Mrs. McAleer Rows Her Own.

Brendan McAleer
by Brendan McAleer
mrs mcaleer rows her own

As noted in a triumvirate of TTAC reviews, the Scion iQ is a fun little box that’s hobbled by a somewhat crappy CVT transmission – though, it should be noted, not to the “’Tis but a scratch” extent that the SMART is de-limbed by its godawful gearbox. The above text message was received from my wife after she drove one briefly.

Naturally, after telling her how disappointed I was in her total lack of ethics, I felt rather pleased. When I met Katie, she was a dedicated cyclist and transit-taker who hadn’t bothered to get her driver’s license until her early twenties. With a series of Acura mid-sizers rotating through Dad’s driveway, she regarded the car as either an appliance or a necessary evil.

And then, along come I with my idiotic fervour for the things. Sure, I gave up my first car for the engagement ring, but when we got married I bought a Ford Escort GT with a 5-speed and set out to teach my new wife how to drive it.

It wasn’t easy. There were frustrations and setbacks, tantrums and whining and sometimes I thought the tears would never stop coming.

She wasn’t that thrilled about it either.

I toyed briefly with the idea of pitching this article with a more instructional bent: “How to teach your spouse to drive stick.” But that opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms about the sexual politics of driving, perhaps a topic for another time.

What’s more, it’s not like I could get you past the first step anyway. I did have strong and persuasive arguments about the necessity of learning to drive a manual car – what if there was an emergency, like if I accidentally tripped and accidentally repeatedly fell on some beer and it accidentally repeatedly spilled into my mouth and I accidentally repeatedly swallowed it and became accidentally incapable of driving, accidentally? Very. Convincing.

But, like so many things in a successful marriage, convincing was less important than compromising. I would attempt to reduce the amount of commuting I did by car, and she would, in turn, endeavour to learn to work a clutch and a five-speed.

As we’ve covered, driving a manual transmission is not manly. It’s not always more efficient. In most cases though, it is more fun.

Certainly, it made the little Escort somewhat enjoyable. 1991 and newer ‘Scort GTs are fairly interesting cars to drive as they’ve got a Mazda BP powerplant and decently nippy handling characteristics. Add a stick and burlap-based interior fabrics and you’ve got the makings of a Great Little Beater(tm).

It’s important to have a car you don’t really care about for any kind of instruction. Gears will be ground. Starter motors will be durability tested with repeated stalling. You will be participating in the dance known as the “bunny-hop”. Acrid clouds of clutch smoke will hang over the proceedings.

The Escort was as ideally suited to this sort of abuse as a Labrador Retriever is to a toddler’s ear-pulling. The 1.8L engine had modest power, but reasonable torque off the line, the clutch engagement was forgiving and the shifter had fairly wide-spaced gears.

Better yet, we had a ideal setting to learn in. The Gulf Islands off the coast of B.C. are sparsely populated in the off-season and we used to spend a fair bit of time on Galiano Island, where we were married.

Without worrying about traffic holding up traffic, and with plenty of rolling hills to provide challenges once the basics were mastered, it provided as low-stress environment as you could hope for.

One trick I learned that might be of use is to actually get out of the car and coach while walking beside it. In the same way that it becomes strangely difficult to parallel-park when someone’s sitting in the car with you, removing the audience seems to help things go more smoothly.

My wife has three degrees, including a Medical Doctorate. She’s an accomplished musician and chorister and has sung at Carnegie Hall. She’s also a surprisingly fast long-distance trail-runner. Currently, she spends her time as a palliative care physician, balancing an encyclopaedia of medications with exacting fineness, freeing her patients to reclaim the balance of their lives from either pain or opiate fog; caring for the dying and their families with empathy and grace.

In light of these achievements it is colossally stupid of me to be overly proud of her ability to operate an anachronistic automotive control system. Oh baby, work that steering-wheel mounted manual spark advance.

But I am proud of her, and I must confess to always bumping up my admiration of any person when I learn that they drive a stick. Competence is just plain cool.

