By on June 6, 2012

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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48 Comments on “Mrs. McAleer Rows Her Own....”

  • avatar
    Tim Burdick

    I taught my wife to drive a stick in my CL Type S. I then had to replace the clutch in an otherwise cherry 12k mile car. Still, it was a strategic move as we were picking up a new Boxster the next week and driving across country – much preferred the wear and tear on the Acura…

    Like you, I hope to one day teach my children to drive a stick, but I am betting the cars will all be self-drivers by then. It will be a shame…

  • avatar

    What do you mean you have years and years ? There are decisions just around the corner. Matchbox vs. Hot Wheels. Big Wheel vs. Little Tykes. A proper pedal car vs. An electric Mustang. Which car video franchise ? One of those car beds ? Geez, you cannot wait until they are 15.

    • 0 avatar
      Brendan McAleer

      I was thinking 8, as that’s when I drove a stick for the first time. Other than that, “Welcome to Earth, here’s your Hot Wheels.”

  • avatar

    All I gotta ask is does Mrs. McAleer have a sister with the same driving prowess?

  • avatar

    Brendan, are you and the Mrs. accepting donations of gently-used, well loved toy cars of various shapes and sizes. I cannot bare to think about my Matchbox Isuzu Amigo, and others, sitting in some landfill when they could go to a good home.

  • avatar

    It wasn’t easy. There were frustrations and setbacks, tantrums and whining and sometimes I thought the tears would never stop coming.
    Somehow I doubt that is true, but I do know you will be reminded of that critical remark FOREVER, sometimes in jest sometimes not.
    Long long ago when newly married and in college with my wife working, our second “car” was a 50 ford pickup F-1 with a four speed crashbox and olds engine. My wifes job was closest so she drove it often. Became a real pro at double clutching. When I graduated and moved too far to take it with, the 19 year old who bought it could drive stick but had never double clutched. My wife taught him how. I hope he kept his enthusiasm for the truck and some how it survived.

    • 0 avatar
      Brendan McAleer

      Actually, the remark was intended to indicate that the tantrums, &etc. were on my part, which is why the next sentence says: “she wasn’t that thrilled about it either”.

  • avatar

    You can TM Great Little Beater (GLB?) if I can CR “Boring Sells!”

    Congrats! Now go out and get a room-full of toy cars. Now! Never too early to start. Read aloud names of models and makes…the little bundle of joy should be able to identify any vehicle by the headlight pattern from 200 yards by the time he/she is three!

  • avatar

    How topical! My wife just announced that, a mere 15 years after the previous attempt, she’s ready to give learning to shift for herself another shot.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh nice, so I only have 14.5 years before I can try again. The first attempt included the same burnt clutch stench and crying that Brendan went through…..and ended in me buying her an automatic Volvo.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve taught numerous kids and a few adults to drive stick. On whatever car was my pride and joy at the time. Never once smelled burnt clutch; very few crunched gears. My two best pupils were young women, my cousin, Renee, who did it right and smoothly the very first time (and whose recently acquired husband has a ’94 BMW 3 series with a slushbox), and some friends’ daughter, Lizzie, who now owns a Forester with a stick. My niece, Beth, was also a very good student: her brother was not.

        THE TECHNIQUE (which the car talk guys also recommend, but which I figured out independently): flat terrain, like a parking lot. Have the student repeatedly release the clutch from a standstill, without touching the gas, until their leg knows where it starts to engage. Once they can do that, let them start shifting gears. And it’s a good idea to have them play with the gears like a kid pretending to drive before they actually shift them, so that they know where each gear is.

      • 0 avatar

        I taught pretty near all my friends to drive stick back in the day. My location of choice was a cemetary, and spot on about just getting used to the engagement point of the clutch.

        And like our author, I too learned to drive on an old Land Rover, RHD no less!

