Don’t be scared shiftless

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Manual shifter in Toyota 86 Special Edition | Toyota photo

“I will die before I buy another car,” Kara Swisher declared in an opinion piece published last week in The New York Times. 

Her article, “Owning a Car Will Soon Be as Quaint as Owning a Horse,” predicts the impending end to widespread private vehicle ownership. Instead, she suggests, “Owning a car will soon be like owning a horse — a quaint hobby, an interesting rarity and a cool thing to take out for a spin on the weekend.”

In her not-that-distant vision of our future, she sees us using car-sharing companies and riding on scooters and in autonomous vehicles owned by someone other than ourselves.

Swisher’s beat is technology, and she notes that she was among those who was early and apparently eager to cut the landline phone service and to go “all mobile.” Next up: “You start using car-sharing services, you don’t use your car as often, you realize as these services proliferate that you actually don’t need to own a car at all.”

Her decision apparently was made easier when her car, a Ford Fiesta Turbo she named Frank, recently had its clutch conk out on a hill in San Francisco. Frank, she writes, is for sale and she’s not buying a replacement.

Two observations: (1) People I know who own horses wouldn’t call it a “quaint” hobby, but rather a time-consuming and expensive one about which they are extremely passionate; (2) I found it interesting that Swisher’s Frank has a manual transmission since she apparently lives in hilly San Francisco (where she reportedly has aspirations to run for mayor).

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Frank’s manual gearbox leads me to another New York Times opinion piece, this one from this past weekend. “Bring Back the Stick Shift” argues Vatsal G. Thakkar, a clinical assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine.

Thakkar writes about driver distraction and inattention fed by advanced technology driver aids and software glitches that can lead to disaster and notes, “A car with a stick shift and clutch pedal requires the use of all four limbs, making it difficult to use a cellphone or eat while driving. Lapses in attention are therefore rare, especially in city driving where a driver might shift gears a hundred times during a trip to the grocery store.”

He cites a study in which teenage boys with A.D.H.D. drove more attentively when driving cars with manual transmissions, and suggests “the cure for our attention voids might be less technology, not more.”

Thakkar writes that he’s owned cars with manual transmissions since graduating from med school 20 years ago, and hopes they’re still around by the time his own children are ready to learn to drive.

“Sadly,” he notes, “sales of manual transmissions are falling, and many automakers… are discontinuing the option in the United States.”

Maybe Thakkar should call Swisher, not to talk about articles, but simply to negotiate a deal to buy Frank.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

28 COMMENTS

  1. and suggests “the cure for our attention voids might be less technology, not more.”-Thakkar.
    Thank you sir. This is what I’ve been saying for a long time now. I quite enjoy driving a manual transmission automobile as I have noticed that I do tend to pay attention more and I feel more connected to the vehicle when I have to do the shifting; vs simply sitting and steering as I do with an automatic.

    • Totally agree, driving a manual keeps you more focused on he driving and slims down the chances of distraction, one hand on the wheel, the other on the stick. You gotta be feeling the car RPMs and the road to make shifting decisions all the time, not much left for fooling around on the phone or infotainment. Just my 2 cents.

    • Remember the famous words from the great Mario Andretti, "Those people with manual transmissions like to drive, those people with automatic transmissions like to be driven." Bravo, Mario!

    • I concur wholeheartedly. I love a stick shift and have owned several, wouldn’t be without one. I enjoy being more interactive with the vehicle, using all four limbs as it is. No distractions. Driving an automatic is lazy.

      Should the day come when we can’t get manuals in this country, I’ll just give up altogether. That’s taking the fun right out of it.

    • I will continue to use my 72 Mercury Cougar convertible with a 4 speed for as long as the state renews my license, and Thakar is correct you need to pay attention.

    • I s agree with you on all levels!’I had to buy a newer car and I dislike all the electronics. Finding s car with s manual transmission is difficult!

  2. I taught my son to drive a car with a manual transmission and I feel everyone should know. Any other county has most all vehicles with manual transmissions!
    Only a few companies offer them in the USA. As a car collector and in the business of same, I still get opportunities to drive a car with a “stick”!
    I agree there might be many less distracted drivers if there were cars with far less electronic options. Starting with a real key or button starter, a clutch and more driver control rather than ectronic gadgets. I do support a cut off switch if s driver uses a cell phone w/o Bluetooth and texts!

  3. I grew up swapping gears, my first car 3 in the floor. I love changing gears manually, no paddle shifts. I have a 4 speed, a 5 speed & a 6 speed. Keeping them forever.

