Short Shift

The Short End of the Stick

(A romp in the Connecticut woods with some seriously height-impaired shift levers)

Ron Stygar is a man of small tolerances. – Very small tolerances.

In engineering terms a tolerance is a lack of precision. Manufacturers build in many tolerances into their product. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes tolerances give you an added measure of safety. Sometimes, however, tolerances are merely a way of appealing to the most common tastes or a way of saving money. The shifter on the Z3 is a perfect example. The shifter in most Z’s feels like it belongs in a family hauler instead of a low-slung sports car.

Ron does not like this type of engineering tolerance. He believes in precision in his gear shifting and has invested a serious amount of time developing an approach, which both preserves your warranty (mostly) and offers you some serious short shifting fun. In addition, he’s come up with a magic do-hickey to improve your driving (more on this later).

Row Row Row your gears…

OK, so a little exercise is not a bad thing, but don’t we live in a world of modern-day laborsaving devices? Turns out we do.

It was Ben Liaw who first noticed that a significant change had been made between the M3 and the MZ3 shift levers. Ben took the shifter from the MZ3 and transplanted it into his M3, making short-shifting history. A number of people followed his lead, transplanting the heart of motorsport shifting into their more mundane vehicles, resulting in a serious amount of short shifting fun. But the fun was not without a price – the transplant of MZ3 shifters into 1.9-Z3’s resulted in issues with 5th gear hitting the transmission tunnel, but more seriously, while 328, 2.8-Z3 and 1.9-Z3 owners were enjoying the fun, MZ3 owners were left out of the party.

Enter Ron Stygar…

Ron goes back a bunch of years with BMWs. He has a 318ti with and ///M Coupe on order. In addition to his many other projects with his cars, Ron has spent a year investigating the ins and outs, ups and downs and the backs and forths of BMW shifters.

Ron has developed a number of shift levers, which just scream short shifting fun! At the prompting of Jon Maddux (the leather guy), Ron sent me a picture of some of his creations a while ago and invited me down to sample them in my Z3-2.8. Ron had heard that I had upgraded to the MZ3 shifter, but had gone a little further – I had dropped the height of my shifter by installing a round aftermarket knob. This, effectively, shortened the shifter another inch. The upside was seriously short shifts. The downside is the loss of the gorgeous BMW knob.

Ron said he had the solution.

Bug Collecting…..

It seemed like a good day for bug collecting, so I headed south to rural Connecticut where Ron does his work.

What I found when I got there was a meticulous garage, a workshop complete with fiche reader, and loads of special tools which Ron makes himself. Ron was interested in trying a number of prototype shortened MZ3 shift levers on my car. The plan was to start with the standard 2.8-Z3 shifter and work our way down to his most shortened unit. Along the way we would take key metrics:

The height of the stick (with the standard BMW knob),

The length of the throw from 3rd to 4th and the amount of force needed to shift from 3rd to neutral and from neutral to 4th.

We would tabulate these metrics into a guide for shift-lever reduction.

Levers 101…

Give me a lever long enough to move the world, a fulcrum big enough and a place to stand and I will break my lever!

Short Shifting in concept is an easy thing to comprehend if you think of the basic physics of a lever. A lever has two parts: the lever and the fulcrum.

The most common lever we are familiar with is a seesaw. Remember when we were kids and the seesaws had several adjustments, which allowed you to lengthen the lever on one side and shorten it on the other? The purpose of this arrangement was to allow you to distribute force in the most effective way. The lighter kid would sit on the longer side, the heavier kid on the short side. Do it right and each kid exerted the same amount of force. The difference was in the length of the lever on their side of the fulcrum. The longer side of the lever takes less force to move, but translates the force over a shorter span on the short side. The lever is a classic force multiplier.

If you imagine the seesaw stood on end, you’ve got your shift mechanism. The lever is your shifter. The fulcrum is the pivot ball which sits under your shift boot. In general, if the longer end of the lever is on the top, you will have to travel more to move the shorter end any significant amount, but it will be easy to move. This is the situation right out of the box. The advantage is that it’s easy for everyone to move the lever because of the force multiplication of the long end.

But it’s not much fun.

Adjusting the See Saw…

You can shorten the shift in a couple of ways: You can “adjust the see-saw” by extending the shift lever below the pivot ball. This is basically what the MZ3 shifter does in the 2.8-Z3 and 1.9-Z3 applications. This has the effect of slightly increasing the effort needed to shift, but it’s really not all that noticeable.

