Many moons ago now, I sat at a table overlooking a lake in Austria. We’d just finished driving a Lexus LS something or other and the head of transmissions was regaling us with stories of his breakthrough 8-speed auto. This was, of course, back in the days when six cogs was all the rage and ZF ruled the roost. Eight was as exotic as it got in transmission land, and it was almost a mythical thing.
But one of our number had a tickle in his mischief bone. Having listened intently, if slightly disbelievingly, while our Lexus boffin detailed each real and perceived benefit of having eight, rather than seven, he dropped a bombshell.
“You know, don’t you, that Mercedes-Benz is almost ready to launch a 9-speed automatic?”
Well, what happened after that was a wonder to see and hear. Perched lazily on wooden benches in the warm afternoon sun, surrounded by mountains and the most tranquil of lakes, our boffin suddenly turned into that thing you see in movies when Dr Jekyll is transforming to Dr Hyde. Or Dr Banner turns into the Hulk (without the green).
It took a moment, while he translated the comment back to his native Japanese, which made the transition even more palpable, more painful to watch. It was one of those train-wreck situations you can’t stop watching.
The color drained from his face, slowly, as he understood first what had been said, then the ramifications of what had been said. When it returned, finally, it was only in the red spectrum, and even then only the brightest shades. And then he got apoplectic with rage.
“But, but, but, that’s ridiculous. Nobody needs nine speeds! EIGHT SPEEDS IS ENOUGH!!!!!
Yes, that’s how it built up. Then it calmed down again, then built up again, then it went on repeat until it attracted the attention of the PR flack, before calming down. When he had regained the capacity to speak in coherent sentences (it took some time and oscillated from despondency on one side of the sensible middle to fury on the other), his rationale became clear.
While we’d argued the jump from seven speeds to eight provided just a tiny incremental increase, he’d insisted it was an enormous breakthrough, nearly worthy of a Nobel Prize, for both fuel consumption and for downsizing engines by ensuring they were in the strongest part of their ranges more often. Besides, they’d fiddled around with nine and even 10 speeds, rejecting them on the grounds that their fiscal, mass and packaging costs outweighed their benefits. You know, exactly the same kind of SWOT analysis arguments we’d been using on him for the move from seven to eight speeds. And then he heard that some other company, a major rival, disagreed with the Lexus investigations and he either couldn’t figure out how they’d made it work in production when he couldn’t, or (as we suspected) he’d been pushing for nine gears but had been overruled.
Not long after that ZF emerged with its eponymous 8-speed transmission that punched through most of the automotive world and eight speeds became the thing to have.
I was reminded of all this recently, when Maserati launched the mildest of facelifts on its GranTurismo coupe. The glorious atmo V8 showed the faintest of wrinkles by delivering all of its wonderful, billowing, irresistible theater with all the right top-end performance and a massive hole that everybody else now fills with turbochargers.
And, instead of having a great transmission to flit the tacho needle back into places where it worked best to hide the torque hole, the GranTurismo still uses a version of that ZF 6-speeder, the one that was the thing to have when Lexus moved to eight.
Lexus was right, of course, and eight was much better than six and noticeably better than seven, especially when the things are smart enough to jump down the perfect number of gears to avoid hunting.
Oddly, history has taught us that Mercedes-Benz was, indeed, working on a 9-speed automatic transmission at the time, although my mischievous colleague didn’t know that. He’d had a long day and just felt the need for some sport, so he made it up. He now works in product planning.*
*He doesn’t, but he probably should.