Hay’s Daze: Is it the end of the manual?

Three on the tree. Four on the floor. Pop the clutch. Are these classics doomed to extinction because of the ubiquitous PRNDL? No, I’m not talking about country rock bands from the southern U.S. I’m lamenting the impending end of the manual transmission.

I bumped into an interesting article in The Atlantic magazine the other day. The author, Ian Bogost, a self-professed lover of driving any vehicle with a stick shift, makes a convincing argument predicting the complete demise of clutches and sticks in cars. The manual kind of making your car go – the kind you shove in and out with your foot and push or pull with your “free” hand. You know, the fun kind of driving.

Bogost points out that in the year 2000, more than 15 per cent of new and used cars by a major retailer came with stick shifts. By 2020? Just 2.4 per cent. And this year, with literally hundreds of new car models coming out, guess how many had manual transmissions. You’re close – only around 30. And guess what – electric cars, now more than 5 per cent of car sales and predicted to take over the world faster than you can say, “Where on earth can I plug this thing in?” don’t even have gearboxes (which for you non-car people are boxes with gears in them that hook onto something called a “drive shaft” or possibly a “fuel injector” that makes the “engine” turn the “wheels”).

It’s a shame, really. Car nuts (guilty as charged!) will argue that driving a stick is not only much more fun than merely stomping the gas pedal and letting the car do the work, it’s a way to “connect with the car”. To become “one” with your vehicle. To be actively showing off that punchy, flawless double clutch into 2nd rather than sitting there with a large grape Slurpee in one hand, other hand more or less on the wheel whilst your disinterested vehicle decides for itself when to change gears. (Although we don’t do that, do we, because it’s distracted driving. Also, nobody in their right mind drinks grape Slurpees.)

Of all the cars I ever owned my favorite had manual transmissions. (Of course, they were, you may say, PRNDL hadn’t been invented yet!) My Rotten Kid, the son one, drives a rare stick these days, and my other Rotten Kid, the daughter one just coincidentally mentioned to me the other day that she was thinking of getting a car with a stick shift. It must be in the blood.

But these days both Mercedes and Volkswagen, two of the most popular car manufacturers in the world have announced plans to completely retire manual transmissions in the next few years. I mean, how the heck are you going to have that memorable classic car experience of popping the clutch at a traffic light in front of your friends and stalling in an embarrassing cloud of blue smoke. Or ripping out second gear trying to powershift up Michener Hill like I did?

Yes, as I’ve described often it was my Mom and Dad’s 1958 Ford, 292 and my 16-year-old self was tasked with taking it to Northwest Motors where a used Dodge Monaco (with a fancy automatic transmission) was waiting to be picked up on trade. So I’m turning left from Coronation Park up Michener when I decided to go for it one more time. Speedshift the three-on-the-tree steering column one final rockin’ and rollin’, tire-squealing, engine-roaring, perfect slammin’ shift. BOOM, into second, BOOM, into third.

It was “BOOM” all right. Let’s just say I missed the shift a little. A tow truck was involved. And you can’t do that with an automatic transmission.

Harley Hay is a Red Deer author and filmmaker. You can send him column ideas to harleyhay1@hotmail.com

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