24. OH SHIFT – did I just do that?!

That’s what you might be asking yourself if you just money shifted your brand new transaxle – something fairly easy to do if you’ve got a Graziano transaxle (I do) and the factory supplied shifter (I do).

From Urban Dictionary:

Usually only happens in a car with a manual transmission – A money shift is an accidental, far too aggressive down-shift, in which the engine performs the biggest red-line you’ve ever seen. It’s referred to as a money shift, because it usually results in money coming out of your pocket for a new head, pistons etc.

No – I didn’t money shift my car on the first go-kart trip around the block (car isn’t quite ready).  Actually, I hemmed and hawed for a few weeks but finally decided to purchase the Audi R8 shifter mechanism for my SLC.  It seems this upgrade is getting to be ubiquitous; JBurer’s #17 car was the first SLC to hit the road with this mod but it’s been cropping up in a bunch of other builds since.

As I said before, I’m starting to get buyer-fatigue; replacing/upgrading parts from the kit with nicer alternatives.  I really wanted to make the stock shifter work; I went so far as to buy parts from McMaster to try and improve the factory shift mechanism.  I was going to use a spring loaded detent to set the 1-2 position and serve as a positive stop for reverse.  Unfortunately, real estate above the factory shifter is sparse and I couldn’t package a spring detent (at least not well).  I also bought bushings and guide pins to try and fashion a spring/guide system so I could have the shifter return to the center when in neutral.  Again, packaging issues made this difficult/impossible given my very limited fabrication and machining arsenal.

But I gave up.  About $1700 – that’s what the R8 shifter mech was going for at the time, I threw in the towel.  Uuuungh …

Part numbers ordered:

  • 420-711-050 (shifter assembly)
  • 420-713-109-C-3Q7 (guide)
  • 410-713-109-A (sound absorber)

OK, bitching over, here’s what it looks like!

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Initial impression – this thing is big!  It also feels very, very good in comparison to the factory shifter.  Night and day isn’t a strong enough analogy.  Perfection and terrible gets closer.
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View from the top.  Reverse is to the left and back, toward driver.  Reverse has a lockout which requires pushing down on the shifter to unlock.
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Guide plate; this is a thing of beauty.
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Kellered from a single piece of aluminum.  Not the cheapest manufacturing process – and it’s reflected in the price!
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Sound absorber; this is the piece which the shift stick contacts when moving between the gates.  It’s a nylon/plastic piece and prevents over-running the shifter into the aluminum guide plate.

My favorite shifting experience goes back to my 1994 Mustang GT.  It had a Tremec T5 transmission and I’d upgraded it with a Pro 5.0 shifter and a Steeda tri-ax shift stick.  This combo created a very precise mechanical, notchy shifter which could be shifted as quickly as you cared without fear of putting the transmission into the wrong gear.  The 2-3 shift could be done seamlessly, without the need to pause at the neutral position – the centering springs were so strong and there was no gate feature to hit.  It was shifting nirvana.

The Audi R8 shifter is not that shifting nirvana.  The Tremec is a direct shifted transmission whereas the Graz is cable operated.  That already means it’s going to be a bit sloppy right out of the gate.

It’s a different kind of shifting experience.  The shifter feels precise – mostly because there’s a gate feature.  The centering spring is quite strong – but the friction in the shift cables is noticeable and you can’t make the 2-3 or 4-5 shift without pausing, otherwise you risk slamming into the gate fork.  You can over-drive the shift throws but you don’t get that same “CLAK” you get from the Pro 5.0 because the sound absorber does what it’s supposed to do – it absorbs the sound of the shifter hitting the stops.

So while the R8 shifter does everything differently than the Mustang, it’s still really really good.

  • The shifter feels precise, there’s no wobble and you know exactly what gate you’re in and where you need to go next.
  • You can shove the stick to the 1-2 or 5-6 positions as hard as you want, the stops are positive.
  • You can slam the shifter forward or back, you still get that satisfying noise when it hits home.  But it’s more of a Thunk.  Thunk.
  • The reverse lockout is idiot-proof, you can’t possibly money shift into reverse.  Hell, you can’t even money shift from 3 to 2 or 5 to 4, the gates make this all but impossible.

