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On the flagship podcast this week, James Lileks talked about how young people who yearn for driverless cars will miss out on the freedom of driving oneself, and made a brief aside about the disappearance of manual transmissions. Growing up in the early ’70s, most of us learned to drive in big sedans with automatics, but after the oil embargo suddenly there were scads of Japanese cars with precise little manual transmissions.

It helped that the early Japanese imports had horrendously bad automatic transmissions and not much torque. So we became converts. We still own several cars with manual transmissions, although they are harder to find than ever. As long ago as 2001, we had to go 300 miles to find and purchase a CR-V with a manual.

Our cars range from my 1999 F250 (manuals no longer offered), which has a giant shifter rod and a cue-ball shift knob (special order); to the ’73 VW Thing, with its ubiquitous air-cooled VW transmission; to my 2017 GT350, which has an incredible modern six-speed Tremec that is the smoothest thing ever. I’m often tempted to buy an aftermarket knob but the factory one is pretty good.

We have one automatic transmission (Ford Escape) which is much preferred for long trips and slogging through stop and go traffic. I know that modern autos are very good, and that paddle shifters are in fact faster on the track than old-school manuals, but the joy of rowing through the gears will be missed.

When I was a new firefighter, we had an old GMC pumper with a three-speed high/low transmission; becoming proficient at shifting that truck was a joy. All of our fire trucks have automatics now, and we don’t replace clutches like we used to.

So feel bad for those young people who will never, ever get to enjoy three on the tree.

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  1. John H. Member
    John H.Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Even though the 2020 models were on the lot, I bought a new 2019 Honda Civic last year because it had a manual transmission. Could be the last. Resale value may be nil. I don’t care. Meanwhile it is as they say an anti-theft device!

    • #1
    • November 23, 2020, at 8:39 AM PST
    • 15 likes
  2. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr

    John H. (View Comment):

    Even though the 2020 models were on the lot, I bought a new 2019 Honda Civic last year because it had a manual transmission. Could be the last. Resale value may be nil. I don’t care. Meanwhile it is as they say an anti-theft device!

    Car and Driver list of all manuals available in the US: https://www.caranddriver.com/features/g20734564/manual-transmission-cars/

    • #2
    • November 23, 2020, at 8:45 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  3. Preston Storm Coolidge

    I learned to drive my parent’s 5-speed Chevy truck by rolling down the gravel road with dad in the passenger seat (beer in hand I’m sure) telling me “don’t kill me”.

    He’s never been the best, most patient teacher.

    • #3
    • November 23, 2020, at 8:45 AM PST
    • 5 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  4. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr

    When Mrs Tex was a pilot student in the AF (CBM 83-08), there were four Italian AF students in her class. While the US trainees all wanted Euro sports cars with manuals, the Italians went all in on an old station wagon with an automatic, which they thought was the coolest thing ever. Tonino, Fabio and the other two happily traveled all over us US in that land barge. 

    • #4
    • November 23, 2020, at 8:49 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  5. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I was born in the early ’80s and have never driven manual transmission. It wasn’t a choice, really. I just never had a sportscar or an offroad vehicle.

    • #5
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:00 AM PST
    • 3 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  6. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member

    I learned on a ’63 GMC 3/4 ton pickup. The extra incentive to get it right was that I drove it mostly in a pasture, and if the tires spin at all due to letting out the clutch too fast, you spun down into the sandy soil and had to dig yourself out. The fact that it also had a 350 six cylinder and produced nothing but torque. That made the ’64 Impala with a “three on the tree” that I learned to drive on roads, seem much more forgiving. Then was the ’70 Dodge Super Bee that could lay rubber in all four gears. By contrast, the 2014 Jeep Wrangler with the six speed manual, I now drive, sometimes just seems like a lot of extra work. Maybe I’m getting old.

    • #6
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:12 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) Coolidge

    I like the big red button on your ‘Stang console. Does that launch a missile?

    • #7
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:24 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  8. Chris Oler Coolidge
    Chris OlerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    I was born in 1980 and have never driven manual transmission. It wasn’t a choice, really. I just never had a sportscar or an offroad vehicle. 

