Having driven my fair share of classic and modern cars, I’ve become rather complacent with the variations on the manual and automatic gearboxes most car manufacturers employ. Whilst there may be different configurations underneath, most feel familiar at the point of contact with you – the driver – and the average driver wouldn’t even know whether their gearbox is a synchromesh, CVT or dual-clutch system. Before these types of automotive gearbox became commonplace, there was another type of manual gearbox known as the ‘pre-selector gearbox’, or ‘self changing gearbox’. I recently had my first experience driving a car with a pre-selector gearbox – a Lanchester LD10, and whilst it wouldn’t be my box of choice, it has been an interesting exercise in appreciating another part of automotive mechanical progression.
The Daimler ‘self changing gearbox’ and fluid flywheel found in the Lanchester LD10 is somewhat of a stepping stone between a manual and fully automatic gearbox. The same system is found in many pre-1950s Daimler, Lanchester and BSA cars and is lauded by many as an excellent system. In reality, it’s not the best choice for modern-day driving in traffic and on congested roads, but it certainly has its charm.
Rather than the usual floor-mounted gear stick, the gear selector is mounted on the steering column, and easily slides into positions 1 2 3 and T (for top). There is no inhibitor switch in the pre-selector gearbox, meaning that the starter motor can be engaged in any gear, meaning it is essential to always ensure that the car is in neutral before starting the engine.
Using a pre-selector gearbox is actually a relatively straightforward affair. To engage neutral, simply place the lever in the ‘N’ position, then press and release the gear change pedal (positioned where the clutch pedal would be in a car fitted with a manual gearbox). Start the car by ensuring that the handbrake is on, then select and engage neutral, switch on the ignition and press the starer button or pull the starter lever (in the case of the Lanchester).
To drive away, select first gear, then press and release the gear change pedal; the car will not move the handbrake is released and a small amount of throttle applied; it is sometimes worth covering the brake pedal when first setting off, as this will prevent the car from ‘lurching’ forward.
As soon as the gear is engaged, select the next gear you anticipate requiring (select second if you have just pulled away in first). When you wish to change gear, slightly decrease pressure on the accelerator as you depress and release the gear change pedal. It is not necessary to anticipate a ‘bite’ like you would with a clutch pedal, but a certain amount of ‘feeding in’ will result in a smoother change.
Changing gears sequentially on a pre-selector gearbox is not necessary – simply select the gear you will need next, not the gear you are using. If you are travelling in top gear, a lower gear (usually 3rd) should be pre-selected (to account for hills or obstructions). For example, if you saw a red traffic light ahead, you would simply select second (or first if there is an upward gradient or you require hard acceleration), bring the car to a stop, then apply the hand brake and depress the pedal. When the lights change and you are ready to go, simply release the handbrake and depress the accelerator pedal.
If it wasn’t already clear, the mere selection a gear does not engage it – this only happens when the gear change pedal is depressed. Experienced drivers will select gears well in advance of requiring them. Sometimes a gear will be selected and not used, such as when approaching a roundabout that might remain clear rendering the change unnecessary. On another occasion, reverse may be selected whilst on the move, for example when the driver knows that the gear will be required to park up. Whilst cruising at higher speeds you may have 3rd or even 2nd selected, anticipating a future hazard, or turning.
Having driven low-powered new and old cars, high-powered sports cars and much more in between, it’s safe to say that all types of gearbox have their own charm. One of the byproducts of the pre-selector gearbox however, is the way in which it instills a more relaxed sense of driving like you’d find in a car with an automatic gearbox. Of course, a little bit of anticipation is required on anything but the most straight (and boring) roads, but after my experiences, I firmly believe anyone could get to grips with driving a car with a pre-selector gearbox, such as the Lanchester LD10 I learnt in.