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Why are there so few manual exotic cars?

Recently I have talked a lot about the rarity of manual cars. They certainly have become conspicuous in their absence from the market place and in their increasing popularity among enthusiast circles. I had a great conversation recently with a car collector about why that was. He posited that at some point, manufacturers would notice the desirability in the pre-owned market and start building them again. He cited the new manual-only 911R as an example. In fact, it is. He wasn’t quite right, though. There are three issues to consider:

  • The majority of car buyers do not prefer manual cars
  • New car buyers want the latest/greatest technology
  • Cars change hands less often as they age

Ed Bolian Cars

Very few people ordered manual cars when given the option. As the cars age, we start to notice a premium emerge. That is, because the portion of the market that prefers manual cars eventually begins to exceed the demand after they go out of production. As the computerized technology of sequential manual paddle shift transmissions improves, this causes the preference shift. The latest and greatest rarely stays that way for long.

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The psychology of a driving purist or a long term collector is very different than the original buyer of most exotic cars. These are people who want the newest, feature rich, highest performance option available. Manufacturers want to continue to offer new options there so that buyers trade every 6-24 months. In that window, the cars remain sufficiently current. Long term depreciation is not hugely concerning. Short term liquidity is. This is the same reason that unique colors have low penetration rates. The buyers off the showroom floors want to make sure that they can quickly expect an audience when they want to trade or sell it. That window is insufficient for rarity to be prized because generally the cars are still in production.

Manufacturers have also admitted that as they improve the internal technology of modern gearboxes, manual actuation simply would not achieve quick enough shifts for them to work in the ways that they do. This was Lamborghini’s claim with the Aventador.

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As cars age, the people who buy them tend to keep them longer. There are a lot of barely used examples of a car available because new car buyers have short attention spans. After that, you have a combination of first, second, third, etc. owners participating in the market which means availability becomes increasingly sporadic. When cars are 30 years old, you can expect whomever is holding them to either be planning to keep them forever or for them to have retired from usage. This happens incrementally.

Manual Transmission LP550-2 Gallardo

As cars become 10-20 years old we start to see some interesting manifestations of each of these phenomena. The Lamborghinis that I have talked about here (Manual 640s, Manual Gallardos, early Manual Murcielagos) are examples of cars coming into popularity as they exit production even before that window. This option based value discrepancy is a relatively new phenomenon though. It first impacted mid 90s Porsches that had automatic gearboxes and Ferrari 355s with F1 gearboxes post 97. Since then we see it more widely exhibited.

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This all means that manufacturers are dis-incentivized to offer cars as manuals. Aston, Porsche, and Chevrolet seem to be the last on the block to do so as Ferrari, Lamborghini, and McLaren no longer offer them. As the Viper races off into the sunset, options continue to wane.

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So even though it is clear that an outspoken portion of the market loves and cherishes manual cars, it is impractical and typically unprofitable for manufacturers to continue building them. They need to build faster cars and right now, with power levels as they are, gearboxes are the way to do that. It will be very interesting to see what the future holds for these small minority cars. They will always hold a special place in my heart.

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    Luke Yancey
    June 22nd, 2016 at 9:00 am

    I liked that you used the principle of supply and demand to explain why there are so few manual exotic cars on the market and why they are so expensive. I was thinking about buying one, and noticed that I could hardly find one that wasn’t automatic. I will keep my hopes up and keep looking.

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