Now that we’re up to ten forward speeds in ordinary street automatic transmissions, the idea of a three-speed automatic seems amusingly antiquated. The good old three-speed slushbox was a mainstay of the transmission world for many decades, however (the photo above shows me about to load a three-speed, junkyard-harvested GM Turbo-Hydramatic 350 into my Honda CRX, circa 1998), and it remained an option for car shoppers here until our current century.
The very first truly successful automatic car transmission actually had four forward speeds, becoming available starting with the 1940 Oldsmobile. The original Hydramatic proved very reliable, and still shines on a road-racing course today. GM also scored a smash hit with the two-speed Powerglide automatic during the 1950s and 1960s, but the three-speed dominated the North American automatic world from the 1960s through the early 1980s. The need for a fuel-saving overdrive high gear coupled with not-too-jarring shifts put the squeeze on three-speeds during the latter decades of the 20th century, but you could still get one in a new car here as late as— believe it or not— the 2002 model year.
If you insisted on a bulletproof, old-school three-speed automatic in your 2002 new car, you had just two choices: the Toyota Corolla CE or the Chevrolet Prizm. Since the Prizm (badged as a Geo prior to 1998) was a rebadged Corolla made on the same NUMMI assembly line as its twin, you really had just one choice.
Chrysler’s final three-speed-equipped North American Neons and Caravans were 2001s, and that was the last year for three-speed Chevy Cavaliers and Metros as well. Just about everyone else had abandoned the three-speed automatic in American-market cars before the end of the 1990s (such is most definitely not the case with trucks sold here, and we’ll get to that fascinating story in a later episode of the What Was the Last Year For This Type of Transmission series).
The 2002 Corolla CE came standard with a sensible 5-speed manual transmission with fuel-sipping overdrive, but your only automatic option was the early-1980s-vintage A131L three-speed. The CE trim level was punitively frill-free (all the higher-zoot Corollas that year got four-speeds as their automatic option) and most penny-pinching non-fleet buyers would have selected the three-pedal version with no air conditioning; we can assume that nearly all 3-speed ’02 Corollas (and Prizms) went to rental-car companies. I’ll be looking for one of these no-doubt-ultra-rare cars during my junkyard historical expeditions from now on.
What’s next? The final car with a four-on-the-floor manual transmission available new in the United States. No, it wasn’t the Daihatsu Charade, but that’s the only hint you’re going to get!