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There is no shortage of folks singing the virtues of dual clutch gearboxes and quick-shifting automatics in the world today. But for those among us who find value in the physicality of three pedals, manual transmissions elevate the driving experience in ways which cannot be quantified sheerly by numbers.
In 1958 it was a bit of a different story, though. Back then, a young gearhead by the name of George Hurst and his partner Bill Campbell ran an auto repair shop in Warminster, Pennsylvania and manufactured performance parts on the side. “They got into drag racing, and they started making shifters for racers that fixed a lot of the problems those folks were having with the cars of that era,” Holley Engineering Manager Ryan Ringel explains. “A ‘three on the tree’ shifter isn’t particularly ideal for racing, so it largely started out with floor shifters that were designed to replace the factory-installed column shifters.”
Over the years those efforts would evolve into the now-iconic Competition/Plus series of Hurst shifters, a design which is still instantly recognizable today due to its chrome stick and cue ball-style white shift knob. But racers weren’t clamoring to get their hands on Hurst shifters just because of the cool aesthetic – they offered tangible performance benefits behind the wheel, too. And that still remains true today.
The classic Competition/Plus shifter has been popular for decades, due to the shifter's positive engagements and shift accuracy. Okay, the iconic cue-ball shift knob and chrome stick didn't hurt in the looks department, either.
While automakers fully adopted floor-mounted manual transmission shifters many moons ago, OEMs still use compromised shifter designs for a number of different reasons. “Whether we’re talking about a new Camaro or Mustang or Challenger, the OEMs have a lot more that they have to take into consideration,” says Ringel. “They want to sell these cars to everyone, not just enthusiasts. So there’s a lot of concern about making it super easy to move and very quiet, and they kind of dull it down in the process.”
And part of that design ethos includes shift throws that are longer than they need to be. “When you put a short-throw shifter in, you’re lengthening the distance between the pivot point at the bottom of the transmission, where it engages the transmission, and you’re shortening the distance where the pivot point at the top of shifter is – where the shift knob is,” Ringel tells us. “And that makes the entire shift pattern – along with the amount of movement that your hand has to make between gears – a lot smaller. It also makes the shifts feel much crisper: it clicks into gear with more precision, and it no longer feels like you’re using an oar to do it.” And less time spent between gears equates to less time when you’re not putting the power down.
The differences between an OEM-style shifter and a high-quality aftermarket performance shifter aren’t limited to the throw distance, though. OEMs often use soft rubber bushings and a lot of vibration dampening materials in order to reach refinement and noise targets, and that tends to disconnect the driver from the experience of shifting the transmission.
It basically comes down to design priorities, Ringel says. “When you want to make a racing transmission, your concerns are not the same as that of the average person. So one of the first things you do is get rid of those mushy bushings and other things that are designed to isolate the transmission from the person shifting it.”
Hurst’s design focuses on elements that are specifically conducive to performance. “For instance, we put springs in to help the shifter go back to the center position when you’re not in gear. So when you’re racing and you pull it out of second to shift up to third, you can just push the shifter forward, and the shifter will naturally want to go to third – it will center itself up so it’s positioned to move from second to third gear more smoothly.” And that means less potential for missed shifts when it matters the most.
A short-throw shifter does not have to be obvious. Hurst Billet/Plus applications (like 3916050 for the 2016-current Chevrolet Camaro) can be hidden away underneath the shift boot and stock shift knob.
Hurst’s Competition/Plus series shifters are still made today using the same drawings, tooling design, and material specifications as were back in the original muscle car era, and Hurst continues to support a wide variety of classic 4-speed applications with it. But don’t worry, restomodders – Hurst has you covered, too.
“The Competition/Plus carries on the legacy of the original Hurst design, but we have quite a few other things going on these days,” Ringel notes. “One of the other popular areas for Hurst is the Blackjack line of shifters. These are short-throw performance shifters that are mainly intended for transmission swap applications. Nowadays, you don’t necessarily need to use a side-loader four-speed with your ’55 Chevy – maybe you want something more modern. So the Hurst Blackjack series allows you to swap in something like a Tremec TKO or T-56 into your classic car. We cover 50s and 60s Chevys, Mustangs, Mopars – essentially all the classic muscle cars – with a shifter that you can mount up to that retrofit transmission so it fits in the car and looks like it’s supposed to be there.”
Hurst also offers all the hardware required to do the swap, including crossmembers and tunnel patches. “Aside from the transmission itself, it’s basically everything you need to make a fancy modern transmission work in your classic car,” he adds.
And late-model muscle car enthusiasts can benefit from Hurst’s design philosophy with the Billet Plus line. “Using a modern Mustang factory shifter as an example, we ditch the factory rubber bushings used on the fork assembly and body mount, and replace those with stiffer polyurethane bushings to firm everything up,” Ringel says.
“That stiffens up the shifter’s connection to the transmission and the car itself. We shorten up the throw as well, and of course we offer that killer retro look with the flat chrome Hurst stick and the white Hurst ball knob with the shift pattern engraved in it.” Billet Plus shifters can also be optioned with a pistol grip shift knob and a black anodized aluminum stick, or adapted to re-use the factory shift knob for a stealthy, factory-stock look.
A short-throw shifter isn't just for rear-drive applications. The Hurst Billet/Plus is available for 2013-2018 Ford Focus ST (3916038) and 2016-2018 Focus RS (3916046, pictured)
Hurst also brings the benefits of their short-throw shifter design and sharp aesthetic to budget-minded gearheads with the Mastershift, which is a three-speed design derived from an early version of the Competition/Plus which is mainly targeted at vintage trucks, as well as the Indy universal-fit three-speed and four-speed shifters, which is a great option for column-to-floor-shift conversions.
Hurst is also expanding their development focus into areas outside of domestic muscle cars and trucks. “We’re starting to move into the sport compact and import markets as well,” says Ringel.
“We now have a shifter for the Ford Focus ST and RS, and it’s a different animal when comes to the styling – definitely a modern design – but it’s the same idea underneath: The goal is to remove the slop from the shifting system, shorten the throw, and make the shifts crisper. We’ve also introduced a shifter for the Nissan 370Z, and we’re giving more attention to that part of the market now in general. As time goes on, more and more of the manually-shifted cars are going to come from overseas – that’s where the manual transmission seems to have a stronger hold in general.”
In the meantime, Ringel says we should keep our eyes peeled for some new applications in the near future. “We’re working on some Subaru stuff as well as some VW and BMW applications. I think it would be really cool to bring the Hurst name, and our perspective on performance, into that world.”