More Americans are shifting for themselves.
The popularity of manual transmissions has nearly doubled since 1974, the year of the Arab oil embargo, reports the Automotive Information Council.Back then only 6.7 percent of the cars made in America had stick shifts. Today that percentage has risen to 12.7 percent.
Of course, that leaves 87.3 percent, or almost nine out of 10 cars, with automatic transmissions, which is an important statistic when you want to sell or trade in the vehicle.
Leasing professionals say that some options help to resell the car when the time comes, which makes automatic transmissions, air conditioning and premium sound systems somewhat of an investment as well as luxury.
A smart buyer will keep his eye on options, trying to pick the ones that will help him recover some of the initial costs at resale time.
One good way is to watch the trends in the National Association of Fleet Administrators, the people who manage large fleets for major corporations.
A recent survey of its members found what they want in a car, regardless of make and model.
As expected, they like automatic transmissions, power steering and brakes, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo. All are in such demand that a car without AC, for example, might be difficult to resell.
In the area of wear and tear, the fleet people like front and rear floor mats, along with body side moldings. They also like power driver's side outside mirror, full wheel covers and intermittent wipers.
Amazingly, the fleet people came up with a multi-valve, four-cylinder engine. No V-8. Not even a V-6. No turbocharger. It goes without saying, however, that their multivalve (three or four valves per cylinder) four would have fuel injection.
Apparently, the fleet people know that today's multi-valve four will do the job, which will be a major blessing if the government increases fuel economy standards, as seems probable.
The fleet people buy so many cars they often influence Detroit to turn options into standard equipment.
The result was been packaging options - automatic, air, power windows and locks - leaving out in the cold, for example, the buyer who wants power locks but not power windows. Today's discounts have accelerated the packaging trend. Often the discount is for Package 295-A or whatever.
The Motor Vehicle Manufacturing Association notes that these options of yesterday were so popular they became standard equipment: roofs, heaters, radios, power brakes and radial tires.
Now, it says, almost half of domestic car production has power windows and door locks.
More powerful than even the fleet people is Uncle Sam.
Safety features - anti-lock brakes, automatic seat belts and air bags - are becoming more popular, especially with women, but Uncle Sam can order them for you, directly or indirectly.
A little-mentioned federal regulation has indirectly put power brakes on most vehicles, and it is doubtful if any sane motorist would rather be without them.
Insiders say anti-lock brakes are a prime candidate to be the next safety option to be made mandatory. That could be an expensive addition. Anti-locks run $1,000 to $2,000 on some vehicles, and while mass production should reduce the cost, it is doubtful if the price could get below $500.
Air bags are in a similar category.
Uncle Sam's indirect influence can be far-reaching. Current estimates are that electronic components now make up 10 percent of a car's cost.
Microprocessors climbed aboard with fuel injection, the prime way to meet fuel economy regulations. Then came digital dashboards, memory seats, anti-locks and various other gadgets. The experts say the percentage will double by 1995.