It’s less Bang! Bang! and more Thunk. Thunk.  Just a touch slower.  Just a bit quieter.  Some might say it’s more refined than what I had in the Mustang and I think that’s a fair assessment.  Less Fast and Furious, more Deliberate and Controlled.  It’s going to take me some time to get used to a gated shifter – I’ve never driven a car with such a feature before.  However, this experience is supposed to be otherworldly – there are articles written on how wonderful the R8 shifting experience is.  There are even YouTube videos of nothing other than someone rowing through the gears.  Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

As I mentioned, it’s a pretty big shifter mechanism.  Too big to fit within the RCR supplied center console.  It’s also fairly tall, putting the shift knob halfway up the steering wheel.  This position just didn’t feel natural to me so I wanted to push it down further, closer to the more traditional shifter location.  I also wanted it further to the right, I found the reverse position to be too close to the steering wheel and I was concerned about knocking the shifter out of gear when backing up while turning the wheel.

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A 10mm XZN triple square bit is required to take the upper frame off (4 bolts).  I’ve only ever used an XZN triple square bit on another Audi.
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The R8 fore/aft linkage uses a ball to mate with the Audi shift cable.  If using the RCR supplied shift cables the ball is too large for the rod end to pass over.  Some modification will be necessary.
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Patient is taped up, ready to go under the grinder.
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Grinding with a dremel and sanding drum.  The shift rod is relatively soft so it didn’t take much to grind the ball down.
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It fits!
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But the rod end now slides too far up the shaft; this extra motion translates into shifter slop.
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A snapring works for both shift linkages on the R8 shifter.  McMaster PN DE-5SG.
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I cut a slug of rubber and sized it so keep the rod end down at the lower end of the shift linkage.  A second rod end will be necessary as the RCR supplied shift cables only have one.  The cables have a 1/4-28 threadform, McMaster PN 59915K42 works here.  If you’re like me, I try to bundle my McMaster orders.  Do yourself a favor and get 2 of these in case modification of the rod end is needed to get the cables to shift properly, good to have a spare handy.  The factory shifter cables include an aluminum equivalent to the stainless McMaster part above.
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The lower half of the cast shifter body aligns and secures the shifter cables.  Leaving this intact forces the shifter mechanism to sit high – too high for me.  So it had to go!
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A deep cut.
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The remains after cutting the base and removing the upper bracket assembly.
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R8 shifter installed; I tried to orient the shifter plate so it’s level with the chassis.  The position shown is the lowest possible without more serious modification to the shifter or chassis.  In this position the left/right and fore/aft linkage have just enough room to articulate without crashing into the center spine.  In the neutral position, the shifter orients the shift stick slightly rearward.
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A comparison showing the hacked R8 shifter next to the factory offering.
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Removal of the back half of the shifter assembly requires a new piece of angle to secure the cables.  It took a LOT of trial and error but I was eventually able to make the RCR cables work without modifying the rod ends.  Another builder cut down a rod end to make things work for the left/right action.
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Top-down view of installed shifter.  Left edge of assembly is lined up with left edge of center beam.  This provides ample separation between the steering wheel and knob when reversing.

RCR are working on their own version of this shifter mechanism.  No details available yet regarding how it’s different from the OEM Audi offering, pricing, or on timing.  Since I couldn’t wait for RCR’s solution, sourcing and modifying this on my own is the next best thing – just hoping I can come up with a decent center console!

UPDATE – RCR have just released info on their shifter; looks to  be a pretty slick setup, certainly worlds better than the unit supplied with the base kit.  It will be interesting to get feedback from the first users!  Availability is immediately with about a 2 week leadtime and pricing is competitive with the R8 shifter at $1495.  As with the Audi unit, the RCR shifter is spring loaded to return to center and the gate feature will make it all but impossible to shift into the wrong gear.  I’m not quite sure how the reverse lockout is going to work yet, whether it’s feasible to engage one-handed or if it’ll require 2-handed operation.  I’m guessing the latter.  No dimensions yet but the description says it should be easier to package than the Audi mechanism.

**Note: The RCR designed shifter is included FREE when purchasing the transaxle and transaxle completion kit from RCR directly per the 2018 updated pricing info found here.  That’s a pretty amazing value proposition considering the transaxle is only slightly cheaper if purchased from Audi directly.  If piecing the transaxle completion kit yourself, you might also save a few bucks.  But put the two together and it wouldn’t add up to what you’d pay for either the Audi or RCR shifter mechanism.  Another awesome example of RCR adapting to the market and listening to their customer base.

