27 Jun Stick Shift Vs. Automatic

Jill and I went on a couple of car trips last week and it occurred to us that her car, a 1998 Honda CR-V, is getting old. When I told Jill she’d have a hard time finding another car with a stick shift, she didn’t believe me. “Chances are,” I said, “you’ll have to special order a new car with a stick.” “No way!” she said. But then we looked it up and, true enough: nobody drives “manual” anymore. In fact, only 7.7% of Americans drive a car with manual transmission. This, despite the fact that a manual saves you a lot on gas, is much easier on your transmission, and gives you more control over your car.

Mind you, it’s nobody’s fault that hardly anybody drives manual anymore. Driving lessons in schools never taught the skill. You had to have somebody else — like a family member — teach you. My father taught me and my brothers. He bought us an old station wagon that we could practice on. I drove that thing around the neighborhood for hours, trying out my clutch work. I got so good with a “three on the tree” or “four on the floor” that I could clutch up any hill from a full stop, even the steep hills of San Francisco.

The first truck I ever rented — to move from Berkeley to Iowa for grad school — was an eight cylinder monster with a 5-speed manual transmission. There wasn’t any such thing as an automatic for a truck like that. Only small trucks had automatic transmissions. Recently, I asked a clerk at a rental car agency if he had any manual transmissions on the lot. He looked at me in surprise. “You know how to drive manual?” It was like I’d told him I was a mountain climber. Just last year, a crook bungled his attempt at car jacking because, once behind the wheel of the car he wanted to jack, he discovered that it had a manual transmission, which he couldn’t drive. He ran away. In embarrassment, presumably.

When I consider that, just 30 years ago, virtually everybody who drove a car knew how to drive a manual transmissions, I wonder if I should worry. Add to this the fact that, just 40 years ago, virtually everybody was capable enough — and strong enough — to steer a vehicle without “power” steering. Even your grandmother could use a stick shift and steer a big car. The first time I got behind a wheel that had power steering, I thought it dangerous. If you turned the wheel too abruptly you might as well have been skating over ice. I got used to it, of course. And then, well, I got weak. The last time I sat behind a wheel that had no power steering, I was amazed at how difficult it seemed to turn the wheel. And I shook my head in dismay as I realized that I could no longer drive a car without the ease of power steering.

I don’t know that we’d be better people if we all drove manual transmissions. But I do know that we’d have more fun driving with a stick shift — and we’d have a much harder time texting or talking on the phone. Manual transmissions compel us to interact intelligently with the vehicle, anticipating and analyzing acceleration and power in ways that we never do with automatic transmissions. This is why manual — as its name implies — gives us more control. And this is why manual transmissions may be our last link to the horse, which demanded so much of our attention.

Although driving remains a very demanding activity, it won’t be long, they tell us, before we are passive passengers shuttled along by smart software — at which point we’ll simply be watching videos or drowsing (and drinking cocktails?) until we reach our destinations. Clutches and their stick shifts will be relegated to race cars, their use as rarefied as the ability to fly a plane. That’s progress, I suppose. We move on, for better or worse. Maybe in my dotage, people will be talking in wonder about how we used to have to turn on the gas and light a burner to cook a meal. And, can you believe it, back in the day, everybody cluttered their desks with big clunky machines they called “computers.”