Manual Transmissions Are Tricky, Labor-Intensive And Outdated. They're Also Glorious.
I experienced both the tremendous fortune and considerable physical toil of learning to drive in a 1982 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, an old-school, wood-paneled behemoth with a four-speed manual transmission that seemed like it came out of a farm tractor.
The gear shifter was on a floor-mounted lever as long as a broomstick and the clutch seemed to weigh about 90 pounds. And although negotiating its sheer mechanical intensity could literally leave me in tears at times, I never questioned the process as inefficient or less-than-viable.
In those days, learning the delicate dance between clutch, gas and brake was simply one of the many complicated and exhausting steps required for teenagers to earn entry into adulthood. It was definitely no hairier than the prospect of getting into college, finding a job, or paying taxes. And once I got the hang of it, “driving stick” was something else altogether: actual fun.
But as with other bygone driving fundamentals like shoulder checking or waving at passing drivers, the manual transmission is quickly going the way of the dodo.
Once a core option on cars and trucks of all stripes, manual transmission is now offered on less than 3 percent of the new vehicles sold in the United States. In fact, minus the very sportiest of vehicles (or the absolute cheapest of bargain automobiles), it’s becoming harder and harder to find an old-fashioned manual transmission at all. As a result, people’s ability to drive a stick is in serious decline—as evidenced by the popular bumper sticker referring to manual transmission as a “Millennial anti-theft device.”
And while I understand the natural logic of letting an ancient automotive technology give way to a simpler and more efficient system, I still think it’s a great big bummer. Here’s why.
Believe it or not, there are those who still believe that driving is an activity to be enjoyed and appreciated—not a tedious stretch of wasted time inside a four-wheeled appliance. On my commute, I don’t want to be distracted by a podcast or phone call. I want driving to be the thing I actually focus on. Why? Because driving a stick is a damn blast.
Once you truly master that left pedal, you’ll never want to go back to a boring automatic slushbox transmission again. Instead, you’ll live for the mechanical wonder of dropping down into third gear instead of braking when traffic slows. Waiting at an intersection and wiggling the stick in anticipation of the light about to turn green. Even the mere act of going into fifth gear on the open road invokes a feeling of dizzy happiness akin to Han Solo throwing the Millennium Falcon into warp speed.
I recently drove a 2018 Mustang GT, a low-slung, rear-wheel-drive throwback machine with a six-speed manual and a quick-shift gear setup that was as brutally awesome as you could imagine.
And the truth: it didn’t feel that much different than driving my own stick shift at home. Having a manual transmission is like driving a race car every time you get behind the wheel. A stick shift injects a little bit of muscle car-styled motoring into every jaunt, with or without 460 horsepower under the hood.
Having a manual transmission is nothing short of the vehicular version of a video game Easter Egg, unlocking countless otherwise impossible powers in your car.
Rev the engine and dump the clutch right, and you can smoke your tires in even the crummiest grocery-getter. You can push-start your car if the battery dies. You can even throw it in lower gear and go brake-free down a steep grade. In short, a manual transmission gives you direct command of the driving experience in a way that almost nothing else can.
Granted, if your commute is a long, stop-and-go slog on the 405, using a clutch is literally a pain in the leg (the left one). But if your daily drive is devoid of heavy traffic—or better yet takes place somewhere amazing like the mountains—a manual transmission is simply driving as it was intended to be.
Perhaps you’ve seen those “save the manual” campaigns that take root among the more dedicated gearheads among us. Why do we do this? I’m not gonna lie: a fondness for the past plays a big part.
In the old days, getting your hands greasy working under the hood or changing your own oil was as close as you could get to the automotive version of Zen. Your car—and your ability to directly control it—combined to create a sense of motorized synergy that directly connected you with the way your great-grandparents might have ventured along Route 66, or how your dad cruised his local strip on a Saturday night.
Now, with cars chock full of technology that’s made them incredibly safe (but also created a nation of blissfully distracted and disengaged motorists), anything you can do to be more connected to paying attention while you drive is a welcome bonus.
Not to say that automatic transmissions have not become amazingly sophisticated pieces of equipment. They have. They can crack off gear changes in milliseconds, and even replicate the throttle-blipping heel-and-toe upshifts and downshifts of a pro racer—even if it’s a somewhat robotic affair executed with buttons and “flappy paddles” behind the steering wheel.
Even the name of Porsche’s PDK automatic transmission—the Porsche DoppelKupplung—has a futuristic Teutonic sexiness to it. And no sore left leg muscles after a long commute. But when even a vehicle like the all-new 2019 Subaru Forester loses its manual transmission option, you know times have changed. Subaru, after all, is marketed toward educated granola types like me who generally prefer to do things ourselves. And one of those things is shifting gears.
The Forester now comes standard with an alarmingly smooth, continuously variable transmission (CVT)—a one-speed automatic designed to inoffensively optimize fuel savings, consistent with the brand’s image. And while the car is undeniably great—it even lets you paddle-shift seven synthetic gear changes on the car’s higher-end models—well, it just ain’t the same.
Nowadays, any skill you can demonstrate to set yourself aside from the digital monoculture is an act of blaring individuality. We all follow the latest food trends, binge the same TV shows, listen to the same podcasts. To drive a stick today is more than just a choice; it’s a statement.
Against the homogenized backdrop of our modern lives, rolling with a manual transmission is enough to certify you as a genuine badass ready to hop in any serviceable vehicle (preferably a giant, 1980s-era Jeep) and motor away from the zombie apocalypse.
If manual transmissions do disappear completely, part of me will understand. They’re complicated, sweaty and not at all built for a society built on simplicity and ease of use. But I’ll also be sad. They connect us to our cars, our past, our lower leg capabilities, our lacking sense of humility—and that’s something worth saving.