Why Manuals Matter

  • February 15, 2024

The manual transmission has become something of a rarity, even in vehicles that used to commonly come standard – play on words intended – with them, such as economy cars, sports cars and trucks. This was so for several reasons, the chief ones being (as regards economy cars and trucks) manuals cost less than automatics, which were once extra-cost optional equipment. And because they offered the driver more control, as well as fun -which people who drove sports cars tend to value.

Almost no economy cars even offer them anymore. There is only one new truck (the ’24 Toyota Tacoma) that’s still available with a manual.

The latest Corvette is automatic-only.

Readers of this column know why this is happening. It is the result of a combination of compliance pressure – it’s easier to program an automatic to do well on the emissions and fuel economy tests new cars are required to pass to be “certified” for sale by the government – and because it’s easier to drive a car that doesn’t require the driver to operate the clutch.

The shifting part is the easy part.

But maybe it should be less-easy to drive a car. More finely, maybe it ought to be harder to learn how to drive a car. So that people do learn how to drive one. Then they might not need “advanced driver assistance technology.” There might be fewer “accidents,” the majority of which are the result of driver error, including not-paying-attention.

Imagine that.

It’s been said that the automatic transmission has done more to undermine the art of driving than any other automotive advancement excepting the electric starter.

Probably so.

At the dawn of the automobile age and all the way through the Model T era, in order to drive a car it was necessary to first start the engine, which was done by hand. Not by turning a key – but by turning the engine over. By hand. Using a crank handle that fit into the front of the engine. It was common for people to break their hands doing this the wrong way (via engine compression kickback, which could cause the crank handle to “snap” back – and snap the bones of the operator’s hand).

The electric starter made it easy for anyone to start a car’s engine and that made it easier for them to drive a car. Assuming, of course, they could shift. And had mastered the art of engaging and disengaging the clutch. Because – at the time – the manual transmission was the only transmission.

Shifting was no easy thing at first – back then – because gears weren’t synchronized in the early manuals; the operator had to know when to shift and how to engage/disengage the clutch in time with the shifting. If he didn’t know how, he’d grind the gears, which was both embarrassing as well as expensive, if done too often.

Transmissions got synchronizers by the ’50s but the clutch was still a manual device that took some work to engage and disengage because hydraulic-assist clutches were still about 30 years in the future.

This was especially so in trucks and high-performance vehicles, which had heavier (larger) clutches to deal with the heavier loads and higher horsepower. In some muscle cars of the ’60s, pushing in the clutch was not unlike doing leg presses at the gym. And smoothly engaging the clutch – without the car almost-stalling or bucking in the process – was not a skill you just had.

It had to be acquired, in the usual way – by doing it until you got good at doing it.

This, arguably, was a good thing. Assuming the desired end result is a good driver. Or at least, a driver who knows how to drive.

Good judgment is, of course, another matter.

But the point stands. A driver who learns to drive something like a ’69 Chevelle SS 396 with a four speed – or even an old pick-up with a three on the tree – is a driver who is almost certainly a better driver, in terms of skill (if not judgment) than a person who learned how to drive by getting in and putting it in Drive. The latter taking almost no skill at all, which – arguably – fosters overconfidence in abilities one hasn’t developed yet. But because it feels easy – because it’s easier to not pay as much attention to what you’re doing – the driver does not feel uneasy about driving in ways (and at speeds) that are probably above whatever limited skill he has.

If you are someone who did learn to drive an old truck with a three on the tree at 65 MPH you are probably someone who developed both the physical driving skills and the mental habits that make it much safer for you to drive a modern car with an automatic at 85 MPH.

Or at any speed.

If you never developed the skills – and mental habits – that were necessary to have in order to be able to drive an old truck with a three-on-the-tree (or even an old Beetle with four on the floor) you may be able to drive an automatic-equipped modern car 85 MPH – because anyone can.

But you probably ought not to be doing it.

. . .

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