Last Wednesday morning, I received an email about an upcoming event in Portland, Ore. held by classic car insurer Hagerty. Fifty teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 25 would get to drive a handful of classic and vintage cars and trucks around a marked course. All of the vehicles available would have one thing in common: a manual transmission.
Furthermore, I, too, could participate in learning the art of the manual transmission, having acquired my permit the day before the press release entered my inbox.
All I had to do was head down to Portland Meadows — where thoroughbreds are the dominant form of horsepower between October and February — on Saturday.
“We came across a statistic a few years back [about] the decline of teenagers’ interest in getting their driver’s license,” Hagerty Youth Advocacy Manager Tabetha Hammer explained to TTAC as the morning session drew to a close. “We started looking at them, at the classic car hobby, knowing that the majority of classic cars are equipped with a manual transmission.”
Hammer said the Hagerty Driving Experience program came about to not only encourage young drivers to shift one’s own gears, but to help ensure a future for the hobby itself, adding said drivers didn’t need a lot of money or knowledge to get started for themselves; the program is free to participants and owners alike.
As for finding the participants who would one day become collectors — over 700 to date — Hammer says Hagerty conducts “a lot of outreach” in the locations chosen, from car clubs and word-of-mouth to Hagerty’s own clients with driving-age children who have an interest in the hobby. (None of the locations have been revisited since the program began in July 2011.) In turn, the young drivers can improve their skill behind the wheel while learning how to shift their own in a “controlled, low-stress environment” without their parents holding on for dear life in the front passenger seat, as would normally occur in the early stages of a given young driver learning the rules of the road.
According to Hammer, Portland, the 17th city to host the Hagerty Driving Experience, was chosen for its “car-centric” vibe — the event targets highly car-centric locations in different parts of the United States where it would be best received — noting how everywhere she looked, a classic car or truck would pop up on the street. Portland Meadows, meanwhile, was chosen for its large, flat parking lot, and for being a well-known location with easy access to the rest of the city.
The cars and trucks participating in the Hagerty Driving Experience span the decades, from a 1928 Packard Phaeton, a 1930 Ford Model A, and a 1955 Porsche 356 Continental, to a 1962 Aston Martin DB4, a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray, and a 2015 Ford Focus ST, with the flags of the United States, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan represented thus far. Hammer said the program is meant to present a variety of vehicles so as to focus more on the overall driving experience than how much or how little power a given vehicle possesses.
If you’re worried about the potential for damage by having an inexperienced driver learning to row their own in a vintage or classic vehicle, Hammer stated nothing horrible has happened in the 17 events Hagerty has run the program beyond some clashing gears, stalls, and curbed tires. In fact, the only time a vehicle had a major problem during a drive was when its engine stalled of its own accord, requiring a lot of hands to push the car off the course; it was back in the game shortly after.
A brief aside, there would also be an additional challenge for me regarding the manual, one which would affect my ability to engage the clutch pedal on a couple of occasions:
I was born with these feet, which are missing not only toes, but quite a few bones, too. If this weren’t enough, my left leg is 9 mm shorter than my right, so you can imagine how difficult it would be to push the clutch pedal all the way down to the floor while my left foot struggles to maintain contact. If I could replace my feet with suitable prosthesis (and lose 9 mm in my right leg), it would be a significant improvement.
A brief classroom lesson about manual transmissions and basic car maintenance later, it was time for the afternoon session to start, and yours truly — who would be driving for the first time in several years — was ready for some valuable seat time. By the end of the day, I would drive every car and truck participating. All but one.
1970 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray: This was the one which got away, as the owner had a prior engagement they needed to attend during the afternoon session. I wish I was able to drive this one, as it reminded me of my dad’s 1979 (T-tops, functional side pipes, 350 under the hood, automatic funneling power to the back) with its deep green color. The clutch was the heaviest of the vehicles participating, so it would have been a challenge to nail it down. Still, it would have been a dream to try. Perhaps another time.
1972 Volkswagen Type 1 (Beetle): Per Hammer’s recommendation, this was the first vehicle I drove, as its clutch was the most forgiving of the group. The Type 1 is part of Hagerty’s collection, and boasted a neat wicker storage shelf under the dash. The clutch was easy to engage, and only a slight push on the accelerator was all I needed to get going until the engine’s song urged me to shift into second.
1989 Ford F-250: This future classic was a bear to get going. Not because of its clutch, but because the ignition switch took more strength to turn than I had to give. Once started, the power steering caught me off-guard, having already driven the Type 1 earlier, and I couldn’t help but be enamored by the big, black shifter on the floor. For a moment, I was taken back to my youth in the Kansas small town where some of my friends and classmates drove trucks like this everywhere, playing Garth Brooks, Little Texas and Confederate Railroad from the speakers.
1972 MG MGB GT: After the F-250 came this beauty, unblemished by the black bumpers which would befall the car in later years. Buckling the seat belt was an experience, and I wasn’t able to adjust the belt so I could better reach the clutch. Nonetheless, taking the little British coupe for a few laps around the course was a wonderful experience, one that one of my many editors likely knows about, as she received a 1974 MGB for her birthday last year.
1962 Chevrolet C20: Unlike the F-250 from earlier, starting this classic pickup was a breeze. I was also prepared to put all my muscle into the steering, yet was pleased when I could turn the wheel with the same ease as the Ford. Again, I was transported back to my high school days, when the athletic director — who I worked for on the field as part of the chain crew for all but the varsity football team’s home games, and off the field selling programs during said varsity home games — brought me home once or twice in his fourth-gen Ford F-150.
1962 MG MGA 1600 Mark II: This was my favorite of all the production cars on the course. Like the MGB, the MGA had its quirks, from pulling a lever on the dash to start the engine (after turning the key to prep the ignition), to pulling on a single cable tucked into the door panel to unlock and open the door. The roadster also had the smallest accelerator pedal of all the the vehicles, slightly wider and longer than the second phalanx of my thumb. It was also the most fun to drive, especially when taking the corners at high speed (it felt like I was going fast, anyway).
1931 Buick Series 60 Racer: Last, but not least, I got to drive this rally car around the course. This one gets its own place in my heart, solely on its competition pedigree, and because racecar. Owned by Pat and Pat Brothers, the Series 60 Racer has participated in the multi-day, cross-country Hemmings Great Race rally since it first hit the road in 2011. No roof, one long side pipe on the driver’s side, and the way in — which latches closed like a cabinet — is also the way out. Driving the Buick was wonderful, as well, moving like an agile tank through the course.
I couldn’t have picked a better way to spend the day before my 37th birthday than by learning to row my own in a handful of the coolest classics, future classics, and vintage vehicles around. I didn’t need to worry about traffic, or how fast or slow I was going, or even checking my mirrors. All I needed to do was figure out the clutch, when to shift, and when to brake. I can’t wait to do it again when my license is at last back in my hands.
Photo credit: Cameron Aubernon/The Truth About Cars