A lot of people would understand that, in a petrol engine, a spark is needed to ignite the fuel and air mixture as the piston reaches the top of its compression stroke.
What many people don’t realise – apologies to those of you who feel patronised – is that the spark doesn’t always come at the same time. Sometimes it’s a bit earlier, sometimes later, depending on what we’re demanding of the engine: climbing a hill in a low gear, for example, is different from cruising at high speed in top.
Engineers call this variation in spark timing ‘advance’ and ‘retard’, and for a long time it’s been done automatically. First it was triggered by changes in manifold pressure or spinning weights, more recently it’s done by electronic systems that understand the situation in minute detail.
But there was a time, when Jeremy Clarkson was a teenager, when it had to be done manually, usually with a little lever on the steering wheel. You had to understand the effects of advance and retard to drive your car. But them days is long gone and nobody laments the passing of that bit of the control interface.
There are other bits of the car that have also long gone. A few that spring to mind are mixture control, the magneto/coil switch, manual oil and fuel pumps, engine primers, cranking handles, and grease nipples. There are others that are on the way out, such as hand-wound windows and sunroofs. No-one is sad about any of this.
But at the slightest suggestion that the manual gearbox and clutch are about to disappear, around half of DriveTribe is ready to march on the palace with blazing torches.
I get it, actually. I’ve often thought that those two controls are a vital part of feedback. As the car rushes towards a corner it becomes somehow expansive, but then as you brake and select a lower gear, it sort of gathers itself up and becomes smaller, like a cat preparing to pounce. But now I’ve decided I prefer paddles.
I’m in the lucky position of owning cars with both. But these days, when I’m driving the manual, I feel almost affronted. You want me to do that myself? With that ridiculous stick thing? You want me to interrupt and then reconnect the drive? With my leg? Don’t be daft.
Paddles are just better. It’s still about changing gear, and when is still up to you, which is what matters. But now it’s all in the fingertips, which is the true conduit for our understanding of the tactile world, and so the experience is purer. It’s why motorcycles are so satisfying: the controls requiring the greatest sensitivity – throttle, clutch, and front brake – are in your hands.
Put it this way. If you blindfolded yourself to heighten the pleasure of discovering the subtleties in the curvature of your loved one’s buttocks, you wouldn’t then do it with your foot.
One day, pretty soon, the manual gearbox will fade away. No-one will actually give a toss. And then, when we’re all driving electrically, the gearbox will disappear completely. No-one will give a toss about that, either. Move on.