Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes the past can seem as distant as a dream and sometimes it can seem as near as your next breath. This truism goes double for skills we’ve let lie dormant. Surely, we believe, a dexterity that once was second nature can be employed without missing a beat. I guess there’s a reason the saying is ‘just like riding a bike’ and not, ‘just like driving stick shift.’
Take, for instance, the sad case of a gentleman who bought a 2006 Heritage Edition Ford GT for US$704,000 at auction in April. In early May, he lost control of his vehicle and drove it into a palm tree (he lives in Boca Raton, Fla.). Police say the driver told them the crash was caused by an inexperience with manual transmission. The driver informed Road and Track there were other contributing factors: “old tires, muddy pavement, and a fresh detailing” and that “the crash occurred as he shifted up into second gear from first not while downshifting.”
His calamity proves that, while those who remember a time when they routinely used dial telephones, addressed envelopes and drove manual transmission cars can be forgiven for thinking such skills could never desert them, this conviction can be misguided. Sure, you can buy a supercar and repeat the stick shift’s glorious past, just keep in mind a little skill-polishing will go a long way.
To all those considering buying a stick shift supercar who may or may not be expert at it, here’s $704,000-worth of free advice: Take a lesson. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re a little rusty and having someone sharpen your stick-shift skills. What is it about cars that makes us think we can just get behind the wheel and go? In fact, even if you’re just going to be driving stick on holiday, take a refresher course. I took a lesson at Shifters in 2018 and it made traversing Italy’s winding roads and manic motorways a breeze.
Shifters was founded by Carlos Tomas in 1987, and was the first driving school in Canada devoted exclusively to learning how to drive manual transmission. Tomas says he’s currently instructing a lot of Europe-bound travellers (automatics are much more expensive to rent).
“We’re not training the same volume of new car buyers as we used to as the production of manual vehicles has softened,” he says. “Instead, we are seeing more and more drivers opting to learn manual simply out of curiosity.”
The “Tragic Tale of the GT and the Palm Tree” is just one more chapter in the ever-growing volume titled “The Extinction of Manual Transmission.” To gear-heads, this tome is bound in a pitch-black cover and its title engraved in the colour Hellfire Rose. It is a sad and troubling book.
Manual transmission is going the way of the horse and carriage. It began with automatic transmission, and now high-tech safety features, electric vehicles and self-driving technologies are poised to make a small segment of vehicles even smaller. In 2015, only nine per cent of cars in Canada came with manual transmission. Today, just 18 per cent of American motorists know how to drive stick, according to U.S. News and Report. One of the reasons I hear cited by those who own a vehicle with manual transmission is that, because almost no one knows how to drive stick, no one will ask to borrow it.
This isn’t a catastrophe. Automatic transmission has its advantages, it is convenient and easy to use – but so is a Kleenex. To those of us who worship at the driving altar, manual transmission is driving. Driving automatic is what you do when you can’t get a car with manual transmission.
The first 20 years of my driving life were spent shifting gears, first in a navy blue, four-door 1973 Volvo, then a 1979 Toyota Celica Supra and finally a front-wheel-drive, powder-blue, four-door 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit (the memory of which haunts me still). Not that I had a choice. In the 1980s, automatic transmissions were not as ubiquitous as they have now become. Even if they had been, we wouldn’t have owned one. My parents were devout adherents to manual transmission (my mother still drives one). They considered people who drove automatics to be suspect. There was something wrong with them. It suggested a weakness of character.
In some respects, it still does.
I count myself in this category. I’m one of the automatic autopilots now. It was a family decision and it’s one I’m at peace with, but I’m not kidding myself. Comparing driving manual to driving automatic is like comparing love with infatuation. The experience of the former is stronger and more lasting than the latter. When you drive stick, you are in charge. When you drive automatic, the car is.
Just as there are still thoroughbreds, and riding horses, there will always be some cars with stick shift. In Europe, 80 per cent of the cars sold are manual and in India that figure is pegged around 90 per cent.
Here in Canada, Toyota just announced its GR Supra will come with a new manual transmission option, which will be available on “GR Supra 3.0, 3.0 Premium and a limited A91-MT Edition models.” Toyota’s announcement says, “The newly developed six-speed manual gearbox also features an Intelligent Manual Transmission (iMT) programmed with new software that prioritizes sporty performance. When upshifting, the parameters are tuned to optimize engine torque at the moment of clutch engagement and release; on downshifts, the software has been fine-tuned for consistent performance.”
Music to my manual-transmission-loving ears.