    I’m just 7 years older than Aaron, but my first three cars were manual. The first one was not a choice (’83 VW Rabbit, pictured, though mine had burgundy leather seats), the other two were. Unfortunately I don’t have one in the garage now, but that will change. Since part of our business involves travel to far flung places, I want my wife to learn a manual transmission. Once you have that skill, you can drive anything.

    • #8
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:27 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. JoelB Member

    My wife’s car is a stick-shift Sonic. A couple winters ago I had to drive down from my MIL’s house on top of a West Virginia ridge to the town in the valley during blizzard-like conditions. The road is steep with sharp curves and drop-offs at the shoulder. I started off in my 2WD automatic Fusion and only got a little way before I realized it was not going to work. I turned around and went back for the Sonic because I felt more in-control under those conditions. The Sonic got me to town and back without incident. I consider a stick-shift 2WD subcompact to be the next best thing to a four wheel drive in snow.

    • #9
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:27 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  10. iWe Coolidge
    iWeJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I have owned quite a few sticks in my life: in the UK, a Volvo Estate Wagon, a 1976 F250 pickup, a 1978 Subaru, several Volkswagen vans. Our current stickshift is a 2006 Infinity G35. SO much fun to drive.

    • #10
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:29 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  11. Chris Oler Coolidge
    Chris OlerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    JoelB (View Comment):
    I consider a stick-shift 2WD subcompact to be the next best thing to a four wheel drive in snow.

    Agree completely. Mine seemed to climb out of anything, then stay on top. Winter was easy.

    • #11
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:30 AM PST
    • Like
  12. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr

    DonG (Biden is compromised) (View Comment):

    I like the big red button on your ‘Stang console. Does that launch a missile?

    That’s the start button. On this model with the Voodoo engine (official Ford name) it sounds like releasing the hounds of hell.

     

     

    • #12
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:31 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  13. Captain French Moderator

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):

    I learned on a ’63 GMC 3/4 ton pickup. The extra incentive to get it right was that I drove it mostly in a pasture, and if the tires spin at all due to letting out the clutch too fast, you spun down into the sandy soil and had to dig yourself out. The fact that it also had a 350 six cylinder and produced nothing but torque. That made the ’64 Impala with a “three on the tree” that I learned to drive on roads, seem much more forgiving. Then was the ’70 Dodge Super Bee that could lay rubber in all four gears. By contrast, the 2014 Jeep Wrangler with the six speed manual, I now drive, sometimes just seems like a lot of extra work. Maybe I’m getting old.

    My first car was a 1967 Chev Malibu 327 with a four on the floor. Fast forward fifty years and my daily drive is a 1999 Toyota Tacoma PU with a five speed manual. It has 235k miles, but my mechanic assures me it has a lot of miles left. It is a pain to drive in stop and go traffic, but, being retired, I can generally avoid that. I’ll keep driving it as long as I have use for the pick up bed, i.e. until my kids put me in the nursing home.

    • #13
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:33 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  14. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge

    Tex,

    I found an Audi A4 with a manual transmission in 2018. The purchasing process was a long ordeal which shall not be recounted here, but I did end up getting more car for my money. Manuals were available, but pretty hard to find. The dealer let me know on several occasions that he was getting enquiries about the car if our deal fell through (I had already made the deal, so I do not think it was a sales tactic). Surprisingly, there were manual transmission Honda Accord Sport models available at the same time. I purchased the A4 with the idea that I would hit the road after retirement, but the Wuhan got in the way of that plan. I love driving it, but it lets me know how poor of a driver I really am. I feel like I should take a performance driving class to get the most out of it.

    I learned on a 1972 orange convertible VW Beetle which I used at college. I taught my girlfriend to drive a manual in it. Our relationship survived the experience, so I know it was destined to last. Forty years later, we are still married. She loves to drive manual transmissions also.

    Fun question to ponder. How many college students can you fit into a 1972 convertible VW Beetle?

    Answer will be provided upon request.

    Tim

    • #14
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:34 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  15. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSulJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    In a way, many modern automatics are, practically speaking, just computer-controlled manual shifters, especially when you get to sports cars. They don’t always need the old slushbox torque converters, and instead use computer controlled clutches that can shift more quickly, and rev-match more easily than we can. My Ford Expedition has a 10-speed automatic brute in it that is a marvel of engineering when it comes to things like towing. My last truck, a Toyota Sequoia, was an older style automatic that required me to take control of the damned thing whenever I got into hills while towing our trailer. The Ford? As long as I put it in towing mode I have rarely needed to touch it even on twisty and steep hills and mountains. That lets me focus on steering and control, making fewer such trips purely white-knuckle drives.