  4. I agree that driving a manual requires more attention, and at the very least it might force some people to put down the phone or the coffee. I also think that a standard actually requires toe driver to be engaged, even if only a little bit, with the vehicle and what they’re doing, and that’s a good thing.

    Driving is dangerous, and it costs lives every day. Personally, if a person is either too lazy or uncoordinated to even be able to handle a standard I question if they should be on the road at all. People tell me "they’re too hard" or "It’s too much work", but they’re not and it isn’t. They’re not anyone’s cup of tea for day-to-day driving (although they’re mine) but it’s a good skill to have.

  5. I have been hanging on to a 25 year old Ford Ranger with a 5 speed transmission so that I can teach my Grandkids how to drive a manual transmission before they even try to drive an automatic.
    I learned to drive with a 3 on the tree 63 Impala, and my kids were forced to master the 5 speed manual transmission in my old Ranger before I would let them drive their Mom’s automatic Mini Van.
    I have been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit in Europe, where the majority of vehicles still have manual transmissions. Even the 5 speed right hand drive Citroen that I recently rented in England had a 5 speed manual, and I loved learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road over there!

    • The younger generation is too focused on their Smartphones and the radio, they could care less. Truth be told, they’re too lazy to learn and enjoy the benefits of a manual shift car. They don’t know how much fun they’re missing downshifting and steering all at once, it takes focus. That’s what is surely lacking in today’s youth.

    • A 5-speed Ranger is exactly what I learned to drive on also. My dad bought it used in 1988 for the sole purpose of teaching my older sister and I how to drive; and to serve as a dependable first car for both of us while in high school. He told us that if you can drive a "stick" you can drive anything. I still believe that is true. I also still have that same 33-year old Ranger back sitting in my garage once again awaiting its return to the road!

      • I drive a 2018 Leaf and it is a kick, but the feel of my butt locked into the seat of my 6 speed Mini Cooper can not be beat. If only the Mini could be a 6 speed electric.

  6. I will with out reservation of any type Drive a Manual Transmission anyway of the week over a automatic, auto shift whatever they wanna call that junk , keep the computers out of are Manuals as well I will give into a Hydraulic clutch but thats it I don’t want any engineer telling me how to shift I’ve been driving Stick Shifts for 50 years were most these Brats weren’t even a dream in daddies you know what.

    • I spent my youth driving 4 speeds hooked to big engines. Loved it but I lived in the country. Then I moved from Ky. to LA and got a job where I needed to drive the freeways 6 days a week. Had a 5 speed 280 ZX at home for the weekends but those traffic jams make you rethink that clutch pedal all day. Drove a taxi in my home town that was 3 on the tree and would go home limping after 8 hours.

  7. Hate to say it but it might be a generational thing. Today’s kids have no real opportunity to learn on a manual transmission. I had multiple opportunities to learn on multiple vehicles (including old pickups with 3-speeds on the stem!) back in the mid-80s. I was honestly surprised in reading this article that one could actually obtain a manual Ford Fiesta in the US. When they are available, they are an expensive option. Paddle shifters have taken the life out of higher-end cars. My 2016 Audi S6 is a glorious automobile, and I love it – but my 2000 manual BMW M5 was my last true joy, until I bought my ’68 Camaro SS 6 months ago. Manual with that classic cue ball Hurst shifter. While I would pay more for the manual "option", I suspect most will not. Maybe the better solution is to stop charging people extra for them?

  8. I didn’t truly learn to drive a stick until age 35, when I bought a used VW Jetta as a commuter car. While fun to drive, it was horrid on my 17 mile commute to shift constantly. After three years, I gave up and bought a hybrid. My son, however, is looking to swap a manual transmission into his SC400. It isn’t dead yet

  9. All too often, I read articles such as this whose authors likely live in an urban area where public transportation is the "ride" of choice and believe owning any car is archaic and totally unnecessary in our current society. What a narrow view of America and the freedoms we enjoy. Back to the manual vs. automatic. I love my Jeep Grand Cherokee with it’s 8 speed automatic and 360hp Hemi as my daily driver but today I backed my 1967 Firebird 400 with a Muncie 4 speed out of the garage and went for a long drive, totally immersed in the driving experience. It’s a feeling that so many people never will never have.

  10. My father was an early on VW bug driver. So early, that when you’d see another one in traffic around southwest Ohio you’d honk your horn…..that early. As a small kid I grew up in VW bugs.

