I was browsing the internet the other day and came across a website that purports to be “A guy’s post-college guide to growing up.” Normally I avoid websites like this. I learned about the manly arts the old fashioned way, dangerous experimentation, but since I have been wrestling with an especially verdant crop of nose hair recently I thought I might find some grooming tips and so I decided to check it out. Amongst all the articles on slick, greasy-looking haircuts, sensual massage techniques and the power of positive self-development, I found this handy beginners’ guide on how to drive a stick shift. Since it was one of the only things on the site I had any real experience with, I looked it over and decided it was pretty good. Naturally, I thought I would share it.
Like sword fighting and bare knuckle boxing before it, driving a car with a manual transmission is on the verge of becoming a lost manly art. One day soon I expect to tune into the History Channel and hear someone explain how archeologists think these devices might have worked and watch as historic re-enactors dress up in their oldest bell bottoms and tie dyed shirts in order to drive around in their automatic transmission equipped replicas while making shift noises and pretending to step on a clutch pedal that isn’t there.
OK, perhaps I am being just a little facetious here, but let’s face it, manual transmissions are moving out of the mainstream and there will come a time when only cars aimed at the enthusiast market will bother to offer them. History tells me, of course, that it wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things that all cars had manual transmissions. Some people will say they also had crank starts, hand-operated chokes and manual spark advance too, and that no one ever laments the loss of those things. It is, they will say, the price we pay for progress. The old things go away, replaced with new things that serve the masses better and, despite the fact that a few people may lament their loss, the fact is that vast majority will hardly notice their absence.
That’s not going to be the case with the manual transmission. Learning to shift your own gears is a right of passage. It is something that people grew up watching their elders do and upon a child’s entry into adulthood, the skill was handed down across the generations, person to person. With few exceptions, those clever, intrepid people who had the gumption to teach themselves, every one of us who knows how to work a stick learned from someone else.
I started out the way most young people do, pretending to row the gears in an old broken down Opel Kadette in my parents’ garage and eventually wheedled a lesson from my older brother Tracy who took me out in his, then, fairly new 1978 Nova. It was a pretty little car, a red on red two door coupe that had a 250 cid six cylinder under the hood and was as utilitarian as they come. I started out shifting gears from the passenger seat to get the feel of the shift lever and by the time I slipped over behind the controls had a fairly good idea of what I needed to be doing with my hands. Learning how to work the pedals took a little longer but, with my brother’s encouragement, I eventually got the hang of it.
I won’t say the experience changed my world, but it did open up a part of it that is, unfortunately, closed to many young people today. By the time I got my first car, a slightly older six cylinder three speed manual Nova of my own, there was no doubt about my ability to work the thing and, over the years and in the many manual equipped cars that would follow, I built upon the skills my brother taught me.
Running a car with a manual transmission connects man and machine in a way few other things can. In that same way the bumps and judders transmitted to a driver’s fingers through steering wheel gives one a connection to the pavement rushing beneath their seat, the vibrations transmitted to the palm of your hand by a shift ball and the sole of your left foot by the clutch pedal gives you a direct connection to a car’s drive train. Also, because you don’t have computer managing your engine speed and choosing the best gear, a manual transmission forces you to watch your gauges, to monitor the tachometer, and to actively think about the process of driving. These things pull driver and car together and when a driver has real focus they can join with the vehicle in the way that jockeys talk about becoming one with the animal during a race. That experience is, in a nutshell, enthusiasm is its purest form.
As a fat, hairy, old-school ape man, I have a special disdain for the “self-improvement” media and magazines that try to tell young men what it means to be a man while, at the same time, attempting to sell them a plethora of products to make them ever softer and ever more sensual, but this time I think they nailed it. Perhaps driving a manual is no longer a skill that every man must have, but it is a skill that every man – and every woman, really – should aspire to. It doesn’t matter if you learn if from your brother or a magazine, just get out there and learn it before it’s too late.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.