For all you gearheads out there

Hands up if you can drive stick — or, as they say in the UK, manual shift.

I learned how to drive on an automatic, and passed my driver’s test in a 1968 Ford station wagon the size of Battlestar Galactica. (Really. It was “Seafoam Green.”) A couple of years later my mom taught me to drive a manual shift. My baby sister has never forgiven me for showing up in the middle of that driving lesson… to pick her up from junior high. I mean, it was seventh grade. And she had to be seen in the car while her uncoordinated sister took an ungodly number of minutes to make it out of the parking lot, jerking and stalling and rolling toward the buses while trying frantically to restart the engine, in front of everybody.

The 1966 Mustang I drove for ten years was a straight six automatic. It was still cool, cooler than anything invented in the history of humanity, even on the day the engine had an aneurysm in Los Angeles traffic on my way to a crucial deposition.

The Husband always drove stick shifts. His Toyota pickup ended up with almost 300,000 miles on the odometer. After Yota retired, we drove a series of manual shift cars for years.

The daughter and older son passed their British driving tests in an automatic. Which means they got Automatic licences. That’s the only kind of car they could legally drive. (Upside: the licences are good until they turn seventy. My son’s expires in 2060.) Then we got a Mini Cooper. It’s manual shift. My younger son learned to drive on it, and passed his test in a manual — so he has a licence to drive both manual and automatic. Which, of course, convinced his older brother to retake his driver’s test so he could drive the Mini too.

The Daughter can legally drive the Mini as well, because she has a California license. And let’s not speak of the day she learned how to do that, with Mom and both brothers in the car. It was unkind of me to subject us all to that experience. Sorry, honey.

Driving stick is fun. Of course it is. The video above simply proves it. But apparently 90% of American cars are now automatics. Without the ability to jam in the clutch, slam the stick forward, pop the clutch and floor the gas pedal, what will future action movies — and generations of teenagers — do for thrills?

The children! Won’t somebody think of the children?!

25 responses to “For all you gearheads out there

  1. I love, love manual shift! Don’t get much chance to use it, but I like knowing that I can do it, right- or left-handed, any time the need arises. I’ll never forget my father taking me out on the hill behind our house and making me stop and go, stop and go, until I no longer panicked as the car began to roll backwards. I’ve driven cars, vans, and trucks. Next, a race car! Here in Sao Paulo, Tom is driving a stick for the week. Rarely gets out of second gear, because of the traffic. Not so much fun that way. Need to be able to climb through the gears in a hurry; power to the people!

  2. Stacy McKitrick

    I learned on an automatic, but the first car I bought was a stick – and I had no idea how to drive it home! That was a challenge! I still owned that car when I married my husband, who had a Datsun 280Z (stick, of course).

    But I’m raising my kids RIGHT. I taught both kids how to drive on a stick (I left the actual driving lessons to my husband). My son prefers the stick. My daughter, not so much, but she’s forced to use one, since she likes to borrow our truck – a lot!

  3. The year I took Driver’s Training, they decided to add a stick-shift vehicle to the fleet. I got it. My driving instructor happened to be the principal of the school. We drove with partners. My partner got to drive in town. I was only allowed to drive out in the country because I almost put the car through a businesses plate glass window.

    And, we were at a 4 way stop as a different school district than mine was let out for the day. Needless to say, this intersection was crazy busy. The instructor talked very calmly to me, but, I kept stalling the car. So, the three other ways would go. I would stall again. The three other ways would go. I literally stalled the car probably 10 times and traffic is backing up behind me and people are pissed and shaking their heads at me with disgust….I started to panic. So, I was determined I was making it through this intersection and I hit the gas and let off the clutch. We jerked back so hard, all of the instructor/principal’s books came flying back into his chest and we screeched and I left tire marks that were there all through the next year.

    I made it through! And me and my partner were laughing so hard! The instructor/principal said, “I have to take points off for attitude.” and we immediately sobered up. Until I look in the rear-view mirror and my friend is in the back seat with her hand slapped over her mouth rolling around in the seat. I bust a gut laughing and so did the instructor.

    I am currently driving a stick-shift Toyota. And yes, I’m good at it.

  4. Still miss the fun of driving a stick on the mini-yellow Honda Civic toy-car, circa 1980, that I inherited from the parents. Thought I’d arrived when I could start it on a dime on the hills of San Francisco (well, almost — with the help of the emergency brake). Made sure my sons learned to drive a manual transmission. Both still do, so some of us are making sure that the skill doesn’t die out completely with this generation!

  5. I’d always driven a manual and remember my first time in an automatic. Nobody told me not to use my left foot on the brake and I did an emergency stop when I just intended to brake gently.

    In NZ the majority of the cars are automatics, so that’s what I’m driving now, but happy enough with either.

  6. In 1978, my newlywed husband taught me to drive a manual in a Datsun B210 on the streets of Tucson. It was the kind of ‘forged in fire’ experience that either makes or breaks a marriage. We’re still together 34 years and 11 manual vehicles later.

  7. I learned in a 1970 VW bug, and then progressed to a three-in-the-tree 1964 Rambler. Loved the Rambler, except when the seat went back and I couldn’t get it adjusted! Try shifting three-in-a-tree and working the pedals when you’re holding yourself up on the steering wheel!

    • I know how to drive three on the tree too. My girlfriend had a piss green Nova with that and she taught me how to do it.

      We had some guys following us and my friend told me to lose them. Well, when you are new at shifting, it’s a pretty slow and awkward chase. Missing the gear, revving the motor, crawling around corners in limbo gear. But we looked hot!