However, the 1.9-Z3 shifter has and additional twist – or rather an additional turn: it’s bent. The bend in the lever accommodates the different transmission in the 1.9-Z3. In the 1.9-Z3 implementation, the straight MZ3 shifter results in the bottom of the shifter and the transmission being seriously out of line, resulting in a condition called “notchiness”, or the difficulty in getting into gear. When you replace a bent 1.9-Z3 shifter with a straight MZ3 shifter, you can compensate for the increased vertical off-axis force by raising the fulcrum point of the lever. Ben Liaw sells a kit call the “ERK” (Effort Reducing Kit”) which allows you to do this. Luckily, in the 2.8-Z3 the difference in height is negligible, so this does not become an issue.

Where’s my Chainsaw?

Another way of changing the relationship of the lever in the shifter is by taking a more radical approach: Shorten the top of the lever.

Using this approach, you can, effectively, shorten the throw down to just about nothing, but there is a cost: as you shorten the upper part of the lever, the force needed to move the bottom part increases. Any reduction in shift throw results in an increased effort regardless of the method you choose to shorten the throw. Remember how the lever works. Extending the length below the pivot ball as well as shortening the length above the pivot ball will result in increased shifting force Shortening the upper part of the lever is the heart of Ron’s idea for short shifting the MZ3. Although Ron chose to shorten the prototype levers 3/4, 1 1/8, and 1 1/2 inch, to equate with a 5% , 10% and 15% reduction, this distance could be any value in between.

It’s actually quite a simple approach. It also leaves all the important parts, those below the lever, in the same relationship and generally intact. Other short shifting kits sold for the Z tend to replace more components, thus encroaching on your warranty. Ron’s approach trades off increased effort in exchange for a more standard implementation where it really counts. The question has always been – how much effort?

That was what we intended to find out.

The Measure of Success

Ron had created several prototypes of shortened sticks from BMW ///MZ3 shifters. Each change in length reduces the throw by five percent: The sticks were shortened by 3/4, 1 and 1/8, and 1 and 1/2 inches. We set out to measure the differences in throw and effort between both the standard 2.8-Z3 shifter, the ///MZ3 shifter and Ron’s shortened ///MZ3 shifters.

Jack of all Trades

Ron is an amazing guy. Not only is his garage neater than just about any room in my house, but he has the most incredible collection of tools, many of them specially made for the sole purpose of swapping out BMW shifters. The first hurdle was to get the car jacked up. Not an easy task. First of all, floor jacks don’t work because the nose is so close to the ground, same problem with ramps. Solution: Ron had built a set of “mini-ramps” which raised the car enough to get the jack under. Next problem: standard jack stands won’t fit the indentations on the bottom of the Z3 at the jack points.

Solution: Ron has built a set of adaptors for jack stands, which exactly fit the Z3. (Ron actually sells jack-stands modified to fit BMW’s, he has been asked by an owner to create a set of jack stands which will fit his Z3, but that’s another story). Once the car was up on the stands, we inserted standard ramps under the front wheels as a backup. We also chucked the rear wheels using Ron’s modified Tru-Cut chucks in the back of the car. This car was not going anywhere!

Mr. Wizzard Goes To Work

We measured the height of the MZ3 shifter with the modified aftermarket knob, then put everything back to standard 2.8. We then measured the height of the standard 2.8 shifter, removed the knob and measured the throw from 3rd to 4th.

We then used a calibrated scale to test the force needed to move the shifter from 3rd to neutral, then from neutral to 4th. By this point I thought I was back in Mr. Wizard’s physics class. Only Mr. Wizard was nowhere near as precise as Ron was!

How to shorten a Shifter

Ron, with the help of Manoj Mehta, Alan Alfano and his coworker Jim Guyan has come up with a way to shorten the upper portion of a shift lever that works well. He and his friend Alan Alfano have been dissecting BMW shift related parts for about a year now.

They cut apart a number of shifters to find out how they are constructed. They’ve discovered a couple of things about how the units are made: The shifter is a rod within a rubbery substance, surrounded by a metal shell. The purpose of the rubber is to isolate shift knob from the vibration and heat of the transmission. The upper portion of the inner rubber is glued to the inner rod. The lower portion is not.

Ron with the help from his dedicated and fanatical crew (OK, he buys them beer) has discovered a way of removing the outer casing from the unit without damaging it. They then cut down the top of inner rubber core to the desired length, while, at the same time cutting down the bottom of the outer casing to match. Afterwards, they re-glue the shortened parts together and polish the unit to a dazzling brilliance. The end product rivals BMW for workmanship.