    I was 12 years old in 1964. Mom & Dad used Mom’s car to go out to dinner and left me at home. Dad’s VW was still warm from the drive home from work. My plan fell into place. I took his spare key from his "hiding place"(lol). I opened the garage door, remembered all that I had observed from age four (?) to age 12, Started the VW, put it in reverse (DID NOT STALL IT !), rolled it down the driveway, looked both ways (residential – no traffic) rolled into the middle of the street, placed it in 1st gear, and took off and made it into 4th gear WAY DOWN MY STREET bordering the golf course. I kept the car out for about 20 more minutes, never stalled it – -never saw a cop – – placed it back into the garage, hid his "hidden"key……and smiled.

    Eight years later as a 20 year old and drinking a beer with Dad while we were relaxing on the patio the evening I came home on leave from the Navy…..I told him what I had done. He laughed ! He said that as I got older previous to age 16 getting my license, he wondered if I’d ever try what I did…especially after during those young years he’d let me shift the gears as he operated the clutch and was off and on the gas. He smiled. He said, smiling: "I’m glad you didn’t get caught !" Good memory. Oh…my "retirement vehicle" (unkown at present) will be a manual.

  11. I grew up when standard was the norm and automatics were being developed. I’ll never for get the night at the strip in the early ’60’s when 2 identical dodges lined up but one was 4 speed and one was the famous push button Torque Flite The 4 speed LOST by over a car length. The shock felt among the crowd was amazing Now today you have many variations of A T’s with 4 to 10 shifts that shirt faster than any human can. Also they have become very reliable.
    Yes I still love a 4 speed but not in a daily driver. I don’t miss burnt, slipping clutches

  12. I read the piece in the Times last Sunday and had a good laugh. Clearly Ms Thakkar has been and continues to be somewhat out of touch with the world around her. Who buys a manual in SF? Not even a die hard like myself. The inevitable creep towards driverless cars will continue as it should. They have a place in society and technology should be used when appropriate. We need to keep everything in perspective though. Not everyone lives in a large urban/ suburban area where the act of personal driving may be a chore or luxury depending on your viewpoint. How many reading this envision the rancher in Montana calling up Uber for a ride to town? Didn’t think so.
    No matter the pace of adoption of new technologies in cars, there will always be a significant number of folks who relish the opportunity to take fate into their own hands and shift those gears, hit that accelerator, and mutter under their breath about fool in the car next to them sleeping in the drivers seat while technology pilots him to his destination

  13. The elimination of manual transmissions is another sign the apocalypse is several hours away. None of the legacy American manufacturers have a stick shift truck. Bad news. I now have a new short bed Chevy Silverado with automatic and it sucks. Fortunately I gave my son the 2002 S/B with stick shift, so I’m thinking of trading back for it as well as searching the net for a 2005 or older one as that is the last year the 5 speed was an option.

  14. Arrrgh. I love the interaction I get with my Tremec. ’04 6spd GTO, many aftermarket mods (5.7? Bwahahaha!). The factory rubber mounted anti vibration so-called "shifter"? Out! In with the Aussie version of the old Ripshifter. Clutch? Why, McLeod, of course, along with the lightweight flywheel.
    There is no replacement for the total involvement one gets in a primitive high performance automobile- hey, when I turn my TracControl off, I can get rubber in 5 out of six, and did you say "donut"? San Fran and gears are too hard? Wah wah wah. Cry me a river. Grew up driving a stick in Chicago and Indianapolis, stoplight every block, nondriving moron in every other vehicle. Oh, my leg hurts- try the 3800# plate I’m running, stout, even given the hydraulic boost. Why, when I let the clutch out, things happen, which is exactly why I keep it.
    Let’s just save the manuals, and equip automobiles with cell/internet suppression tech. Hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, leave the phone alone.
    R
    Fargo ND

  15. When I was learning to drive stick shift, I thought there was no way I would be able to do anything else while driving. Wrong! It’s amazing what we can make work when we want to. Not that we should. Recently purchased an automatic transmission because there’s not too many stick options left these days. I miss it.

  16. Driven a manual since I learned to drive back in 1969……Only owned few automatics and always went right back to the "stick" I taught my daughter on a manual 1996 Nissan Truck. She too along with my wife still drive only manual cars. I believe learning on one makes you a more responsive and alert driver. And is much more fun to drive. What happened to a choice and that feeling of being more in tuned with your car!

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