  • avatar

    I taught my wife and sister how to drive manual and both were convinced they could never learn.
    I can even quote my wife after a trying time teaching her in my 82 Escort all those years ago; “Some people are just not meant to drive a standard and I’m one of them”.
    My sister had a boyfriend who tried teaching her but was impatient and dismissive of her struggles and thus avoided being taught for ages.
    Today they drive and insist on a manual transmission on whatever car they use and all our car decisions are predicated on them having a manual, trouble is the options are getting scarce.
    The trick is to explain how the clutch interacts with the transmission, the relationship between engine speed and shifting (ignoring the glazed eyes), dispelling myths (release the clutch on a hill, car goes backward 500 MPH) , teach in real world conditions (not just an empty parking lot)and most of all to be patient, and use someone else’s car.
    To all those who bought cars they’d rather not because the wife will not drive a manual, I say you’re not trying hard enough IMHO.

  • avatar

    Taught a few people how to shift in our 93 Escort, it was indeed a fine trainer. Not too long after teaching my daughter, we did a 300 mile trip through the Columbia Gorge over fresh snow. The day after we got home the clutch gave up the ghost. Thanked my lucky starts that she was a fast learner, or that poor abused clutch would have left us in the middle of snow covered nowhere.

  • avatar

    When I met my wife she walked to work and back in Boston and had an old Volvo 240, which had replaced a previous old Volvo, which replaced another old Volvo than had been wrecked when a bunch of Haitians tried to pull an insurance scan and totaled it. All Autos.

    I don’t think she’ll ever drive a stick, but she now understands just how overly light, vague and numb the steering in her RX350 is, and also enjoys the 280 some-odd HP in the same vehicle on on-ramps and other situations. She channels Jeremy Clarkson at the wheel. She notices Maseratis on the road and recognizes them. She likes the Porsche Panamera. There are some benefits and drawbacks to this change. Her future vehicle requirements are now both more expensive and more fuel thirsty than they would have been. But complaints about my choice of car are eliminated, and her car will be more satisfying when I need to drive it.

  • avatar
    Jason Lombard

    Brendan, congrats on the soon-to-be new addition. Having kids is one of the single best decisions that my wife and I made.

    Thanks for the little stroll down memory lane too. Your story brought me back to when I taught my wife (then girlfriend) how to drive a stick. She also prefers a manual gearbox and is still a little upset that Volvo didn’t import her XC70 to the ‘States thusly equipped.

    The Mrs. learned to drive stick in an ’89 Mustang GT 5.0 with an extraordinarily heavy Centerforce clutch and a notchy BBK short-shift kit. I told her that if she could drive that, she could drive just about any passenger vehicle with a stick. She picked it up VERY quickly, and has never wanted to go back.

  • avatar

    Once I caught the “sold a car to buy a ring” I died inside. It’s never worth it. Selling off a piece of yourself to throw the dice on another person you’ll never really know, aside from what they outwardly show you they are, just isn’t worth it to me. Enough grim post marriage observations….

    The current girlfriend drives a stick daily. She keeps hinting at wanting to drive my Mustang. It was a trust issue or something. Woman stuff. So I threw her the keys and off we went, sort of. She couldn’t find first, and we stuttered out of the parking spot in 3rd with the clutch waiting for the sweet release of mechanical death to stop the pain of 3,000 rpms. I quickly yelled at her to pull over where I reclaimed the driver’s seat.


  • avatar

    I was dating a very nice lady whose Nissan Pathfinder was totalled in a freak accident when a wheel came off a car heading in the opposite direction, bounced over a grass median, and smashed into her SUV. After picking her up, making sure she wasn’t hurt, and calming her down, I offered her to take my manual Evo VIII for the night until she could arrange for a rental car. She hopped right in, roared off with nary a hiccup, and instantly remembered her shifting technique learned from her teenage years in a Beetle. If that didn’t cement my love for her, I don’t know what did. We were married the next year.

    All of my kids learned and now drive manuals on a daily basis. The great thing is that no one ever asks to borrow their cars, because the knowledge isn’t there with their peers. While I enjoy snicking through the gears as much as any enthusiast, I can easily see where finding or even ordering a manual is going to become impossible. Dual clutch automated gearboxes are infiltrating the sports car world and economy cars are getting automatics that now match or even exceed manual fuel efficiency. Like vinyl records, manuals won’t completely disappear, but they are going to become increasingly rare.

  • avatar

    Some people make such a big deal out of a manual gearbox…..

