Winning the rental car jackpot in Atlanta

For most people, renting a car is as simple as exchanging a driver’s license and credit card, accepting or declining the pricey – and no doubt extremely profitable – insurance coverage, and then locating a generally unspectacular mode of transportation for the week. The standard offerings in most U.S. rental fleets can make even the most hardcore gearheads opine that autonomous cars can’t come quickly enough. Show of hands to see who has lost their silver Altima or Camry in a big-box retail parking lot and had to resort to the panic button to find it? Yeah, we thought so.

For car guys, being stuck with a rental Prius adds to the insult of having to be away from our favorite car for days. Brown M. Maloney has a system that just paid off big time when he won the equivalent of the $400 million Powerball jackpot in the rental car lottery. He rented a 2014 Dodge Challenger Hemi with an honest-to-goodness manual transmission – in the United States – and for the price of a Taurus no less. And we’re stoked when we score a rental with working satellite radio. Maloney, a car guy from Washington State, was picking up a car at Budget in Atlanta to drive to the Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance, where he would serve as a judge.

“I have a system when I rent a car. I take what they give me at the counter and then peruse the lot to see what I like better,” Maloney said. “I had just flown to Atlanta from Seattle, and while walking to my Taurus I saw a bright orange Challenger out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t pay it that much mind, thinking initially that it was just another base-model Challenger that you typically see in rental fleets like Thrifty and Budget. But for some reason, I took another look and spotted the Hemi badge on the hood. My assumption then was that it had to be an employee car. Nevertheless, I walked over and was gob smacked (as my English wife would say) to see a rental fleet barcode sticker on the windshield and a six-speed shifter in the console.”

While manual transmission automobiles are the norm in Europe – most European countries actually charge more to rent an automatic – the stick gets the shaft in the United States. So to find a manual transmission rental car of any kind in the U.S. is virtually unheard of since the days of the Hertz Shelby Mustangs.

Although Budget’s website states, “We have many manual transmission cars (in) the fleet,” that sentence apparently doesn’t apply to its U.S. locations. According to John Barrows of Budget’s corporate communications team, Maloney’s experience is extremely uncommon.

“This is an anomaly,” Barrows wrote in an email. “Budget in Atlanta is an independently owned and operated franchisee of Budget. As such, they purchase their own cars, so this vehicle is not part of our corporate fleet. Budget Car Rental in the U.S. is not renting manual transmissions.”

Thrifty doesn’t, either. Nor do National or Hertz. Why? For the majority of American drivers, the clutch is foreign.

“Renting a manual transmission vehicle in the U.S. is like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Hagerty Classic Car Insurance (Private Client Services) underwriter Lewis Duink, who worked previously in the rental car industry. “A high percentage of people would refuse to rent a car with manual transmission, and that would cause huge issues for fleet management.”

With the manual-transmission take rate at 7 percent among American new-car buyers, and manual transmissions only a small fraction of the U.S. rental fleet, Maloney may have had a better shot at winning the actual lottery.