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

14
2218
Classic 1960s sports cars, such as this MGA, can only be driven with three peddles | ClassicCars.com photos
Classic 1960s sports cars, such as this MGA, can only be driven with three peddles | ClassicCars.com photos

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.

RELATED:  Why bother to camouflage a cookie-cutter crossover?

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.

RELATED:  The best Super Bowl car ads, so far…
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.

RELATED:  'Car People' ruin another car show

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.

Advertisement
Bob Golfen is a longtime automotive writer and editor, focusing on new vehicles, collector cars, car culture and the automotive lifestyle. He is the former automotive writer and editor for The Arizona Republic and SPEED.com, the website for the SPEED motorsports channel. He has written free-lance articles for a number of publications, including Autoweek, The New York Times and Barrett-Jackson auction catalogs. A collector car enthusiast with a wide range of knowledge about the old cars that we all love and desire, Bob enjoys tinkering with archaic machinery. His current obsession is a 1962 Porsche 356 Super coupe.

14 COMMENTS

  1. 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.

    • 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 !

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

    • 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.

  6. When I went to buy my current weekend toy, I wanted a classic Corvette with stick. Found the 60’s ones to my liking but too expensive so ended up with a c-4 but the good news was the 6 speed manual transmission. WHAT A BLAST !!

  7. Oh, yeah, row row row the gears! Learned to drive on various tractors long before legal license age; drove the family 3 on the tree "mailbox" car (long farm driveway) same. First car was a ’67 Impala SS with a PowerGlide… good for pegleg burnouts, useless at any other time.
    At almost 60, the manuals I have owned far outnumber the automatics; currently I have a ’17 Subie WRX for daily transportation, and a 2004 Aussie built GTO for fun, a total of 12 forward gears to row at pleasure. Gotta say the Subie factory shifter is flippin’ marvelous; the GTO got a Hurst replacement within a month of purchase- who wants a lever mounted by rubber, anyway? Morons!
    Not-so-humble brag: there was a time in my youth when I could, in dress clothes, smoothly and successfully operate a built-for-brackets, 400HO 4spd/4.33 axled, 90/10 front, Gabriel HiJackers with 10" Hoosier rears equipped ’68 GTO, while eating a Big Mac and keeping my soda between my legs, all the while negotiating the traffic in my home city, Indianapolis, IN. Drove a really high-strung tunnel ram small block ’64 Chevelle post coupe with ye olde Mr. Gasket Vertigate, too, but no Big Macs there (car was, ah, squirrelly). No longer eat and drive, too many folks on the road who think driving is something to do while you catch up on your phone crap that you can’t leave alone for more than 3 minutes. Morons.
    Car & Driver magazine has their "Save the Manuals" movement, I suggest everybody join. And yeah, most modern hi-po autos can shift faster than a human. So what? If ya didn’t buy your, say, Porsche 911/GT3 or Z06/ZR1 ‘Vette to track all the time, then you’re missing the whole point of a personal performance car. I have relatives living East of Knoxville, TN- ya wanna tell me you prefer an auto on those roads!?! Full disclosure: if I won the lottery and bought a Dodge with the Hellcat motor, I’d pick an auto, as I don’t believe I have the skills to have anything less than both hands on the wheel, all the time with that much oomph underfoot.
    Oh, and try to creep the Jeep over the deadly rocks with the starter motor if’n ya got an auto… can you say "crunch"?
    Sad that folks no longer want to engage with their cars; #@+#!! phones!
    Save the Manuals- force a teenager into a stick shift car today! -R

  8. My NDD, not a daily driver, is a small block ’64 Corvette. There is something special about dropping the top and listening to the engine going through gear changes. Imagine that, a car that you actually have to drive as contrasted to listening to a computer voice telling you what to do, as in my SUV.
    I learned to drive a stick in a Bugeye Sprite, graduated to a three on the tree Dodge Seneca during college and have had a life long love affair with small block and big block C-2’s
    I will continue to drive 4 and 5 speeds until I can’t.

  9. Saw joke on Facebook last week showing picture of a stickshift. Text read "millenial anti-theft device". Not as much funny as truth! We’ve always driven stick shift cars and because my children wanted to drive the sports car, all three learned and agree that small cars benefit from a manual transmission. Will probably change with electric motors. Until then we’ll keep three pedals in our small cars.

  10. To those who tout the performance advantage of the new automatic transmissions I ask would you rather ride 0 to 60 in 3.6 seconds or drive there in 4.2 seconds?

    • Currently i am without a stick shift car. I usually have one. I sold my 2012 Nissan 370 last spring and ended up replacing it with more of a collector car I liked, that was automatic. I do plan on getting another at some point…as long as my 74-year old knee works well enough to manage the clutch.

  11. Aston Martin still makes stickshift cars and the now discontinued 2017 Vantage V12S S is one of the best. Not many for sale to choose from but the ones with the seven-speed manual tranny are highly desirable…….this car is GREAT to drive and very engaging…….. "future classic" for sure…..plus it is flat out beautiful and already a classic IMHO.

    Douglas

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here