  • avatar

    Although she’d taken some lessons, Mrs Sinister was not getting on very well driving a manual. So, I spent a good couple of months teaching her. She nearly gave up completely after I spent best part of 2 hours teaching her to pull away smoothly one Sunday afternoon, but she persevered and now has no problems at all rowing her own. Practice makes perfect.
    Teaching her to drive stick in the UK is one thing, I am now having more trouble teaching her to drive in Vancouver. Driving on the opposite side of the road in a busy urban environment, surrounded by small oriental women in massive European SUV’s is causing her abject terror at nearly every turn.

  • avatar

    So did you opt for the iQ or the Mustang?

  • avatar

    I taught my wife (then-GF) to drive in her then-new manual Civic. She picked it up reasonably quickly, and drove mostly stick until last year, when she decided that she was tired of trying to do so in LA traffic while conducting business on the phone (hands-free, mind you). So the 6-speed stick MINI was traded for an auto MINI (both S’s), and for the first time in over a decade, we were an all-auto household. Sic transit gloria…

  • avatar

    The new Porsche 7 speed manual isn’t really a manual, according to the Porsche salesman I spoke to yesterday. It is a dual rail, dual clutch sequential gearbox where you make your electronic shift requests using simulations of a clutch pedal and gear shift. Bah humbug.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s the saddest thing I’ve read today.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m pretty sure it’s also BS.

      • 0 avatar


        I agree. This may not be quite right. I checked about 8-10 websites, including those from people who tested these cars on tracks, and no one made any mention of anything other than a conventional mechanism for shifting, including conventional clutch operation. They did say that the new 7-speed was essentially a 6-speed with tighter gears, and a really tall 7th intended for highway cruising.

        I was, however, not successful in finding a site with a construction diagram that could describe exactly how the thing works. Do you know of any?


      • 0 avatar

        The salesman was mistaken. Porsche offers both a traditional standard 7-speed gearbox for their new 911, alongside the 7-speed automated dual-clutch box.

  • avatar

    I’ve heard a great tip for learning how to drive stick is to start by letting the clutch out slowly to allow the car to roll w/no gas, and to teach how the clutch works and where the friction point is. When I took my basic rider class to get my motorcycle license, this was the first thing they had us do on the bike (after just walking with them).

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, that’s the technique I use, learned decades ago in my basic rider class.

      • 0 avatar

        I wish that someone used that technique for teaching me, it would’ve made learning much quicker for me. As is was, I happened upon trying that on my own, and it was something of an “a ha” moment in learning how to properly drive a manual.

  • avatar

    Yes, the manual trans is going the way of the Do Do bird. Like many Boomers, I learned to drive on a stick (a 1963 Corvair) and probably 80% of my cars have been manuals. I think the few cars in the future that offer manuals will offer them as an expensive option. I believe this is already the case with the Corvette.

  • avatar

    When I see a car that I know is available with a manual equipped with an optional automatic I just assume that the owner (or a driver in their household) is an amputee or otherwise physically unable to operate a three-pedal setup.

    That’s about the only reasonable explanation I can think of for never learning to drive stick.

    It’s a good skill to have, even if one’s daily driver is an automatic.

    Although her daily driver is a slushbox Accord, I still taught my girlfriend to drive stick and ride a motorcycle. Now she can operate every vehicle in our fleet if needed, and in an emergency she can get mobile in *any* running vehicle rather than needing an automatic car.

  • avatar

    I taught my wife to drive stick when we first started dating using my ’85 Civic hatch. Her stepfather had tried before but failed. Her interest picked up when she realized that allowing the revs to build made the car go much faster. Since then all automatics seemed slow to her. Thus she has driven stick for the last 15 years. This causes a bit of shock to her friends when they ride anywhere with her. “You shift yourself?” to which she replies: “Yes I actually know how to DRIVE”. I’m so proud! Recently the wife has started watching Top Gear too… so I’m pretty lucky.

  • avatar

    My wife learned to drive stick in her family’s ’97 E36 M3…she may be better at it than I.

    Congratulations on the baby! My wife and I are expecting our first kids as well (twins)…we may need something a bit bigger than a WRX.

