Pride and passion: Driving stick is sadly becoming a lost art

Pride and passion: Driving stick is sadly becoming a lost art

With just 3 percent of new vehicles sold with stickshift, how long before it just goes away?

It’s no secret that manual transmissions are going away, a piece of quaint technology considered by most as antiquated as crank-up windows and drum brakes.

Only about 3 percent of new automobiles, trucks and SUVs sold in the U.S. require their drivers to shift for themselves. Just about a year ago, Ferrari announced that it no longer would offer stickshift on its sports cars, joining the chorus of exotic and supercar builders humming the same automatics-only tune.

Porsche keeps the faith by providing a manual option in most of its sports car lineup, but who knows how long that will last. There are still other sports and performance cars with sticks, ranging from Mazda Miata and Fiat Abarth to Chevy Corvette Z06 and Ford Mustang Shelby GT350.

But if you want to buy a regular family car or crossover SUV with manual, the choices are few and far between, and three pedals are mostly found only on the bargain-basement models.

The dashboard of a 2018 Ford Mustang with manual | Ford photo

The majority of drivers seem to view automobiles as mere transportation tools whose only job is getting them there and back, at various levels of luxury, status and convenience. For them, the act of driving does not entail any sort of enjoyment or engagement, and the coming tide of self-driving cars is a welcomed trend.

Not me. I like driving and I like driving stickshift (my cohort, Larry Edsall, hates that term for some mysterious reason). Even the most-mundane runabout is vastly improved in character and drivability with the addition of shifting gears.

For great cars, especially sports, performance cars and, in my view, off-road vehicles, a manual transmission so much enhances response and control, and the overall driving experience.

The gated shifter of a Lamborghini Murcielago

The gated shifter of a Lamborghini Murcielago

Sure, most of today’s vehicles have some sort of provision for self-shifting an automatic, whether it’s via an easy-going console lever or an aggressive paddle shifter, and in some respects, those can provide greater performance capability than a clutch-operated standard transmission. The dual-clutch automatic transmissions on many high-end exotics can’t really be beat by a mere human.

But as a bona fide 3 percenter, I want the feel of a clutch, giving my left foot something to do as I happily shift through the gears, heel-and-toeing for downshifts on curvy roads while eyeing the tachometer, and coming out of the corner with a sharp rush of second gear. Sports cars are made to have manual transmissions, but so are Jeeps, performance cars and compact runabouts.

I’m fortunate enough to have a wife who also prefers manual, stating unequivocally that it makes her feel superior to other drivers on the road. I agree. Both my 30-something boys drive stick with relaxed skill.

A 1968 Corvette with stickshift

But sadly, the tide is flowing against motoring purists. One reason is that automatic transmissions have gotten so good and so fuel efficient that it’s hard to justify driving stick, unless like me, you just prefer it.

Why go through the hassle of shifting for yourself when the car will do it for you? And how about resale? Cars with automatics are much easier to find buyers for.

Yes, we are bucking the trend, fellow three-pedal travelers, and I feel like the end is near. Yet, there are those manufacturers, such as BMW, Subaru, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, Mini, Mazda, Hyundai and Nissan, that still seem committed to offering stickshift in at least a number of their popular cars and crossovers, despite flagging sales.

Although for many of those new vehicles, only the lowest-trim and least-powerful versions can be had with stick. So, if you want the ones with the latest features, you have to settle for automatic. It’s like an insult.

This 1915 Crane Simplex would be challenging but rewarding to drive

This 1915 Crane Simplex would be challenging but rewarding to drive

So, there’s another reason to love classic cars, whether it’s manipulating the double-clutching and stubborn gears of an antique flivver or grooving through the shift pattern of a ’60s sports car. An original 4-speed manual is a selling point on a vintage muscle car, and most collectors appreciate the fun of piloting an old pickup truck with three on the tree.

But time and technology march on, and I don’t want to be the old codger wagging his finger and spouting things like, “Why, back in my day, we had ignition points and carburetors that worked perfectly well, and if you didn’t know how to drive stickshift, you didn’t drive.”