Instead of adonizing the stick, Ron polishes his to a high gloss

Getting Bent

Ron also bends the ///MZ3 shifter to fit the M3/328 (and, presumably, the 1.9-Z3). His method uses a number of specially machined parts, which places no stress on the shift lever. The bending tool and clamping pieces were made by Alan’s Dad. Ron places the shifter into a vice and bends it to an angle and length known only to High School Math teachers.”When we first started to bend these things”, said Ron, “we assumed that the angle should be the same as the OEM shifter. But it turns out, that this results in the top of the shift lever being too far back, depending on the car. The increased length below the pivot ball, brings the top of the shift lever back”. That was way too much tolerance for a guy like Ron. He wanted precision, so he calculated the X-Y delta between the stock and new lever and bent the new lever accordingly. The new lever duplicates the position of the stock lever in neutral accommodating the height of the new lever.

Note: of course this does not apply in the 2.8-Z3 since the stick in both the ///M and the 2.8 are straight to begin with.

SAT’s (Shifting Attitude Test)

In order to quickly swap out the shifter, Ron developed several special tools to do the job. The first mimics the BMW tool used to remove the nylon cup from the carrier. Unfortunately, the tool must be applied from underneath the shifter, a tight squeeze. We loosened the heat shield under the car to make room. Once you reach it, a simple turn and the tool unhooks the nylon cup and the shifter pops out the top. “You know, a smart guy like you should figure out how to remove this things from the top, then anyone could do it”, I said. I guess Ron took this as a challenge to his engineering prowess, because a couple of weeks later, he sent me a picture of his new tool — the Upper Cup Removal tool. Unlike the BMW tool, this can be used from the top, significantly simplifying the job. Ron’s the only one in the world who makes these things.

We used another special tool, a bent screwdriver to remove the clip, which secures the bottom of the shifter to the rod, which connects with the transmission.

Using Ron’s tools, a shifter can be removed in a minute or so. You simply follow the reverse procedure, making sure the nylon cup is aligned properly for reinstallation. Push the securing back on and the new shifter is in. In the Z3, there is actually no need to remove the carrier or other parts to change the shifter. However, we did discover one “gotcha” — when reinstalling the rubber boot on the shifter at the end of the day we found out how hard it is to actually reseat the boot properly. There is actually a “lip” which needs to be hooked below the carrier. Ron’s tool which is designed to reseat the lip around the carrier in a 328 does not work in a Z3. We somehow managed to do it through brute force. Most do-it-yourselfers (like me!) tend to just let the boot sit on top of the carrier when they are done. The problem is that it will then get dirty and gritty, sure recipie for trouble down the road. Luckily, there was no need to reinstall the boot every time, instead we just swapped out the shift levers to take our measurements.

Even with the special tools, it still took us the whole afternoon to test all the sticks (and we weren’t even drinking beer yet!). The results are tabulated below:

Height “ Change “ Throw “ Reduction “ Change Change Force1 Change Force2 Change
std 2.8 5.0000 3.8750 2.8 ///M 3.75 5.75
//MZ3 4.7500 -.2500 3.2500 -.6250 -16% 4.75 +1.00 6.75 +1.00
“3/4 3.8125 -.9375 2.8750 -.3750 -26% -12% 5.25 +.50 7.50 +.75
“1 1/8 3.5000 -.3125 2.6875 -.1875 -31% -17% 5.75 +.50 8.25 +.75
“1 1/2 3.1875 -.3125 2.5000 -.1875 -35% -23% 6.25 +.50 9.13 +.88

The table shows the results of our obsevations in white and the calculations in gray. Force 1 is the force needed to go from third to neutral and Force 2 is that needed to go from neutral to fourth as measured by Ron’s force meter.

Basically, we found what we expected — as you decrease the length of the shaft, the effort to shift increases. We found that for every third of an inch the shaft was shortened, the effort increased by about 3/4 of a pound of force. Although it does not sound like much, it does tend to add up when you get down to the shortest stick. However, the increase in effort for all sticks was still in the “quite acceptable, thank you” category.

In addition to the metrics, I also offer my subjective impressions of the various levers:

2.8 Standard– Effort to shift is very light, but the throw is enormous. Coming from a Miata, the standard Z3 shifter feels like a giant step in the wrong direction. Feels like I’m driving my Maxima.

3.2 (//M) standard– Better, feels much more like a sports car should, but there seems to be room for improvement. There does not seem to be a great deal of effort or increase in notchiness by stepping to the //M shifter, even though the figures show that this is the largest increase in the force figures. If you’re looking for a marginal improvement, nothing drastic, in fact, something that even a BMW tech could not detect, this is the way to go. If you’re looking for something more read on.