    But I do miss the manuals, and there are only 3 vehicles around now to teach my own kids how to drive stick: my ’73 Vette (idled for the last 3 1/2 years due to lack of time to undertake some significant repairs), my dad’s ’86 Porsche 944 (what I learned on, but now also mostly idled, though in far better shape than my vette), or my in-law’s Nissan Xtera.

    • #15
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:38 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  16. Tex929rr Coolidge
    Tex929rr

    My wife has taught several nieces and nephews on her 93 Samurai (it has an antique plate now). We bought it new in 1993 for a airport car and then bought a new motorcycle the next month that cost $20.00 less than the Samurai with optional A/C. It was a good training car as the low HP and torque made it almost impossible to break anything. Lots of jerky starts and stalls out in the pasture.

    • #16
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:42 AM PST
    • Like
  17. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Is it fair to generalize that manual transmissions are more practical in regions of mountains and snow? 

    Have automatic transmissions improved to a point that manual transmissions are generally recreational? That’s excepting commercial haulers.

    • #17
    • November 23, 2020, at 9:53 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Reagan
    GLDIII Temporarily EssentialJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The wife & I have owned 18 cars since we were a couple.

    Vega’s (2), TR’s (2 a TR4 & TR6), Fiat (1), Trucks (3), Cressida (1), Celica (1) BMW’s (6) Mini’s (2).

    Only 2 had automatics, and only one was by choice. One of the Vega’s had a 3 speed auto. I needed a body for the engine I recently rebuilt in the 71 Vega, which by 1979 had accumulated enough body rot that the unibody was twisting. So $50 got 73 Vega wagon, with a dead engine, which was the only option for two poor college students. The other slush box was in the recently acquired 2018 Tundra. Toyota had stop offering manual transmissions in their big trucks in 2003. I know because that was the reason I bought the middle truck after 270K trouble free miles on the 1985 Toyota mini pickup.

    When I retired my wife’s 2006 BMW sedan, with close to 300K on it, because I was getting tired of finding the most obscure items that were continually plaguing the car’s reliable operations. I asked her “do you want an automatic this time”, because her commute involved a lot of DC beltway Stop and Go, and she whined about that….

    Well you would have thought that I was suggesting to shuffle her off to the “adult living, but never coming back out community”. That precipitated getting her a 2016 Mini wagon with the 6 speed (not so easy to find). She loved that Mini until some texting bimbo hit her head on while she was in a turn lane. Given the gal admitted that she was doing 50 (or more) in a 30 zone, and the county’s attorney was prosecuting her for reckless driving, she managed to get one of those Ambulance lawyers, and so the insurance companies settled to avoid going to a trail and assigned 90% blame to her and 10% to my wife, which raised our rate. I really am not so keen on the direction the legal profession has done to this country.

    The sad thing is that even after a year from the accident she is having ankle issues from the collision, and is still not driving her “new, but used” 2017 replacement Mini wagon. They delayed by 6 months the corrective operation (the Covid back up to “elective surgery) and it has her back in a cast for a few more weeks, but the Dr assures us this time, in another month or so, with PT, she will be drive her clutch again.

    I feel sort of unqualified to get her an automatic if that doesn’t pan out. I sort of like being a luddite. Which also means I need to sell either the 2017 6 speed Mini wagon, or my 2010 AWD BMW 328 6 speed manual wagon (super rare combo). The sad thing is you will never be able to find another BMW manual wagon. They stop making those in 2011, I know I was looking, and had to reach back to get the 2010.

    I wonder what I will do when driverless car are de rigor, and I am not even allowed to drive my own car?

    • #18
    • November 23, 2020, at 10:02 AM PST
    • 3 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  19. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy WeivodaJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tex929rr: I know that modern autos are very good, and that paddle shifters are in fact faster on the track than old school manuals, but the joy of rowing through the gears will be missed.

