Go karts are furious little machines that entice with big speed, low weight, and huge thrills, and in America, they remain a popular pastime for both young and old alike. If you’re just getting involved with karting, you probably have plenty of questions as you learn the ropes. One common refrain from inexperienced or novice enthusiasts is whether go karts are automatic or manual.
There’s a lot of information out there regarding kart transmissions, but we wanted to provide the most concise, clear explanation regarding the most common gearbox designs. After all, the gearbox of any vehicle can make or break the experience – and that’s especially true on a go kart. Getting your first kart with the wrong transmission might sour you on the sport forever. With this guide, that’s not going to happen.
What Types of Transmissions are Used in Go Karts?
The majority of go karts use one of two major transmission designs: a single-gear, direct-drive unit and a six-speed sequential manual. Go Karts with the former are typically referred to as a single-drive kart, while the latter is known as a shifter kart. Let’s consider both individually.
Single-Drive Go Karts
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Let’s start with the single-drive transmission. As the name suggests, these transmissions are fairly simple and rudimentary, consisting of a single gear that is directly driven by the engine. Because there is only one gear, there is no need to shift – that one gear covers the range of power and performance needs. With these karts, you just hop in and drive off. They are so simple in design, not only are they easier to use, but they’re easier to design, as well.1
Some single-drive gearboxes use a clutch; others don’t. The ones that do not have a clutch tether the transmission directly to the engine crankshaft with a shaft; without any way to disconnect the transmission from the engine, these models need to be push-started.
The manual momentum from push-starting enables the engine and transmission shafts to rotate at sufficient speed for the engine to catch and fire up. Without a shove, the engines in these models wouldn’t be able to overcome the inertia of a static go kart. It would be like asking the go kart to start and immediately start accelerating. It’s simply not feasible.
To circumvent this, other, more expensive units install a clutch between the transmission and the engine. The clutch allows the engine to temporarily decouple from the transmission. When the clutch is engaged, it is keeping everything moving as one unit; when disengaged, it allows the engine to spin freely of the transmission.
The reason a single-gear transmission might use a clutch is purely for starting purposes. With the transmission disengaged, you can start the go kart much as you would a car; hop in, and twist the ignition. Once idling, you can slip the clutch – that is, slowly engage the clutch by feathering a lever or pedal into its open position – until the transmission is fully engaged. Do it right and you’ll feel the go kart begin to accelerate.
Once the single-gear transmission is fully engaged, you can forget about the clutch. The one gear now takes care of all acceleration needs, so you can turn your attention to steering and braking.
While single-drive go karts make do with one gear, shifter karts incorporate a gearbox with multiple gears, usually six in total. Shifter karts are always manual in nature – if you don’t shift these gears yourself, the kart simply won’t shift. And not shifting means that you’ll be bumping up against redline well before you reach your kart’s top speed.
Unlike single-gear models, which may or may not use a clutch, shifter karts have to use a clutch in order for proper shifting between gears. Like a car, shifting a multi-gear go kart should require laying off the throttle, disengaging the clutch, grabbing the next gear, and re-engaging the throttle and clutch.2
However, that’s the theory. In practice, you can shift a multi-gear go kart without engaging the clutch. These transmissions are designed with such abuse in mind, and trying to engage the clutch will only slow you down. You do have to back off the throttle when changing gears, however.
Starting a shifter kart is the same process as a single-gear kart equipped with a clutch: Start it in neutral, disengage the clutch, put the shifter in first gear, and slowly release the clutch. The go kart should take off smoothly.
Like motorcycles and dirt bikes, shifter karts use sequential gearboxes. That means you can’t shift from second to fourth gear without shifting to third as well. This means clicking through every gear whether upshifting or downshifting. If you are in top gear and are braking to a stop, you’ll need to shift through every gear until you reach neutral, which is typically between first and second on most transmissions.
Which Transmission is Better?
Image courtesy of Pixabay
While go karting experts will likely prefer shifter karts to single-drive karts, we would highly recommend inexperienced enthusiasts to choose a single-drive kart. Go karts, after all, are intense machines: the fastest models can hit 60 mph in three or so seconds, and the slowest models aren’t all that slower. They also steer on a dime and take serious focus just to run a decent lap. As you learn the basics, you don’t want to be so focused on shifting.3 You may also want to consider what you’ll be using your go kart for – a good off-road go kart will be completely different than one meant for a track.
It’s recommended that for your first kart you purchase a single-drive kart so you can focus on techniques like racing line, braking, and steering while familiarizing yourself with the nuances and idiosyncrasies of a go kart. Once you’ve mastered the single-drive karts – and trust us, that takes time – then you can upgrade to a shifter kart.
Don’t get us wrong – we don’t want to be the fun police with these conservative recommendations. But when you’re piloting something with the potential for triple-digit speeds while sitting two inches off the ground in a sparse, exposed one-man jungle gym, you want to learn the basics rote before you throw in the added challenge of when to time shifts and how to even use the gearboxes that come with a shifter kart. Besides, you’ll have plenty of fun in even a mediocre single-drive kart.
If you’re an old hand with go karts, the shifter karts are more likely to eke out a bit more speed and add another challenge as you negotiate your favorite karting venues. For everyone else, the simplicity and ease of use of a single-drive kart makes more sense, especially for those just getting started in the sport. Because single-drive karts give up so little to their multi-gear brethren, there’s no need to be hung up on buying a more complex, expensive, heavier shifter kart.
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- T. Machado et al., Design and development of a go kart, 2015 International Conference on Technologies for Sustainable Development (ICTSD), 2015, pp. 1-5, doi: 10.1109/ICTSD.2015.7095881.
- Sharma R, Agarwal A, Sharma U. DESIGN OF SEMI-AUTOMATIC ELECTRONIC GEAR SHIFTING MECHANISM. Department of Mechanical Engineering, Dehradun, INDIA. Aug 2018. 5(8).
- Citation Jay Prakash Srivastava et al. Case Study on Different Go Kart Engine Transmission Systems. IOP Conf. Ser.: Mater. Sci. Eng. 2020. doi:10.1088/1757-899X/981/4/042026