The only thing, as the current generations of collectors age and die off, and the new crop of Millennials, etc., take over the stewardship of automotive history, how many of them will even know how to drive a manual-transmission classic?

As collector car enthusiasts, it is up to us to help engender in the younger generations the passion for vintage vehicles that drives us in our fun hobby. Part of that is their knowing how to use a clutch and shift gears, so that once manual transmissions are dead as the dodo on new cars, those who want to enjoy old cars and trucks will still be able to do so.

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12 Comments

  • James McIntire
    May 10, 2018, 10:29 AM

    Thanks for the confirmation that I’m not alone. Unlike you, my wife cannot drive a manual and has no interest in learning. So from now on my DD’s must be automatic so she can drive it. When we first married I had a 2006 Ford F-150 that I had bought new with a 5-speed manual and swore I’d keep that truck forever! However she hated it because of its lack of options, and the manual; so when it started to show its age she took that as her excuse to talk me into something newer. While the newer truck is much more comfortable, I still miss my 5-speed! I too lament the lack of a manual transmission option on many new vehicles.
    When I learned how to drive, my dad told me that I had to learn on a stickshift; because he believed that if a person could drive a stickshift, they could drive anything. So my sister and I both had to learn a manual. He said he didn’t care if either of us ever bought another one or not, but we were going to learn it. We are now both in our 40’s and many vehicles have come and gone since that first Ranger that we learned on. She prefers automatics but is glad she knows how to drive a manual. I love a manual for the feeling of connectedness it gives me to both the vehicle and the road. I feel as if I am one with the machine when I’m driving a manual transmission.

    REPLY
    • Charles Barnes@James McIntire
      May 10, 2018, 6:08 PM

      I currently own 2 66 A-body Plymouth’s with 833 4 speeds and a 56 F-100 3 on the tree. I still fill in as a part time driver in a 1999 Western Star flatbed with a 600 HP cat diesel and an Eaton 18 speed. Nothing more fun and rewarding than running from 1st low through 8th high. Sadly, most new over the road trucks are going the automatic route as well !

      REPLY
  • Dick Farrell
    May 10, 2018, 7:49 PM

    Amen ! You can take your 9 or 10 speed auto & shove it. Nothing beats a good 4 or 5 speed box. The Millienuals have lots still to
    learn and so little time to get it done.

    REPLY
  • Mike
    May 10, 2018, 8:21 PM

    Love my 67 Vw 4 speed convertible, except during the Woodward crawl, oops I mean cruise. Barely get the clutch out and have to (pardon the pun) bug out after a few miles to keep the air cooled engine from burning up. Always loved driving sticks, long and short throws.

    REPLY
  • Dennis
    May 10, 2018, 11:21 PM

    I too love manual shift and get my 6speed fix from a Mini Cooper,
    But since just buying a 2018 Nissan Leaf I’m learning to drive with e-pedal which is very different. I consider the Leaf to be an electric appliance not a proper car.

    REPLY
  • Michael
    May 11, 2018, 3:22 AM

    The good news is that there are still about 10 million registered cars on the road that are manual and they tend to be appreciated more and more as collectors items. Sad however that new car product planners and sports car companies are focusing more on specs and numbers than on engagement and feel. Because we want to see OEMs continue to build new cars with manual gearboxes, a few friends and I started the first motor club for verified stick shift owners/drivers called Stick Shifters of America (www.stickshiftersofamerica.com). We’re a non-profit organization just like PCA or BMWCCA, and our mission is to provide perks/deals for owners and lobby OEMs to keep the manual in production. Like the author, we think it’s an important piece of car culture. This isn’t about dated technology and old vs new, it’s about being engaged and connected with what you’re driving. #savethemanuals

    REPLY
    • Tom@Michael
      May 12, 2018, 11:43 AM

      Last summer I bought a 2002 Audi TT Roadster to get back to a stick car in Wisconsin. And yesterday I bought a 2001 Porsche 911 Carrera to have a stick car in in Florida. You run through the gears. You just know you are alive. No one is doing it for you. You are doing it. It’s the Best.

      REPLY

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