Stick shift. Manual transmission. “The only way to drive a car”. It is called it many things, but in the end, it’s still the best way to operate a vehicle.
I grew up watching my dad drive a manual, a red Nissan Maxima ’92. He loved it to death. He purchased it a couple of months before I was born, in November of ‘93. It was the car that picked myself and my brothers up from the hospital right after we were born. It was the car that he took to work every day for the next 12 years, until it got just a bit too quirky to trust for that daily commute. He held onto it for a little while longer, eventually getting rid of it just a few months shy of my 15th birthday. Feeling the car vibrate under the seat and rumble as he shifted gears, I knew that when I bought my first car, it was going to make sure it would be a manual.
Because he got rid of that trusty Maxima before I could get my learner’s permit, I never had the opportunity to drive it. I never got to feel its steering wheel in my hand nor its clutch under my foot. And while I pleaded for a manual when he shopped for a third vehicle entering my junior year of high school, he instead opted for a pedestrian, but beloved Honda CR-V (which many of you know as Ramona).
Earlier today, I had the opportunity to drive a manual. The friend that takes me to church (no, not that one) has a nice Mazda 3 hatchback that he finally let me take for a spin. I had driven a stick before—my ex-girlfriend’s father showed me the ropes on an old Toyota in the rural Tennessee hills of Joelton my freshman year—but since then I’d been itching to get my hands on one. Given that very few Americans drive sticks anymore (apparently around only 4% of cars sold in the last few years are manual), even finding someone who drove one was a pretty rare in and of itself. After a bit of guilt-tripping and peer pressure, I was able to convince him to let me try it out in an empty parking lot.
Driving a stick, you have to pay attention. You can’t text and drive a stick, to be quite honest. With one hand on the wheel, one on the shaft, and both feet occupied (the left on the clutch and the right working the accelerator & brake), you have to be fully engaged with the vehicle and your surroundings. Unless you were Doctor Octopus, you wouldn’t have any remaining limbs to hold an iPhone. Terrain makes a difference: getting the car from “0 to 1”, as I call it, can be much trickier depending on the slope of the incline one is stopped on. (You don’t want to end up like Wal-Mart—rollback.) Even things like braking require more thought: Are you pressing in the clutch in as you brake? Do you even need to, at the speed you’re going? Do you need to downshift? I think that in an automatic and cellphone-heavy world, these extra factors can help to keep drivers engaged with the road. If driving a manual means I can’t use my phone while driving, that can only be a good thing.
Beyond the need for higher engagement while driving, operating a stick is simply more fun and more rewarding. There’s no sense of accomplishment in getting the car from stopped to 20 mph in an automatic. But in a manual, each start of the car is a reward in and of itself. You’re telling the world, the car, and every frightened passenger in tow that you’ve conquered the car and overcome the stoplight. Only the most experienced manual driver can pop into a new stick shift and make it purr. For everyone else, you’ve got to get to know your car. Over time, you learn where the sweet spot of the clutch is. Once that happens, you’ll be able to masterfully make it to that 20 mph mark. Indeed, few things are exhilarating as successfully downshifting, (putting on your blinker), and zooming by the old lady in front of you going 9 under the speed limit.
After two straight stalls and about 10 loops, I eventually got the hang of the no-incline start. After 4 stalls and 25 loops, I got the hang of the inclined start. It was a flashback to my father teaching me the ropes in his huge truck, in an empty school parking lot 6 years and many miles ago. Impressed by my aptitude, I was even granted the opportunity to drive back to my dorm. If you happened to see a car stall out in front of the book store today in traffic, I apologize. Despite the embarrassment, it felt good to fail and have a new challenge presented to me. It’s an interesting feeling, knowing how to accomplish a task and yet failing at it upon learning how to do it a new way.
I’ve still got a ways to go—be it mastering the stick or even getting a car with a stick. But I have only a little while longer to wait until the opportunity arises. When it does, it’ll be clutch.
(Disclaimer: I simply couldn’t write an article without at least trying to incorporate the slang ‘clutch’. I’ll see myself out.)