    • Ann, did your parents know their four-year-old was out driving?

      Dana Jean, if you don’t use that chase in a scene, I will.

      • Meg, when I was four, I was working the pedals. I didn’t get to drive until I was seven!

      • It’s yours. It was really quite funny. I felt like I was going FAST! But, they stayed right on our bumper — I’m sure they thought it was pretty funny. The rest of the story is — since I couldn’t lose them, we pulled into a grocery story parking lot. They pulled up next to us and said, “hey, next time you try to lose someone, go faster and don’t use your signals.” And then they drove off.

        Yeah. They wanted us.

  8. susanintoronto

    So, doesn’t anyone else call it Standard? Maybe it’s just a Canajin thing. I’ve never driven anything but, and I’m dreading the day the automotive industry decides standard is too esoteric and starts charging more to install it as an “extra”.

  9. Susan, I think you might be right. I call it standard, too. My parents didn’t own an automatic for some decades, so I learned on a standard (little 1978 Honda Civic wagon). I will never forget my first attempt, just up the street from home. Once I finally got the car moving, I was faced with the necessity of coordinating the movements of 3 of my limbs while directing the vehicle somewhere. It took its own diagonal path toward the ditch on the other side of the road and I remember my mother shouting “Turn! Turn!” and me shrieking, “which way?!!” I stalled it before we landed in said ditch. My first car (grad school) was a robin’s egg blue 1980 Datsun 210 (not as cool as the B210), standard of course, named Rosalind. I’ve owned one automatic and found that it offended my control-freak nature to let the car do its own shifting.

  10. Meg, I posted this on Facebook and had a pile of comments. Nothing brings out the fans like a stick shift discussion. (And, can you call it standard if it no longer is?)

  11. I’m definitely a fan of manual transmissions (my preferred way of describing it, or just “a stick shift”) too. My first experience with using a clutch and shifting was with dirt bikes off-road in late elementary school. I remember being scolded by my father while riding in the back seat of the family ’66 Chevy Impala wagon (the only new vehicle my father ever purchased, and the vehicle he drove until he stopped driving nearly 40 years later) for making engine sounds with shifting while he was trying to listen to the wagon’s 2-speed automatic.

    My first car in high school, a ten-year-old ’63 Ford Fairlane, was an automatic. But, every vehicle I purchased after that until recently was a stick. I, too, considered myself to have arrived when I was comfortable driving a stick on the hills of San Francisco when I lived there for several years after college. Of course, that Subaru wagon’s “hill-holder clutch” feature came in handy. And, in that situation, there is no shame in using the emergency brake trick – gravity does not make exceptions for a clutch.

    Notable cars which I’ve owned and down-shifted going into a corner include an ’87 Nissan 300Z, A ’96 Audi A4, and a ’74 Triumph TR-6, but the list includes the Subaru and a couple of Nissan Maximas (once marketed as the “4-door Sports Car”). And then there was that memorable drive in a girlfriend’s dad’s Porsche 911 on the curvy back roads near college in Davis, California following a friend’s memorable 21st birthday celebration.

    These days, economics and the juggling of coffee mugs, cell phones, etc. have forced me to accept an automatic. But, I still turn the overdrive on and off, or shift down into a lower gear to slow down at the end of a freeway off-ramp.

    Next gearhead badge of honor to discuss: backing a trailer. I can, and I’m damned proud of it.

  12. I learned to drive stick in a 1970 citrus green metallic Chevy Nova – a straight-six. My first time out I was 15 and it was bit of an adventure. It involved me popping the clutch coming out of a corner, giving it too much gas. I froze. My father legged over to slam on the brakes pinning my foot on the gas flooring it.

    The car was screaming, careening wildly down a residential street with me wrestling for control of the wheel with my father. We leave the road onto the grass. Somehow we piloted the out-of-control car between a chain-link fence and a telephone pole with no more than a couple of inches to spare on either side.

    We bounced out onto an adjoining street cross-wise; I free my foot and join my father in standing on the brake. We skid across the road onto someone’s front lawn and stop just inches from pinning a mature maple tree dead-on. The car stalls.

    I get out of the car shaking uncontrollably. My dad is all composed and says, “Get back in the car. We’re not done yet. Start the car, back into the street and let’s try again.” It worked. I calmed down and drove without incident for another 30 minutes. I eventually got the hang of it.

  13. Given all these adventures, I think we should write a screenplay for a screwball comedy / action thriller: “Driving School.”

  14. I don’t think anything impresses me much more than someone who can drive in London traffic on the wrong side of the road! But someone who has the ability to drive a stick shift there and that person is right up there among my idols like Danica Patrick. I love cars. I know its ecologically incorrect but it depresses the hell out of me to think one day there will be no more combustion engines or cool cars and we’ll all be driving those little ridiculous crap box cars powered by giant Eveready batteries with a top speed of 65 mph.. I had a 64 1/2 Mustang. Pearl white with baboon butt red interior. It was sweet.

    • In London, driving on the wrong side means you’re on the right. 🙂

      But yes, driving stick in London traffic is an admirable skill. My son does it regularly. In a Mini Cooper, which helps. The people who deserve medals are lorry drivers — truckers maneuvering big rigs around roads that were created for horse carts 2,000 years ago.

  15. Hill holder clutch, eh Ron? Ah yes, the greatest challenge of driving standard. Balancing while stopped for a light near the top of a hill, sans hill-holder crutch. I mean clutch). Funny how everyone seems to know the intersections to avoid. In Toronto’s east end, it’s Fallingbrook at Kingston Rd. fyi.

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