  • avatar

    I taught my wife to drive a manual during college in my 84 Fiero. She had a really tough time working the clutch until I had her lean over and actually watch my feet. (It was nighttime too so there we were, circling around a church parking lot and her leaned over with a flashlight trained on my feet.) Her manual driving was still kind of iffy, but when it came time to replace her car we bought her something with a manual because it was cheaper. Then she REALLY had to learn. My worn out POS Fiero was a real bear to shift so she actually had a much easier time with her newer car.

  • avatar

    I’ve taught 3 ex girlfriends to drive a stick in less than an hour, each. In an SVO!

    A few minutes of sitting in it going through the gates and coordinating clutch sequence. A few minutes driving it with a floor jack under the rear end. (I tell them they must wear a short skirt so I can see the leg technique clearer.)

    Anyways, then we back out of the driveway and into the culdesac. By now they almost have it down (poor clutch!). Then the final lesson is up the street to a steep hill…

    “Stop on the hill, clutch in, brake and…. stop. OK, put it in 1st and in one motion, release the brake, let out the clutch and give it plenty of gas. Don’t worry, I’ve got the E-brake in case it rolls back too much. Now GO!”

    After a few stalls, that’s usually all it takes and because hills are the hardest part, I take them right to it.

    • 0 avatar

      It really helps to run through the shift sequence and to explain the point of a clutch and manual transmission to one’s pupil, if he or she is interested. If the prospective driver is not interested, you may be looking at a shredded clutch, just from lack of understanding. (No learning curve is as steep as the one the student refuses to climb.)

      I seriously began learning all about how a manual transmission works and why learning to shift correctly is important, from reading “The Red Car”, before I was even close to learning how to drive. :)

      • 0 avatar

        You could explain it like this.

        “A running engine has a constantly spinning shaft that extends into the transmission and directly connects to your gear choice.”

        “All the clutch does is uncouple that fast spinning shaft to smoothly and gradually engage each gear with zero grinding and without stalling the engine from shock.”

  • avatar

    Too bad you can’t get it with a manual gearbox while the “SMART(sic)is de-limbed by its godawful gearbox.” smart does have a manual gearbox … with paddle shifters I might add.



    • 0 avatar

      In that case, almost every car has a manual gearbox. Just shift it yourself from 1 to 2 to 3 to D and you can call it a manual. Or is there something that is actually manually-operated within the Smart’s transmission?

  • avatar

    I taught my then girlfriend to drive stick in an original mini. Thirty eight horsepower and non-synchro low gear. Forty seven years later we have an automatic transmission car. But now, a long trip is five miles. The last long trip was from the US to Mexico. Sixteen hundred miles driving a PT Cruiser towing a trailer. She had never towed, before pulling out of the driveway in Mobile, Alabama. Five days later she drove into Ajijic, Jalisco, having driven all the way. I had a bad ear infection that caused double vision. We still prefer stick, but practicality has us in an automatic equipped car. I am not sure a stick PT could have handled the heavy trailer in the mountains of Mexico.

  • avatar

    My mother taught me how to drive stick (in her New Beetle turbo, no less) shortly after I got my license. Once I worked out that clutch’s unique engagement point and discovered that the accelerator and clutch, within reason, both act as magical car-ain’t-gonna-stall pedals, I was fine. Drove my friend’s beater Tiburon (with a failing clutch, no less) and eventually test drove and bought a Volvo 850 wagon without stalling either the first time.

  • avatar

    I taught my wife last summer in my WRX at a nearby cemetery. She stalled it a couple times, but didn’t grind the gears. I helped her “cheat” by working the handbrake while she was starting up a hill. She made it up to third gear before turning it over to me. She said she “knows enough” to be able to drive one of my stick-shift cars, in an emergency. She has no plans on driving any of them, if her automatic is available. I have a feeling that our 6-year old will be driving one of my cars before she does again. This is definitely a work in progress…

  • avatar

    I have a friend who just got a new Focus with a stick; when I complemented him he said “I don’t know how to drive automatics and I don’t want to learn”.


  • avatar
    Chicago Dude

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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