3/4″ short– Effort is still very reasonable, but the shift throw is starting to come down significantly. But there still feels like there’s room for improvement. Personally, I think this stick falls into the gray area of either “too short” or “not short enough”, depending on what you’re looking for. Interesting side note: This is the stick which closely approximates the Miata throw. However, because the standard BMW knob is taller than the standard Miata knob, the final throw is more losely approximated with the 1 1/8th short.

1 1/8″ short – This was my favorite. When we measured the height of the standard knob with this unit it was almost exactly equal to the height of my aftermarket knob on the //M shifter. I’ve been very happy with the throw reduction, but this unit allowed me to use the standard knob. Very Nice! This definitely qualifies as a short-shift implementation. The shifts are more than an inch shorter than the standard 2.8-Z3 shaft and about 1/2-inch shorter than the MZ3 shaft.

1 1/2″ short– This approach was a little too extreme for me. Although it gives you toggle-switch-like performance, the effort increase and the notchiness were beginning to show, but not actually to the extreme where it was unmanageable, but the knob had begun to sink into the shifter well and getting into reverse was starting to be a pain. In addition, the reduction of the amount of external metal sleeve was beginning to show. I would have some questions about the longevity of this diminutive stick with a heavy-handed shifter.

The ///MZ3 shifter in a 2.8-Z3 results in about a 17% reduction in the throw. The 1 1/8th shortened lever results in another 17% improvement over the ///MZ3 shifter. Ron figures that a 30 to 40 percent reduction in throw is about optimal. Anything more than that is too extreme in his opinion. The 1 1/8th short results in about a 30% reduction from the standard 2.8 shifter.

Conclusion: if you were happy with the upgrade to the //M shifter, you’ll be twice as happy with the 1 1/8th short.

In the end, I decided to leave the short stick in my car. It allowed me to get the same performance I was getting from my aftermarket knob, but with the standard BMW knob which matched my dash. In addition, it also gave me an additional feature: by keeping aftermarket knob for “special occasions” I can shorten the shifter by another inch to almost the same dimensions as the 1 1/2 short! It’s a nice option if I feel the need for the occasional bout of “toggle-switch shifting”. If you’re interested, Ron is still looking for someone with an ///M to go through the same exercise with.

You want one of these bad!

Before I left, Ron showed me another special modification. It’s very simple: it’s an adjustable clutch stop.

If you look at the carpet floor in back of your clutch pedal, you’ll see a small black knob. The purpose of the knob is to stop your clutch at the end of it’s travel (it’s a sort of cushion). BMW has actually engineered in another tolerance in the clutch: the last 3 or 4 inches of travel don’t actually do anything!

Try it: Sit in your car with plenty of space in front of you. Shift into first and slowly let up on the clutch. Try to figure out the exact point that the clutch catches then press your foot down slightly. Look down at the floor and notice the amount of space till you hit the floor. What a waste! When you shift, if you are pressing your foot to the floor, you spending close to six inches of travel time in the tolerance zone.BORING!

Ron has the solution: This little do-hickey replaces your standard clutch stop, allowing you to raise it up. This prevents you from going all the way down to the floor with every shift. The result is a much quicker uptake from the clutch and a much faster launch. In fact, as I found out in front of a gang of bikers at a rest stop, it may be such a quick uptake that you’ll end up stalling out the first couple of times. (The bikers were actually very nice and waited to make fun of me until I left the parking lot).

This is the next best thing to sliced bread. Ron sells these things, but he also has a page to show you how to build one yourself. Believe me, if you can get your hands on one of these, do so ASAP!

The Future

Ron has indicated that he will soon be retiring from his job at the East Hartford, CT Pratt & Whitney motor mill. Ron helps maintain the computer / instrumentation systems facilities used in testing the F100 military jet engines. Although he now does things by request, he plans to offer his shortened shifters (and all his other neat thingees!) on a small commercial basis in the near future. If the quality of the work he did on the prototypes can hold up in production, I predict he’s got a ready market out there.

The smile never left my face in the 99 miles of driving back to Boston from Ron’s house. I parked just long enough to jot down these notes and switch to my “short-shorts” aftermarket knob (which shortens the shift by another inch!). Time to take my precision instrument out on the road again!

Postscript: If you think this modification was cool, let Ron know. If you’re hard up for projects for excuses to spend time with your car, Ron can help. Check out his web page which lists more than 120 separate articles with pictures showing stuff Ron has done with his and other BMWs.

Discuss this article and other Convenience upgrades in the

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