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Stick It To The Man


I remember the call like it came just last week, because it did.
“Katrina, I have a new car.”
“How exciting!”
“It…it has a stick shift.”
“Even better!”
“You don’t understand! I don’t know how to drive a stick. I need you to teach me.”
“You’ve made me a very happy woman, grasshopper.”

So it came to be that I spent the next evening lurching around a church parking lot in the passenger seat of my friend’s hand-me-down Saturn.
“Okay, you want to imagine the two pedals like objects moving past each other in opposite directions, and when they’re on the same plane, let go of the–” jolt. shudder. “Hit the clutch! Clutch when that happens!” clunk. “It’s all right. Just relax and try again. Everyone stalls when they’re learning.”
She relaxed her white-knuckle grip on the gearshift and glared at me balefully. “I don’t get why you think this is so great. Automatics are a million times easier. You’re the only person we know who even knows how to drive a stick.” She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders to the wheel again. “Also, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, you’re a terrible teacher.”


Aspersions cast upon my teaching skills aside, she had a good point. I’m a rarity among my peers in that I can take the Mysterious Third Pedal and make it my bitch.
It didn’t used to be this way. There are legends about days gone by when everyone knew how to operate a manual transmission. I’ve even heard it said that there’s a magical fantasyland called “Yurr-up” where most cars still employ the stick. Such imaginations people have!
Seriously, though, why did Americans stop buying manuals? As this very impressive chart I made my own self illustrates, even as recently as 13 years ago, a quarter of all cars sold in America were driven stickwise.
stick shift graph.jpg

As you can see, nowadays the stick apparently is only purchased by a core group of gearheads and Luddite weirdos who think automatic transmissions beam information about their gear changes to the FBI. (That’s crazy, of course; it’s the NSA that’s interested in shifting trends.)
There’s no good reason for this, of course. Driving a stick puts you in closer contact with the car and with the road. You learn to feel what the car wants and give it what it needs for optimum performance. A manual costs less than a comparable automatic, and you get better fuel economy.
On top of all that, it’s just cool. When I drive an automatic, I feel like I’m gliding along in a transport pod. When I’m in a car with a stick, engaged in the dance of clutch-shift-gas-clutch-shift-brake, I am piloting the shuttlecraft. (Obviously, in either car, I am a giant dork.)

My friend from way at the beginning of this post – who several days later can now get all the way around the block without stalling – might be surprised to learn that even I, her shifting guru, have new tricks to learn. We’ve had a 2008 Mazda Miata around the office these past few days, and it was my first time behind the wheel of a manual six-speed. The unfamiliar pattern (Reverse in the upper left? What is this devil machine?!), short throw (You mean I don’t have to wrestle it to the ground and drag it into third?) and exciting new-to-me gear (I’ve spent my life in five-speeds thinking, “This is great, but there should be more shifting!”) had me grinding my teeth and cursing a blue streak while I groped for the proper gear.
I hadn’t had that much fun being utterly frustrated in years. I can’t believe everyone else is missing out.

1 Comment

  • bob| November 6, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    “When I drive an automatic, I feel like I’m gliding along in a transport pod. When I’m in a car with a stick, engaged in the dance of clutch-shift-gas-clutch-shift-brake, I am piloting. . .”
    ——Precisely. It’s about engagement in what you’re doing. Americans are too willing to zone out passively and inattentively, no matter what they’re doing. Attention spans are contracting because of the internet, because of TV, because of choppy school texts broken up with politically correct sidebars, block paragraphs, and hyper-graphic formatting. Material chores that require perseverence are engaged in reluctantly or consigned to immigrants. There’s a class thing, too, as mid-level, mid-IQ white collars look down on “mere” workmen, in this “information” age (information: raw, unsorted, data, in no way equivalent to perspective or wisdom).
    ——When you’re in the physical world, get intimate with it, and when in the intellectual world, concentrate long enough to think a complete thought. But the postmodernist, neither-here-nor-there, no-hard-edge, airbag/cocoon lifestyle is just experiential mediocrity and passive distractibility. Buy real cars, low to the ground, and DRIVE them with engagement, America. Use the auto-tranny SUVs and crossovers for RPG target practice. Get in the game of experiencing real life.

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