    Yes. If you are looking for the absolute fastest lap times, a modern dual-clutch automatic with more gears in it will typically be faster than the same car with a manual. But is it as fun? When I buy a performance car, I’m buying it because it’s fun to drive, and if it’s a second or two slower around the track I don’t care. A proper manual transmission just provides a physical pleasure that cannot be replaced.

    Tex929rr: I’m often tempted to buy an aftermarket knob but the factory one is pretty good.

    Sadly, this company no longer exists, but when I got my Mustang in 2010 (2011 model year) I bought a custom shift knob from Grabber Pony. When I say custom, I don’t just mean aftermarket — each one was made to order. You could get them in any of the paint colors that the Mustang used from 2005-2011 and have custom engraving.

    I also installed a short-throw shift kit from Steeda. The factory shifter was already a lot better than the one from my 2000 Corvette, but the Steeda shifter is just heavenly.

    • #19
    • November 23, 2020, at 10:08 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  20. Vince Guerra Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Is it fair to generalize that manual transmissions are more practical in regions of mountains and snow?

    Have automatic transmissions improved to a point that manual transmissions are generally recreational? That’s excepting commercial haulers.

    In my opinion it’s the opposite. The top two variables in maintaining control in snow and ice are tires and speed. I’ve driven in blizzards in an manual Jeep Cherokee, and for about ten years I commuted two hours each day in a manual Ford Ranger. I’ve also driven in blizzards in Saturns (both manual and automatic versions), a Grand Prix, and I currently drive a Suburban and a Ford Focus. In the worst weather the mantra is slow and steady, which means keeping it in third gear for most of the way. Having an automatic to compensate for the speed when passing slow vehicles (such as double tractor trailers that are blowing so much snow your wipers are rendered useless) so that you can focus on steering in and out of the tire grooves is much preferred. Just taking your hand off the wheel to shift for a second could send you into the ditch in that situation.

    My father-in-law was a trucker out of AK the 80’s and 90’s. He has a fleet of vehicles for his heating oil delivery business and he also builds race cars and drag races them all over the U.S. in the summer. I don’t think he’s owned a manual transmission that wasn’t a haul truck since I’ve known him.

    • #20
    • November 23, 2020, at 10:36 AM PST
    • 3 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  21. Full Size Tabby Member

    Tex929rr (View Comment):

    John H. (View Comment):

    Even though the 2020 models were on the lot, I bought a new 2019 Honda Civic last year because it had a manual transmission. Could be the last. Resale value may be nil. I don’t care. Meanwhile it is as they say an anti-theft device!

    Car and Driver list of all manuals available in the US: https://www.caranddriver.com/features/g20734564/manual-transmission-cars/

    I was pleasantly surprised to see that our local (and new) Genesis dealer (Genesis is the upscale Hyundai) actually has in stock a couple of 2021 G70 sedans with manual transmissions.

    For years I drove a couple of Mini Coopers (2005 and 2010 model years), and was disappointed to learn that as of a year or two ago Mini apparently no longer offers the 3 pedal manual at all. Mini seems like the most manual transmission type car there is. I think at one time as many as 40% of new Minis had a 3 pedal manual. 

    • #21
    • November 23, 2020, at 10:44 AM PST
    • 1 like
  22. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White MaleJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):
    I wonder what I will do when driverless car are de rigor, and I am not even allowed to drive my own car?

    You (and I) are old enough that we don’t have to worry about drivers being banned. Full self-driving is still a long way off. 

     

    • #22
    • November 23, 2020, at 10:49 AM PST
    • Like
  23. Full Size Tabby Member

    John H. (View Comment):

    Even though the 2020 models were on the lot, I bought a new 2019 Honda Civic last year because it had a manual transmission. Could be the last. Resale value may be nil. I don’t care. Meanwhile it is as they say an anti-theft device!

    Even over ten years ago in college our son appreciated that people didn’t keep asking to borrow his car, a manual transmission Subaru Outback.

    When he bought his current Toyota Tacoma pickup (I think it’s a 2014) he had to argue with the salesman to get the salesman to order one from the factory because our son wanted manual transmission, which none of the trucks in inventory had. 

    • #23
    • November 23, 2020, at 10:50 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  24. Full Size Tabby Member

    Tex929rr (View Comment):
    93 Samurai (it has an antique plate now)

    A Suzuki Samurai with an “antique auto” license plate is a funny image in my head. 

