Call it a love affair that began prenatally. I was born mere hours after my mom finished helping my dad install a Hurst floor shifter in his ’55 Chevy. Later, I remember at the age of four asking Dad why he pushed on the pedal every time he moved the lever between the bucket seats of our ’68 VW dune buggy. “That’s the clutch,” he told me. “I have to do that every time I want to change gears with the stick shift.”
And so the fascination began. Shifting gears was fun, looked cool and sounded even cooler when you really wound up the revs. And in my first car, a 1976 Chevrolet Chevette, a manual transmission was mandatory to wring out what little performance its 70-bhp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder could muster. I still recall the day Dad took me out in it for my first driving test. I got in, took off with no problems and shifted up and down the gears with nary a gnash or a grind. He shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d been studying his technique for years.
Now we come to the year 2010. The ability to drive a car equipped with a manual transmission is becoming a dying art. The sales numbers tell the story: In 1985, according to Ward’s Communications, 22.4% of all vehicles sold in the United States came with a manual transmission. By 2007, the number had plummeted to 7.7%.
A quick check of vehicles for sale on AOL Autos tells a similar story. Of the 4,391,747 vehicles recently listed for sale, only 241,560 — or 5.5% — came with a manual.
The reasons for this situation are many. First, driver’s education classes simply aren’t teaching students how to drive a manual. We spoke with Eric Tunell at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, perhaps the most well-known and highly regarded performance driving schools in the country, to get his perspective.
“With the teen drivers who attend our programs, their family car doesn’t have a manual transmission, so they don’t need to learn,” he explained. “We also find that parents are mainly concerned with the safety of their teen driver and a manual is one more thing to distract them from focusing on driving.”
That is not to say that none of the teens who attend Bondurant classes are uninterested in the art of self-shifting. “A significant number really want to know the ins and outs of driving a manual transmission,” Tunell said. “What we emphasize at Bondurant is that ultimately it’s not about the car; it’s about the driver. Getting them training over and above what a basic driver’s ed course offers is essential.”
Another reason is fuel economy. In the past, manual transmissions got better fuel economy than automatics. Improvements in automatic transmission design, however, has helped them equal the fuel economy numbers of manuals, or at least come very close.
Modern traffic conditions have also helped contribute to the manual’s demise. In today’s stop-and-start traffic, the constant clutch-and-shift action is tiring. Combine that with the creaking knees of the aging baby boomer population and it’s no wonder manual transmissions are going the way of the dodo.
That doesn’t mean we have to like it, though. For the serious driver, piloting a car with a manual transmission is a badge of honor. Having control over your ride carries an appeal that may well go back to the time when man first rode astride a horse. That sort of intimate control over your steed is heady stuff, and a feeling not easily conceded. The conviction that the driver knows best also comes into play: an automatic transmission can’t see that just down the road is a decreasing radius turn that’s going to require you to downshift a gear or two so that you can launch yourself smartly out of the turn.
Then there is the pride one takes in a perfectly timed two-three upshift, wringing it out to the redline and listening to the symphony of pumping pistons and whirring camshafts, or perhaps mastering the black art of heel-and-toe shifting and precisely matching revs on a downshift as you drift into a corner.
Perhaps it is because, in a world that seems increasingly out of control, in the driver’s seat you are in complete control, and with a manual transmission and an open road to the horizon, that is as much as we can hope for these days.