- This little lever, and many like it, and I have been through a lot together. And we've got more to do.

I'm not ready to give it up just yet

I learned to drive a manual 34 years ago. I'm not stopping now.

3w ago

As I mentioned a while ago, I'm saving up for a car. My daily driver is a well-worn Toyota Corolla with over a quarter-million miles on it. It's not done for yet, but I can see that its story with me does have an end, probably in a year or two. I think I'll just want something nicer by then.

So naturally I've been thinking a lot about what will replace it. (Actually, I don't even need to be planning to replace a car to think about what I might like to buy, and I'm sure I'm not the only one; perusing for-sale ads for cars is a casual way to kill time pretty much any time. It's a gearhead thing, and I'm sure most of you get it.) I have a fairly short (10 miles) daily commute that rarely gets above 50 MPH, so I don't need a lot of car. But Portland's roads are getting worse by the second, so I tend to value comfort above handling. This wasn't always the case; when I had a Mazda Miata, I worked in a part of town where the roads were twisty. Now, I follow the grid of streets like Pac-Man making his way across his maze, all straight lines and right angle turns, usually waiting for a stoplight before I can turn. There's not much point in having a "fun" car for a commute like that.

My original thought, therefore, was to get something cushy and smooth-riding, a "grandma car" if you will. But there is one defining characteristic of those cars that I'm not sure I'm ready to accept: the automatic transmission.

I've owned automatics before. Of course I have. This is America, land of the two pedals, home of the slushbox. I've even liked one or two of them. But I have also given up manual cars to buy automatics in the past, and immediately regretted it. I have never once traded an automatic for a manual and had the same feeling. That should tell me which side I'm on.

Me at age 14, learning how to drive my uncle Bill's Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler.

Me at age 14, learning how to drive my uncle Bill's Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler.

If you define "driving a manual" as changing gears while the car is in motion, technically I first did it when I was about six or seven. My dad had a Fiat 128 sedan back then, and he taught me how to put it in reverse for him before he backed out of the driveway, then into first. When I had mastered that skill, I was allowed to pull the lever back from first into second when he told me to. Big thrills for a burgeoning car guy who still had Star Wars sheets on his bed. Unfortunately, I tried to do this once with my mom, in her VW Dasher, and got scolded for grabbing the gearshift lever. My dad got an earful for letting me shift for him. But he still let me do it once in a while.

Then when I was ten, my dad got a riding lawn mower. It was an old battered John Deere that he got for cheap because it needed some repair. That tractor is a story in itself, for another time, but the important thing here is that it was a three-speed manual, with a clutch pedal and everything, and big round shift knob poking through a gate cut into the green sheet metal in front of the seat. It also had a nice three-spoke steering wheel. Suddenly I didn't "have to" mow the lawn; I GOT to mow the lawn. And I will neither confirm not deny that I made car noises while doing it. (Not that anyone could have heard me above the din of that Tecumseh single-cylinder.)

It was a foregone conclusion, then, that when the time came for me to learn to drive for real, I would learn to drive a manual. And my uncle Bill had just the vehicle to teach me: his weekend toy Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler pickup. It had an inline six and a 4 speed manual, with a heavy, tricky clutch, and Uncle Bill, a long-haul truck driver by profession, told me, "If you get good with this, you can drive anything." He hasn't been proven wrong yet. I've jumped behind the wheel of everything from an Isuzu FTR dock truck to a Triumph Spitfire to a 1958 Corvette, slipped them into first gear, let out the clutch, and been on my merry way. Three-on-the-tree Chevelle? Sure. Toyota Land Cruiser? Been there, driven that. Porsche 911? Yep.

I was so comfortable with a manual by the time I actually took my driver's exam that I actually failed it the first time, because my mom thought it would be "easier" in my grandpa's Buick Skylark. I rolled a stop sign, because I didn't realise I hadn't come to a complete stop, and that was that. I took the test again, in my dad's 5-speed VW Golf, and passed with flying colors.

But back in 1989, driving a stick was just something people did. A third of the cars on the street still had manuals. Most of my friends at least knew how. Among gearheads, it was accepted gospel that automatics were fine for drag racing, but if you wanted to do any driving involving more than just straight lines, you needed a manual. Ferrari and Lamborghini didn't make any automatics (yet), and if they knew sticks were better, who were we to argue?