    • #24
    • November 23, 2020, at 10:58 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  25. Dan Campbell Member

    My dad taught me to drive on a ’47 Willys jeep when I was 11 years old and I have never even looked at an automatic since. From a ’63 Ford pickup to my current ’14 Jeep Wrangler, all my cars have been manual. Not all were off-road or sports cars. I had an ’83 Volvo and an ’88 Saab (I went through a Swedish phase), plus an ’06 Scion that were neither.

    I find I have a lot more road control, especially when braking and speeding up. The total driving experience is just so much better. It forces me to pay more attention to driving because having to shift up or down is much more interactive. I have to plan ahead for maneuvers. 

    And, as John H. said, it’s an anti-theft device. That’s a huge plus right there.

    • #25
    • November 23, 2020, at 10:58 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  26. Vince Guerra Member

    I learned on my step-mom’s 1984 Toyota Supra. The thing had some power as I recall, much more than my 71 Oldsmobile Cutlass, which is why I was always “borrowing” it and my sisters Mazda RX-7 in order to go zipping around L.A. freeways at night, throwing the hammer down to reach 90mph weaving through traffic and listening to my speed tape which started with Aces High by Iron Maiden and continued through songs like Hells Bells by AC DC, Bastille Day by Rush, One by Metallica…

    *Vince blinks* Sorry, I must have gotten lost in the memories there. What was I talking about again?

    • #26
    • November 23, 2020, at 11:03 AM PST
    • 3 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  27. Dr. Jimmy Carter Member
    Dr. Jimmy CarterJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    My first was a truck older than Me, ’71 Chevy 3-toned (the third color being rust). Missing trim, cracked windshield, dash split like shattered glass, stunk, but the engine had been rebuilt. With deep dish wheels with large mudder tires, He was loud, fast, and obnoxious. His name was “Dumpster.” No radio, no air. A/C was opening the vent windows. My defroster was a beach towel.

    Three on the tree. I was just given the key, I had to figure it out.

    He could scratch them tires in 3rd gear. The clutch was so heavy I had to stand up to get it to the floor. After about 6 months of driving Him My left thigh was bigger, more tone and cut than My right thigh.

    • #27
    • November 23, 2020, at 11:18 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  28. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White MaleJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Vince Guerra (View Comment):

    I learned on my step-mom’s 1984 Toyota Supra. The thing had some power as I recall, much more than my 71 Oldsmobile Cutlass, which is why I was always “borrowing” it and my sisters Mazda RX-7 in order to go zipping around L.A. freeways at night, throwing the hammer down to reach 90mph weaving through traffic and listening to my speed tape which started with Aces High by Iron Maiden and continued through songs like Hells Bells by AC DC, Bastille Day by Rush, One by Metallica…

    *Vince blinks* Sorry, I must have gotten lost in the memories there. What was I talking about again?

    In the fall of 1989 I drove from Milwaukee to Boston for two weeks of training in my 1987 Toyota MR2. Left on a Saturday afternoon, cruised I-94 through Chicago about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Traffic was light enough that it was going a pretty consistent 50 MPH, but heavy enough that you had to constantly switch lanes to keep moving.

    It was so much fun I almost turned around and drove back through again, but I had already gotten a late start and had to make time.

    • #28
    • November 23, 2020, at 11:26 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  29. OldPhil Coolidge

    I learned to drive and took the driver’s test in my parents’ 1959 Ford Ranch Wagon, manual transmission of course. It looked like the one below:

    See the source image

    Then when I started buying my own cars (cheap used ones), they were usually automatics. This model was my favorite during that period, got a good deal from a co-worker (looks exactly like the one I had):

    See the source image

    Once I started buying new cars (late 70s on), they were always manuals. But my last two have been automatics because it’s getting pretty difficult to find the car and features you want with a stick.

    • #29
    • November 23, 2020, at 11:27 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  30. Concretevol Thatcher

    Tex929rr (View Comment):

    DonG (Biden is compromised) (View Comment):

    I like the big red button on your ‘Stang console. Does that launch a missile?

    That’s the start button. On this model with the Voodoo engine (official Ford name) it sounds like releasing the hounds of hell.

     

     

    I may need this license plate surround

    • #30
    • November 23, 2020, at 11:34 AM PST
    • 4 likes