And, miracle of miracles, now she actually prefers self-rowers! What’s more, having been somewhat spoiled by the generous horsepower of our daily-driver WRX, she’s the first to turn up her nose at a press car for being too dull.

Picking up an Acura for review, the Honda rep urged me to sign out the new CR-V: “I know you’ve driven it already, but let your wife drive it. She’ll really enjoy it!” Not even close.

A modern car will do a lot for you. It’ll tell you if people are in your bind-spots, figure out how to stop you if you just slam on the brakes, keep you on the road with stability control and take the guesswork out of highway-driving with radar-guided cruise-control. Some will even handle the parking for you, and it won’t be too long before some are taking on at least a portion of the actual driving duties.

Every electronic nanny, every helpful gizmo or warning-light whatsit is one more step away from being a driver and one step closer to becoming a passenger. Introducing a stick-shift into the equation pushes the sliding scale back a little bit. It makes a dull car interesting. It can make someone who doesn’t care about cars understand why you do.

I always knew I’d teach my kids how to drive stick. My father taught me at a very young age, putting our Land Rover into low-range and letting me trundle around the back-forty at a walking pace.

We’re just a few months away from finding out whether our first will be a boy or a girl: it’ll be years and years before we get to the point where that particular lesson needs to be taught. But, when the time comes, it’s not a lesson I’ll be teaching alone.

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2 of 48 comments
  • Chicago Dude Chicago Dude on Jun 07, 2012

    I don't understand the stereotype about women and manual transmissions. All four of my sisters learned just as easily as I did and in fact it was my older sister that taught me when I was 13 ("Dad won't teach you until you are 16; you shouldn't wait that long"). All of the women I've ever dated were already able to drive, and I never knew anything about their driving abilities or preferences until well after we were dating. The only person I've had the pleasure of teaching was a guy. I suppose I'll get my chance to teach a girl when my daughter is old enough - if my wife doesn't beat me to it.

  • Shawa1221 Shawa1221 on Jun 07, 2012

    My first car was a 1995 automatic escort 2dr. But my second car I bought for $500 when I turned 18 was a 1991 very faded red lady driven escort GT, it looked like new under the hood. It was night and day compared to that slooow 88hp 1.9 auto! It may be due to the fact I have fond memories but that Escort GT was one of the most fun little cars to drive.

  • Bkojote I think it's a home run that VW is bound to bungle.For the anti-CUV crowd there's a cool factor here as pickup trucks have become so cartoonish. This will absolutely embarrass the neighbor with a GMC pavement princess pile in the driveway. Even better, the VW van fandom hasn't ruined these the same way it has the Sprinter, and honestly the design looks tight. And believe it or not there's huge demands for minivans- look no further than the unobtanium that is the Toyota Sienna.So here's what's going to go wrong-These are going to be priced on the premium end and they'll be hype for the first 3 years. The owners (whom The MKIV coil packs and dieselgate disasters a distant memory) trading in their post-college Rav4's and CR-V's are going to quickly discover the whole host of Volkswagen failures- bad sensors, glitchy software, leaking roofs, and hell it'll probably have an emissions scandal of its own somehow. This on top of the already terrible haptic controls VW has, the unreliable charging network, and terrible range. And they'll have the privilege of endlessly fighting with Sleazy Sam's VW dealership after the 4th flat bed tow.They're gonna make the same mistake the kids did in the 80's with the rabbit, the 90's with the Passat and Jetta, and the 00-10's with the TDI's- think VW finally turned the corner and stopped making garbage before doing the trade of shame back to Toyota and Honda.
  • Buickman the only fire should be in the board room.they just hired an executive from Whirlpool.that should help them go do the drain.
  • Mike Beranek I don't care about the vehicles. But I'd be on board for inspecting the drivers.
  • Art Vandelay Coming to a rental lot near you. And when it does know there is a good chance EBFlex and Tassos have puffed each other's peters in it!
  • Art Vandelay I doubt there is even room for EBFlex and Tassos to puff each other's peters in that POS