Nowadays, you can't JUST drive a stick. You have to be a part of a whole save-the-manuals movement, and know exactly which versions of which cars are still available with three pedals. You have to wear snarky T-shirts to car events that say things like "Real Cars Don't Shift Themselves" and "Two Pedals Are For Bicycles." (I may or may not actually own one of these.) You have to look in the window of a car that might in theory have a manual, then walk away feeling equal parts disappointed and smug when you see the PRNDL. The manual transmission has become not just a way of altering a vehicle's gear ratios; it is now a way of life.

The fact that they put that leather boot over the lever like a manual has, instead of just a slot like automatics had for years, proves that they know this is wrong. (cargurus.com)

The fact that they put that leather boot over the lever like a manual has, instead of just a slot like automatics had for years, proves that they know this is wrong. (cargurus.com)

But you know what? I'm fine with that. Call me a Luddite. Recite your statistics about automatics now being faster and more efficient. Blather on about your dual-clutch "manuals" and how fast they shift. I don't care. I have always felt better driving a manual, with three pedals on the floor and a lever that actually moves stuff around inside the gearbox. And that preference renders moot all of your arguments. There is no reason for seeking out a manual transmission in a car in this day and age, except that you don't want anything else. And that is reason enough.

So I'll keep ticking the search box that says "transmission type: manual" in my car searches, and seething with indignation when someone lists a car incorrectly as having a manual when the photos chearly show two pedals and a PRNDL, and I'll deal with the fact that my search results dwindle from thousands of potential cars to dozens. But it's my money, it's my commute, it's my silly car-guy pride, and I'm just not ready to throw in the towel and buy an automatic "because it's easier" yet. Ask me again in ten years and I may say something different. But not now.

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Comments (40)

  • I was actually the reverse. I learned on an automatic, my first four cars were automatics. But I always had a sense that I was missing out on something good. Finally when my fourth car was giving up the ghost I made a spontaneous decision that my new car be a manual. Having never actually driven a manual transmission in my life (though I technically knew what to do), the drive home from the dealership in my new ride was an absolute nightmare and for the next two weeks -try as hard as I might, I just couldn't get it right, thought I had made a horrible decision and seriously considered trading it in for an automatic.

    Then one day it all just came to me and I never looked back. I too have the manual transmission bug and won't even consider another new car unless I can shift it myself.

      27 days ago
  • Thank you for taking a stand. Here's to manual gearboxes! In Germany, if you did your license on automatic, you ain't allowed to drive manual (because you caaaaan't).

    I've had automatics for rent, not nice, only that 3.5t truck (merc sprinter van) was a good idea. I, too, tick "manual". I've had automatic in australia, which was a family car, but I was able to handle left-side drive AND manual in New Zealand, so there. Manual, forever.

      27 days ago
    • The same goes here in Syria ... even now with everything going here and our terrible situation if you did your license on automatic you are not allowed to drive a manual.

        26 days ago
    • I wish you an end of the war as soon as possible. I had many refugee pupils; they don't want to be in Germany, although it is peaceful here; they want to be home...

        26 days ago
  • My first 3 cars were manuals that covered my first 15 years of driving. Now I have an MX5 and a Lexus, as long as I can use three pedals I’ll have a manual.

      27 days ago
  • Been driving manual 31 years. Had to make the switch to slushbox due to a crushed pelvis, sacrum and nerve damage. If it wasn't so painful to use I'd still have a stick. Gave my last one up 3 years ago. Hated to do it but it really does make my life easier. Only drive for necessity and not pleasure anymore. Less than 3k per year - down from 32k per year. 🤷‍♂️

      27 days ago
  • Not to be one of those guys.... but...

    " Ferrari and Lamborghini didn't make any automatics (yet),"

    Ferrari 400IA's had GM automatics back in the 70's.

    Currently driving a Manual but as the list dwindles it gets harder and harder to pick a car that has a manual. Unless I can afford a Porsche next time I go to buy a car this may be my last other then a classic that gets driven on nice days only.

      26 days ago