Commentary: Save The Manuals?

"Can you drive stick?"

Before Cuba Gooding, Jr. won his Oscar for "Jerry Maguire," he starred in John Singleton's break-out masterpiece "Boyz N’ The Hood." He was responsible for the double entendre above as played out when he introduced a woman to his lowered Volkswagen Beetle.

The line above may be suggestive on one level, but its primary motive has become a running debate amongst automobile enthusiasts.

Can we still drive an automobile equipped with a manual transmission?

A majority of motorists worldwide do drive by rowing their own gears and engaging the clutch pedal. In the developing world, it’s the only way to drive. Manual gearboxes are still inexpensive to build and repair. Clutches are still costly to deal with, though.

However, the industrialized world has embraced an 81-year-old technology that makes life much easier for lazy motorists – the automatic gearbox. Hydraulic torque converters, planetary gears, and a magenta-colored fluid has kept people from rowing through gears and using their left leg to get somewhere.

It is no surprise that the United States has one of the highest use rates for automatic transmissions in the world. Perhaps partly is because the culture that starts with driver’s training vehicles with slushboxes on board and a slight feign away from teaching how to drive a manual.

It doesn't help when gearbox technology has emerged into robotized manuals where the clutch mechanism is computer controlled. For every Porsche PDK and Ferrari's F1 gearbox, the debate between "stick and auto" has escalated to a new level with the latest technology marrying the two.

That does not satisfy the purists. A purist believes that, even on the hills of San Francisco, one must be able to master the art of hill holding using a clutch, brake and throttle to ensure the manual gearbox-equipped car does not back into another motorist behind them. A purist also believe that motorsport should go back to clutch techniques even on the most challenging of courses.

However, the technoid thinks you can still have fun on a track using paddles on the steering column to control shifts and gear braking. You spend a King's ransom on a pre-owned Ferrari 458 Italia for the privilege to work such a gearbox on a course – provided it doesn’t catch on fire somewhere on the track. Nonetheless, Porsche has seen an increase in deliveries with their PDK gearbox – a dual-clutch system that makes their Tiptronic S "Jurassic."

Still, automakers are applying more tech into their good ol' slushboxes. General Motors and Ford jointly developed a ten-speed automatic for their pickup trucks and sports coupes. Ten gear ratios are quite mind-boggling, considering that the standard gear set in most vehicles has six. I remember a time when an automatic transmission only had just three gears. No one makes a three-speed automatic anymore…and, any vehicle with four or five torque-converted gears is considered outmoded.

Where do I stand on all of this? I'm actually caught in the middle.

While automotive manufacturers have scaled back manual transmission offerings, a majority of you can clutch-and-shift. In fact, you want more offerings with a manual transmission. There had been some manufacturers who have announced they would remove manual gearboxes off of their catalogs, others extoll the return of the third pedal on some offerings.

However, I have a minor problem…my manual transmission skills absolutely suck.

What is my "racecar driver excuse?" It is not for lack of trying. I tried to learn over the years to get manual transmission driving down. Several friends, acquaintances, and a rental car company that employed me in the 1980s attempted to teach me. No luck, I'm afraid.

It's actually physiological. I figured out that something is not completely wired between the brain and my left foot that enables clutch actuation to happen. It takes sharp reflexes to master clutch engagement for shifts to go through. That is where I fail. I have a slow response to clutching – something I am not proud of.

Does it take practice to unlearn this issue? In my case, I'm afraid not.

When the arguments between manual and automatic come up, I end up bowing out. It’s not because I actively advocate one way or another. It is the stigma that any appearance of physiological or mental health issues for otherwise healthy drivers is frowned upon.

And, may I add to watch out for an increase of COVID-19 emotional health issues when this pandemic is over. Maybe it might erase that stigma…back to this commentary…

Understanding this limits my choice of vehicles to discuss after a thorough evaluation – leading to a review that could be seen as half-assed. It could also threaten my credibility as an automotive journalist. Or, does it?

My take on the gearbox debate is to give the choice to the driver. Provide choices for capable vehicles that could offer both readily to the satisfaction of a driver. If a car is designed with a self-shifting system, then the consumer must be aware that it is designed as such and the reasoning behind this choice.

Yet, we North Americans are a bit too forgiving on passing drivers based on automatic gearbox use. If the rest of the world can row their gears and engage the clutch pedal, why couldn’t we turn back the clock and learn it that way, too? After all, the automatic started to take its place inside our automobiles in the 1950s with the onset of bigger and lazier American machinery.

The caveat to the automatic driver would be based on fitness. If a driver is competent even if there’s a health issue preventing using a manual gearbox, then perhaps there should be some form of allowance for that driver to operate an automatic without any prejudice or recourse.

Then again, no salesperson or any other authority would stop anyone from buying a vehicle with a manual transmission. Nor will I.

If you can drive a stick – own a vehicle with one and pride with absolute pride! That way, you are saving the manuals!

Photo by Randy Stern

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