It was (and still is) a mystical experience, hearing the sweet mechanical whine of rising RPMs as the fuel hit the engine just as the clutch blended the power out to the wheels, watching the gearshift move back and forth through the slots, magically hitting just the right gear to catch some engine braking down a steep hill, boost the power for a winding ascending curve, or slip into a deep overdrive for an extended traverse through the countryside. From the the 1989 Honda CRX Si in which I learned to drive in 1989 through to the present, my cars (and motorcycles) have always had the Manual.
So you can imagine the way I feel about the current state of affairs, where in the United States less than ten percent of new vehicles are being ordered with the classic 5-or-6-speed. In fact, many of the best-selling US-specific models don’t even offer a manual option, because there aren’t enough drivers who even know how to use them. Instead, vehicles are competing by adding ever-more cup holders, bubbly exterior styling and little automatic features that do everything from closing the doors and trunk for you to managing your collection of strollers and diapers.
These vehicles are like junk food purchased from a convenience store. They are expertly engineered and extremely convenient, but in the long run they are sapping the health from the art of motoring, because they are taking the skill out of it. Because of this trend in the car industry, most people don’t even learn to drive a manual, which in my book means they don’t know how to drive at all.
Even more ridiculous and tragic is when I see my own friends buying automatic transmissions in cars where I know a manual is available. The Honda Civic and Fit, the Subaru Legacy, the Toyota Corolla. These are not cars meant to be outfitted with automatics! Why would you pay more to make the car shittier in every measurable way? There are only two lame excuses – you don’t know how to drive one yet (so learn, by buying a manual and having a friend drive you home in it then teach you) – or you think you drive too much in rush-hour traffic (#1 – manuals are fun in all conditions. #2 – fix your lifestyle immediately so you don’t drive in stop-and-go traffic, addressed by other articles here).
Let’s be clear: I’m a family man, and I’ve got a wife and young boy myself. Like many people, my wife had been raised on automatics, but I helped her break free from this cancerous legacy by teaching her how to drive a real car early on in our relationship. Before committing to marriage. Even back then, I foresaw the difficulties that would arise if we had to share a fleet of vehicles for life, and only one of us could actually drive. An entire lifetime of silly automatics would have to be purchased – just because of one missing skill! So, within a week of that first awkward stuttering start down the road, she was impressively smooth on the manual. Today she has skills like a rally driver. I would advise younger manual drivers to do the same to for their potential mates while they still have the chance.
There are many other benefits to manual transmission expertise besides preserving your motoring expertise. You also get to keep a lot more of your money. An automatic transmission adds about a thousand dollars to the price of a new car. How long does it take you to save up a grand? I’ll bet it’s longer than it would take to become proficient on a manual transmission, which for most people happens with under 8 hours of on-road practice. Over a lifetime of driving, you will save yourself thousands upon thousands of dollars.
Selecting the manual also shaves close to 100 pounds off the weight of your car. Most cars have a power-to-weight ratio of about 20 lbs/horsepower. So you are effectively adding 5 horsepower to your vehicle by unhooking the equivalent of a large bag of concrete mix from the undercarriage. A lighter car also handles better and gets better gas mileage. With an understanding of internal combustion engines, you can keep the engine under higher load and lower RPMs during parts of your drive when an automatic would automatically go into a torque-slipping downshift . You are also liberated from the towtruck or the jumper cables if you ever leave your lights on in the parking lot and return to a dead battery, thanks to the “Bump Start” technique which is possible in manuals but not automatics. I’m not sure how many times I have thankfully bump-started manual cars and motorcycles over the years, but it is surely over a hundred.
You also get longevity. Automatic transmissions, with their incredible mass of gears, fluids, and computers, tend to wear out or malfunction before the rest of the car, and cost thousands to replace. A manual, if driven properly and maintained only very occasionally, can last a lifetime. In 2005, a friend of mine lent me his 1984 Nissan pickup truck. It still worked perfectly and the loan period ended up being almost six years. Last month I returned it to him, still in perfect working order, and shifting just as smoothly as the day it rolled off the line 27 years ago.
So it’s time for us all to celebrate manual transmission cars. If you already drive one, congratulations! If you don’t, be sure that the next car you purchase is manual if at all possible. Electric cars and Priuses don’t come with manuals, and the model of minivan I use for construction was unfortunately never made with one, but luckily the most appropriate cars for YOU out there are mostly available with manuals. Fuel-efficient Honda, Toyota, and Subaru wagons and hatchbacks, bought on the used market, with manual transmissions. Ahh.. proper motoring, done in moderation.
But beyond all of these practical benefits, the Manual Transmission makes me happy because I can already see my own son starting to watch me shift as we drive, and copying the motions as he sits in the driver’s seat shifting himself when the car is parked. Another real driver is in the making.