The demise of manual transmission in cars touches a very personal nerve with me. I own a 1946 MG TC and I’m damned if I’m going to give up driving it just because the world has moved on. That’s why an article sent to me by a close friend prompted this blog. Thank you Barbara.
A stick shift can be a pain, sometimes. Clutching and shifting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is hard. In my case, no power steering, with 19” wheels and an enormous, relative to today’s cars, steering wheel, plus a non-synchromesh first gear, and debatable synchromesh on the other gears, means few other people can drive my car, which is a good thing. I can’t hold a delicious “slushie” in my hand while I’m driving, which is also a good thing.
I learned to drive on a manual transmission stick shift: Automatic transmissions hardly existed then, and I love the feeling that I am operating my car, not just aiming it. I even made my son learn to drive on a stick shift, much to his chagrin at the time, although now, he appreciates it. Just as well, since he will own the MG one of these days.
In the year 2000, in the United States, more than 15 percent of new and used cars sold by the auto retailer CarMax came with manual transmission stick shifts; by 2020, that figure had dropped to 2.4 percent. Among the hundreds of new car models for sale in the U.S. this year, 2022, only about 30 can be purchased with a manual transmission. Electric cars, which now account for more than 5 percent of car sales, don’t even have gearboxes. There are rumors that Mercedes-Benz plans to retire manual transmissions entirely by the end of next year, all around the world. Volkswagen is said to be dropping its own manual transmissions by 2030, and other brands are sure to follow. Stick shifts have long been a niche market in the U.S. Soon they’ll be extinct.
I always smile when I am reminded of the true story that car rental companies in Europe used to charge almost double the rates for automatic transmission cars based purely on the reality that American tourists couldn’t drive manual transmission stick shifts.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. For years, the “stick’s” decline has been publicly lamented. The magazine Car and Driver ran a “Save the Manuals” campaign in 2010, insisting that drivers who “learned to operate the entire car” would enjoy driving more, and do it better.
Shifting gears yourself isn’t just a source of pleasure, or a way to hone your driving skills, it has many practical uses. A manual transmission car is less likely to be stolen if fewer people know how to drive it. It’s cheaper to buy (or at least it used to be), and it once had lower operation and maintenance costs. You can push-start a “manual” if the battery dies, so you’re less likely to get stuck somewhere; and you can use the stick for engine braking, which can reduce brake wear, and make descending hills easier and safer. But the manual transmission’s chief appeal derives from the feeling it imparts to the driver: a sense, whether real or imagined, that he or she is in control. I should add here, the most important factor, it’s fun.
According to the best-selling author Matthew Crawford, attending to that sense of control is not just an affectation. Humans develop tools that assist in transportation, such as domesticated horses, horses and carriages, bicycles and cars—and then extend their awareness to those tools. The driver “becomes one” with the machine. The rider fuses with the horse.
Crawford argues that this cognitive enhancement is possible only when you can interpret the components of the tool you’re operating. As a rider must sense the horse’s gait, so must a driver feel the engine’s torque. But modern automotive technology tends to inhibit that sensation. Power steering, electronic fuel injection, anti-lock braking systems, and, yes, automatic transmissions obstruct the “natural bonds between action and perception,” Crawford writes. They inhibit the operator’s ability to interpret the car’s state and capacities through a healthy feedback loop of action and information. To illustrate the point, he tells a story about test-driving a 400-horsepower Audi RS3 with all the options, including a paddle-shifting automatic transmission. It was powerful and capable, he says, but “I could not connect with the car.” Others have said that driving today feels more like a computer game.
The decoupling of humans from their driving machines will accelerate in years to come. If the automatic transmission made the manual transmission stick shift a monument to lost control, the autonomous (self-driving) vehicle aims to do the same for steering wheels. Car passengers can move on to other things. Like people on a train, they might settle into a book or take a nap or open up an Excel spreadsheet.
To lament the end of the manual transmission is to eulogize much more than just shifting gears. When the manual transmission dies, we’ll lose something bigger and more important: the comfort of knowing that there is one essential, everyday device still out there that you can actually feel when you operate it. Even if you don’t own a stick-shift car, or if you don’t know how to drive one, its mere existence signals that a more embodied technology is possible—that it once was common, even—and that humans and machines really can commune. The stick-shift is a form of hope, but it’s one we’ll soon have left behind, except for me that is. I’m driving my MG until my son decides I’m senile and takes it away from me. I don’t care what any insensitive government official might dictate between now and then. I’m still going to drive my manual transmission stick-shift relic of better days.