Driving a Manual

The Slow (and Painful) Death of the Stick-shift?
Once upon a time all cars were manuals and although strictly speaking, the first auto transmission was invented by a Canadian in 1921 (a compressed air affair, not hydraulic fluid) It wasn't until the 1940s that  General Motors introduced it's "hydro-matic" marvel, first employed in battle tanks during WW2 and later marketed to the general public in the form auto Oldsmobiles. Drivers took to the new concept and by the time the 1950s rolled around, autos were commonplace in many models.

Now, as the world upshifts jerkily past the first decade of the 21st Century and technology continues its exponential thrust forward, automatic cars have got really, really good and as a result, more and more people are using them, at least in many parts of Asia, Australia and of course, the US, where they've always been very popular. The advantageous savings in fuel economy hitherto enjoyed by manual drivers are now negligible compared to modern autos and ditto for power and thrust. Apparently. On top of this, there are a number of alternatives to the base manual, in the form of manumatics and cvt's.

Perversely, despite all the marvellous strides forward in auto cars I recently chose to buy a basic manual. As a confirmed auto driver who hadn't driven a manual since I was a learner, so long ago I can barely remember, I hadn't intended to, not in my wildest dreams, so why did I do it?

Two sticks?! 1963 Rambler 440 hardtop with twin stick manual overdrive transmission. Source
Well cost, primarily. On a practical level,  I could get the second-hand car I wanted hundreds of dollars cheaper but there was also a smaller, niggling reason. Someone had said to me, while discussing the merits of autos and manuals: "you always shy away from a challenge". For murky reasons unknown, that simple statement got to me.

Interesting stick. 1973 Hornet hatchback V8 Source
My attitude to gears had long been, "why muck around with sticks  when you can get the car to do it for you?" but as a new manual owner, I now sympathise with the stick-shift lovers. They do offer a more exciting ride and a convincing impression of being *more in control* of the car.

Of course for some people, that can be a deficit. Being in control means you have to make the decisions and more decision-making means more stress, whether the driver is conscious of it or not. Some people would rather let the machine do the thinking and I can understand that view. After all, it was my own view for a long time. Autos just dash around effortlessly and all you need think about is steering, braking and accelerating - it's all so easy. Why create complications?

Stick Stress
Confident manual drivers may scoff but I confess, after 20 odd years of auto driving, the manual was quite fear-inducing in the beginning. Highway driving was fine but in the first week I found myself suffering waves of anxiety in heavy traffic and every time I approached an intersection. What's the best gear for the situation? Should I block change or go down through the gears? Do I sit at the lights in neutral with my foot on the brake or in first gear with my foot on the clutch? There was a lot to think about. What if I roll back on that hill and crush the car behind or....horrors...stall halfway through the intersection, thus creating havoc? I did stall, more than once and I did put in the wrong gear, more than once but it wasn't the end of the world. Stalling generally happens when you're stationary, so at worst you hold up traffic for a few seconds. No-one beeped or tried to attack me with a machete in road rage.

I also made some disturbing mistakes, missing the right gear, after which  a truly horrendous crunching  sound, accompanied by severe jerking, would ensue. I feared for my car's safety. But hey, it's been a few months and it's all relatively smooth now. I'm zipping around in my baby Mazda and loving it and the gears are almost second nature, if more stressful (and some studies have shown that manual drivers do suffer more driving stress). It is a little more driving work but I'm glad I took up the challenge.

So are manuals sexier? Well, I guess that's debatable but let's face it, the phallic overtones of a nobbed gearstick are hard to avoid...all that caressing and fondling and there is something a tad wimpy about an auto, despite the strides forward. Personally, I think manuals are sexier, if only on an unconscious level and in truth, I feel sexier driving one. I like holding that gear stick. It's a tactile thing.
Gratuitous car shot. The outside of the '63 American Rambler. Source