I learned how to drive a manual transmission before I learned to drive a car. It was a natural back then, as a much higher percentage of cars sold in America were equipped with manuals. I started out with the lawn tractor and a few motorbikes before tackling the family car. Over the decades, out of a dozen or so vehicles, I’ve only owned two with automatic transmissions. I’ll keep driving manuals until I need to get my hips and knee joints replaced. And I’ll go right back to ’em after I heal up.
The first automatic was an old Pontiac, and it was my first car. It was equipped with a two-speed Powerglide transmission. You read it right. Two speeds: high and low. Old paint would take first gear all the way up to 80 miles an hour if you were on it good. (At least that’s how I remember it.) With the advent of seven- and eight-speed automatic transmissions today, it seems amazing that we got by with just first and second.
I sold the automatic Pontiac to buy the same exact car — same year, same model — with a four-speed manual complete with a Hurst shifter. I got more hoots out of that car than any kid should for $350. In all the manual cars I’ve owned, it was the only one that needed to have the clutch replaced. I freely admit to burning rubber from time-to-time, but burning up clutches is no fun.
The second automatic was a Dodge pickup truck that I bought brand new, about 10 years later. I wanted a manual transmission, but the dealer didn’t have any on the lot and he refused to order one for me. “Why would you want a manual transmission?” he asked. Why, indeed — this guy just didn’t get it. I should’ve walked right out of that dealership, but I was young (and foolish) and ended up with the slushbox. From the time I drove off the lot, I was never happy with the truck, but I learned an important lesson. If you’re the one stuck with making the payments, get what you really want or you’ll regret it.
So, since that time, I’ve always bought manuals.
Manual transmissions connect you with the soul of the car. You’re not just the pilot; you’re part of the machine. Automatics disconnect you from decision-making. Manuals give you full control. Yes, manuals are a lot more work in city driving, in heavy traffic, and on hills. Man up.
Casey Neistat shot my favorite “learn to drive stick” video of all time.
Never tell a first-timer to release the clutch and apply the gas simultaneously. That’s bad teaching; it’s too complicated. Simply apply a small amount of acceleration, then slowly let up the clutch. Just like that, you’ll take off. So easy a 13-year-old can do it.
And that’s just it. The best place to learn how to drive a vehicle with a stick shift is a big, empty parking lot. Face it. You’re going to make mistakes. You didn’t fall out of the womb with the ability to hoon like Ken Block.
Modern automatic transmissions are quite good, but they’re not quite the same as a stick shift. Even with faster shifting mechanisms and slap-stick or paddle shifters that allow you to override the pre-programmed controls, almost all automatics lack the visceral connection of a manual.
The wicked fast dual-clutch automatics found in some BMWs, VWs, and the Mitsubishi Evo and Ralliart are notable exceptions. Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVTs), on the other hand, are widely railed against by purists as being completely soulless. I’ve grown accustomed to driving them, but hey, rail away if you want.
I don’t have any hard statistics to point towards, but it seems like the manual transmission is inching back in both relevance and purchase consideration. As an example, the percentage of manuals to automatics in the tiny Fiat 500 has been higher than expected. While this is common sense with a car of its ilk (small and sporty), it’s been widely reported that Chrysler hadn’t planned on the manual’s popularity.
Rest assured, it’s not just sports cars. You can buy a good number of SUVs with manual transmissions these days, but you have to know where to look. Driving an SUV or Crossover doesn’t mean that you have to give up the clutch pedal. As with the Unicorn Dodge Pickup I bought years ago, your local dealer may still be hesitant to stock models with manuals. The Internet is your friend. If your local dealer doesn’t want to get it for you, the next guy will.
Europeans might make fun of Americas for referring to the manual transmission as a stick shift, but that’s life. They can thank us for all the blue jeans, as long as they don’t expect to buy a pair made in America.