In Defense of the Manual Transmission
The automatic transmission was introduced in the 1950s and immediately caught on, especially among gadget-crazed Americans who, then as now, value convenience and ease of use over any presumed "cool" factor. Except for the VW bug and two-seater European sports cars, manual transmission, quickly became relegated to the ash heap of non-air conditioned cars or AM-only radio.
That’s too bad, because a manual transmission offers plenty of benefits. It can save on wear and tear, fuel and, of course, the transmission itself. Perhaps more important that any of practical stuff, manual transmissions are fun. They give you much more control over the vehicle, and intensify the experience of driving. In an age where we cruise control and other devices separate us farther and farther from the whole zen of driving, a manual transmission can be a powerful experience and a re-introduction to those first thrilling days when you got your learner’s permit and experienced the freedom of being able to drive yourself.
Aside from the difficulty these days of even finding a car with manual transmission, most people shy away from the experience because they’re afraid it’s too complicated to learn or requires too much hand-foot coordination. While it is certainly true that someone who learns to drive using a stick shift has an easier time of it, anyone, at any age, can learn.
The best way to do it is to get someone who knows how and find a secluded spot -- a very secluded spot -- where sudden starts and stops, jolts forward or killing the engine won’t cause a multiple car crash. I learned how on an unpaved road in a state forest, which was ideal since there were no other cars around for miles.
Above all, make sure you’re on level ground, because you’ll inevitable roll backward until you learn how to shift rapidly.
There’s no great secret or magic charm to learning how to do this. Basically, it’s a matter of listening to the engine. When it starts revving, you know it’s time to switch into the next-highest -- or next-lowest -- gear.
You hear the word "clutch" used a lot about stick shifts. The clutch is what enables the car to continue running whether it is stopped or between gears or in gear. Now, here’s where it gets fun: In a manual car, there is a third pedal to the left of the accelerator and brake. That’s the clutch, and it’s what you use, along with the stick shift, to change gears.
Yes, there is hand-to-foot coordination involved, which is part of the fun. If it sounds difficult, once you get the hang of it (and for the average driver, it doesn’t take long -- honestly!), it’s no harder than shifting gears on a 10-speed bicycle; in fact, I’d say, it’s a lot easier.
An even better analogy would be the pianist who pushes down on the three pedals in accordance with the music, because there’s something symphonic about the hand-foot movement in a manual-transmission car. You’re less like an automaton barely driving the car than a conductor putting instruments together for a lush symphony of driving.
Then there is the cool factor. Yes, manual transmissions are cool. There’s something downright sexy about pulling down on a stick shift and feeling the car respond to your movements. It also looks pretty damn sexy, too. Somehow, I just can’t envision James Bond driving an automatic transmission vehicle.
The benefits of a manual transmission start will fuel economy. By doing the work, you’re reducing the amount of work the car is doing. With today’s improved automatic transmission systems, the difference in fuel economy is only between 5 and 15 percent. Still, that’s something in these days of $4-plus-a-gallon gas.
Because they are simpler cars they are easier to make, and often cost less. Also because they are simpler, they often last longer than their automatic transmission counterparts.
The manual transmission typically has no electrical components, pumps or internal cooling system. This means less maintenance, and a longer life for the transmission -- although if you own the car long enough, you may have to have the clutch pedal serviced or even replaced, since you’ll use it so much.
You can stop a manual car much more quickly than an automatic. You also use the brakes less, which means more time between repairing brake shoes and all the other complicated and expensive mechanisms of a car’s brake system.
Above all, there is the performance. Not only do you have more control, but also you’re much more aware of the fact that you’re driving. You have to concentrate. In these days of texting, eating, even watching TV while driving, maybe it’s time for a return, if not to record players and beehives, then to an old-fashioned way to drive a car.