Three pedals for two feet. A wheel and a shift knob for two hands– that are supposed to be on the helm at all times. The manual transmission doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it? Never mind. For its increasingly marginalized adherents, the manual transmission makes driving a pleasure. Unfortunately, carmakers are deleting the manual option from many U.S.-spec cars. As you’d expect from “ultimate driving machine” fabricators, BMW offers a manual in all of its vehicles save the 7-Series, including the once SMG-only M5s and M6s. These manual-equipped Bimmers sport ZF-sourced six-speed transmissions crowned by a leather shift knob.
In my experience, the BMW manual lever provides slightly long throws– which I believe is a conscience engineering decision to slow shifts down slightly to reduce stress on the clutch and the engine. However, for aggressive and experienced self shifters, the longer throws merely slow down the driving experience. One common solution: replace the factory set-up with a short shift kit. In terms of driver snicking satisfaction, it’s an extremely effective solution. But there ARE drawbacks.
The short shift kit replaces several parts of the shift system, including the shift lever and the selector rod. Installation can be difficult. On some cars, installation comes from under the car, not through the top, requiring a mechanical lift. As stated above, adding a short shifter can also stress a car’s transmission; potential warranty issues may arise. Therefore on a newer car, especially a leased vehicle, a short shift kit is not the best choice.
Another alternative: change the balance of the shift lever by increasing the mass of the shift knob. The BMW factory knob weighs in at six ounces and provides a comfortable, stylish touch. On M models, the shift knob is even illuminated with a weak reddish glow, lighting the shift pattern on the knob’s top surface.
To see if extra mass would improve shifting, I tested the Whalen Shift Machine, produced by a one product company. The Whalen came to my attention thanks to word of “word” in a variety of BMW related web sites, where users raved how great the knob was in actual use.
The Whalen Shift Machine weighs-in at eighteen ounces. For the math challenged, that’s three times the weight of the factory knob. The Whalen Knob also sits approximately one inch lower than the factory-fitted device, which slightly shortens the length of the shift lever.
Installation is a two step process. Step one: remove the old knob. Step two: install new knob. Not so easy, Mr. Bond. Removing the old BMW knob is a little tricky, as it requires substantial torque to pull the factory knob off the shift lever. At the risk of conforming to lawyerly stereotypes, I suggest recruiting that neighbor who lets his dog poop in your yard as a spotter. When the knob comes off, you can “accidentally” pop him in the face. (And then call my office.)
Once you [somehow] manage to remove the old knob, installing the Whalen knob is a breeze. Simply lift the collar under the knob and twist until the center spline of the shift lever lines up with the bar on the inside of the knob. Once lined up, release the collar and the Whalen knob clicks into place.
The Whalen knob is a round ball made of stainless steel. It’s available in three styles: brushed, polished or bead blasted. Whalen also offers custom engraving, allowing users to design their own knob top engraving. [Note: M car, skull’s head, no.] Discretion being the better part of street cred, I purchased the standard polished knob.
Driving with the Whalen knob installed on my M Roadster changed the shift dynamic dramatically. Shifts were much crisper; gear changes felt quicker and more direct. OK, it’s could be mostly psychological, but who cares? The feeling created was close to the feel of an actual short shift kit, with more precise and weightier throws.
After installing the Whalen, I noticed some rattling from the collar. I removed the knob and placed black electric tape on the lever where the collar meets the lever. Sorted.
The Whalen is not without its compromises. I found the knob’s shape, a round ball, less comfortable than the longer factory knob. Although my mitts are average-sized, ham-handed drivers may also find the knob too small. Finally, and this is no small matter for drivers from Miami or Maine, extreme weather will make the knob extremely cold or hot to the touch.
None of these drawbacks outweigh the sensual benefits of driving with a Whalen shift knob. At over 130 clams, the Whalen isn’t cheap, but for the BMW (or MINI) driver who understands the visceral appeal of a manual transmission, the Whalen is a terrific, no hassle upgrade.