifters on sports cars. You’d expect Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche to do away with them first; after all, they are catered to the wealthy, gentleman driver. But now, even the top-of-the-line 840 HP Dodge Demon and venerable Ford GT500 are now only powered by automatic transmissions. No manual options. Period.
RIP, manual gearbox.
I’m not here to lament the eventual death of the move-it-yourself shifter. I’ll save that for another time. I’m here to complain again about the fact my Alto Works is powered by a crappy little 4-speed automatic that shifts at redline and feels doggedly slow. Granted, driving with two pedals around town is convenient, but this is the kind of car that really benefits with having a manual to really wring out the last ounce of power. Replacing it will also have to be for another time.
For now, I’ll deal with the practical, boring transmission. But one thing I can change easily is the shifter itself. The horrible, T-shaped handle in the center console really screams “pedestrian!” no matter how you look at it. So it’s about time I finally got around to changing it. Looking around online, I found that some folks swap out their ugly lever for something less ugly.
Would it be more difficult with the Overdrive and Shift Unlock buttons there?
This sleek little Momo shift lever can be found pretty cheaply online in various primary colors. I opted for a metallic grey to match the rest of the grey interior because any other color would scream “ricer!” (Ironically, this is probably one of those mods many would consider ricer, but I digress.) At least it doesn’t stick out too much like red or blue would have.
The aluminum looks pretty nice and hopefully won’t fade or the logos rub off too quickly. I realize it will get quite hot in summer and cold in winter, but unlike a manual shifter, I won’t be touching it frequently. Also as part of the shifter is a rather stiff spring button up top that depresses the Shift Unlock button to change drive modes. (As an aside, is this even really a Momo product? Having seen their selection and packaging over the years, it does seem like something they’d sell or sold, but I’m not actually sure.)
My only potential problem I could foresee before embarking with disassembly will be the O/D button which will need to be relocated. Switch, soldering iron, and shifter in hand, let’s see what it will take to get this mod installed!
The shifter base has a few screws that allowed the base to be removed. Behind the T-handle are two smaller screws that frees the handle to be moved up, but the two O/D wires that were connected and refused to be removed. For some reason I couldn’t find a quick-detach connector, so I tried to push the wiring up from the base as much as possible. Unfortunately, with a few light tugs, the old, brittle wiring snapped off. Whoops.
Which is fine, I planned on cutting the wiring anyway. With the wires freed, the handle came up and off. I test-fitted the Momo handle and it seems to fit pretty well. I just hope those 3 set screws at the base will hold and not loosen up.
The problem now is that I no longer have an O/D button, as it was a part of the handle. I have to resolder some new wiring and connectors. Without a button connected to the switch, the transmission always defaults to O/D on, which is good should the cheap switch I will use fail on me.
I put the switch at the base of the center console, toward the driver, so it is in easy reach when I need to force the transmission to downshift and stay at what is essentially 3rd gear. I crimped on a few connectors to the existing wiring and tested it out.
It seems the switch is lit when the O/D is on, and is extinguished when the O/D is off. I imagined it would have been the opposite of this, but whatever. Success!
I also removed the LED that the previous owners installed, since the base no longer needs to be lit up.
As awesome as the rest of this car is, I had to do more to hide the automatic shame. I purchased a universal fit, fake carbon cloth shifter boot meant for manual cars for around $10 USD. The quality and stitching seem decent and it looks more stylish to me than plain leather, though in hindsight I’m not sure how much the shiny carbon look matches the rest of my interior. I wish it was a bit more of a matte finish, but either way, it will be used to hide the ugly shift markings at the base.
Thankfully it is more than wide enough to be wrapped and press-fit around the shifter base. A few quick tugs and it doesn’t seem like it’ll be going anywhere.
So much better.
Now to make sure the Momo handle stays in place. I used a punch tool to put three dents into the shifter post where the set screws sit in to resist movement. As an added measure of security, I dabbed on some semi-permanent blue Loctite to secure them and ensure they will not back out too easily with use.
At first glance, you’d definitely think it was a manual transmission.
While there are probably better and more useful modifications I could do, I figure this will go far in tidying up the ugly interior. There is no real benefit other than making me feel less embarrassed about driving it around town. This was definitely a fun and easy to do mod, taking only a few hours and less than $30 USD altogether.