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Image courtesy RCR: it appears the reverse lockout will be a spring loaded slider located in the upper left hand corner.

I’ve been waiting a full year to share this next part!  JBurer and I were discussing shift knobs one day and he came across the guys at Raceseng Inc.  They offer custom shift knobs of just about any combination of shape you can think of.  They’re available in stainless steel, delrin, or what they call hybrid.  Delrin’s nice because it doesn’t get nearly as hot as steel but steel’s got the extra heft I was looking for.  Their hybrid design uses a largely stainless steel core with a delrin exterior – get the weight of stainless but don’t deal with the heat.

I ordered a Slammer shift knob in orange gloss.  At the time they didn’t offer the Audi R8/Graz shift pattern – what’s currently known as shift gate 6.  While discussing this with the folks at Raceseng they agreed to create the necessary NC programming to add our shift gate pattern to their catalog – pretty cool.  The orange on my knob is powdercoated then the shift pattern is CNC milled into the ball end – it cuts through the powdercoat and gives it a really nice finished look, much better than a sticker.  Additionally, the milling is programmed to follow the contour of the knob so it doesn’t flatten out the top of the knob.  The Slammer weighs 1.4 lbs/635gm – about how much Ellie’s head weighed when she was born!

The factory RCR shifter has a 1/2″-20 thread pattern, the R8 shifter has an M8x1.25mm thread pattern.  The Raceseng adapter uses a set screw so you can set the height of the ball and its orientation to suit your preference.  I had originally mocked up and installed this onto the RCR shifter; it helped smooth out the notchy feel and made it “better” due to the added weight.  The factory shifter includes a lightweight plastic ball which I suspect most everyone replaces anyway.

Not a bad color match!
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The adapter threads onto the shaft; a set screw sets final height of the knob.  Use it to orient the engraving based on your desired orientation.
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The threaded length of the shift stick is longer than the knob is long; I installed a shift boot retainer (small silver cylinder below knob) which hides the unused threads.  Other knob designs may not need this.
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The engraving is “top notch”!  Get it?

After directly comparing the RCR shifter against the R8 shifter, the answer is simple – do it.  Don’t even bother trying to monkey with the stock shifter, there’s nothing you can do with it that would make saving $1700 worth the risk of missing a shift at best or grenading your transmission/engine at worst, not to mention the tremendous improvement in driving feel.  I believe the touch points of a car are especially critical – you might be driving the best handling car out there – but if you’re afraid to shift because you’re not sure what gear you’re going to pull, you’re not going to have the confidence to really drive that car.  And it’s going to annoy you.  Every.  Single.  Time.  You.  Shift.

SLC builder JTyrsing has sourced the factory R8 shift cables as well – he reports it’s a perfect fit for the Graz (it should, they’re designed to be used together!) and there’s a decrease in cable friction compared to the RCR supplied cables.  The Audi cables are PN 420-711-874-B and go for about $280.  As I said before, I was able to get the RCR cables to work without modifying the rod ends.  The cable which controls left/right movement is a tad on the long side; cutting down the rod end would make it a better fit.  After much monkeying about I was able to get things lined up so I didn’t need to cut down the rod end and I was able to secure both cables using a single piece of angle; using 2 staggered pieces such as with the RCR shifter assembly would have made the fit a little less challenging.  An additional benefit of the Audi cables is there’s no need to grind down the ball on the end of the shift stick.

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Left/right cable on left, fore/aft cable on right.  The left/right cable needs to be pushed as far away from the shifter assembly as possible, the fore/aft cable needs to be brought toward.

Between the 1.4 lb shift knob and the smoother, more precise shifter assembly, I think this is the way any SLC fitted with a Graz should be built.  It’s debatable whether the Audi cables are required; I think the RCR cables shift just fine – the added mass of the Raceseng knob likely mutes any added benefit of lower friction cables.

Thanks to JBurer/Allan for pioneering the Audi R8 shifter assembly; I’m not sure John’s was the first to be fitted with this shifter mech but it’s the first completed car featuring this modification and is likely the inspiration for many SLCs to follow, mine included.

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