Last night I had my first opportunity to teach someone to drive a manual. I was, by no means, prepared. For years I’ve had entire slideshow presentations scrolling through my brain. I’ve dreamed up long, boring lectures comparing transmissions to bicycles. I’ve come up with models illustrating what a clutch does.
But we had about 25 minutes until The Office started, and her valet interview was in the morning. So we sat down with a white board, onto which I rubbed a drive train resembling a pole lamp, and a double-H shift pattern. We headed out, and she picked it up in no time.
When I learned to drive stick, however, it took me two weeks. I was determined to figure it out, in accordance with my new-sprung love of cars, but I’d already been driving for about 9 years by then, and old securities die hard. Two weeks of killing my old Accord coupe in the middle of the road, of rolling backwards down hills before slamming on the brakes, of gunning that engine poorly until I thought it would reach through the air vents and slap me in the eye.
But the little F22A held out just fine, I got the hang of the standard, and fell in the very best kind of love. To this day I never want to own another automatic. It took me years afterward to even admit that the automatic transmission has any merit. But there are some things you can do in a manual that you just can’t do with an AOD, or even one of those computer-dictated manu-matic things.
You can, for instance, coast down hills, with an effortless mashing of the clutch pedal. Any time I can get 100 mpg without reducing my speed, I’ll do it. Yeah, you can do this in an automatic, too, but hit a pot hole while shifting and you’re suddenly in Park. Not an attractive proposition.
Once you can drive stick, you can drive virtually any road-borne passenger vehicle on the planet. And until you can, you can drive very few of them. The vast majority of the world’s cars have manual transmissions. It seems no other countries could quite match us for laziness, and stuck to their more reliable manuals when automatics first hit the market. No, learning stick doesn’t mean you can operate a train, or an 18-wheeler, or even a Ford Model T. But it does mean that if you’re skiing with your Swiss friend in the Alps, and he’s had too much to drink at the chalet and needs you to drive home, you can.
You can avoid pesky lube techs’ telling you that you need to flush your automatic transmission fluid. Though you’ll have to replace a clutch or two in the life of a manual transmission, there’s far more maintenance involved in automatics. And usually that lube tech is right. Most automatics fail because they weren’t properly serviced with a regular flush and filter change.
You can have more power whenever you want it. All you have to do is downshift. No mashing the pedal and waiting for the gui-tar to come around.
You can get involved in the driving process. When you drive a manual, the car is depending on you to tell it when to shift. That means you can’t play angry birds, you can’t clean up coffee stains, and you can’t negotiate the sale of your startup.com over the phone. Consequently, you can’t crash your car and end up with a shock absorber for a trachea because you were distracted by doing these things while you were supposed to be driving.
But that’s okay, because you’ll find that you can actually enjoy driving. Most Americans regard driving as a chore- a boring, stressful time waster (and yet we have no trains). But those people don’t drive stick. Thump your own transmission around and you’ll find yourself in the middle of some kind of dangerous video game. Are you going to drop it down to pass this guy? If you take the corner in second, you might get to spin the tires a bit. Will you nail this launch?
What are your favorite things about driving stick?