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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.Published in