Canada’s youth are still interested in manual driving

The bunny-hop, the judder and lug, and, of course, the stall. Never mind whatever the latest Instagram dance craze is these days, the youth of today are apparently still eager to learn all the extra footsteps it takes to master the three-pedal waltz. And what better way than to clamber into a museum-piece ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air, drop the lever on a three-on-the-tree, and just glide away?

Held this year at five locations across the U.S. and two locations in Canada, the Hagerty Driving Experience is aimed at young drivers 15–25, who want to take up arms in the fight to save manual-transmission driving. It’s no secret that mastering a manual is a dying art, and why wouldn’t it be? If the convenience-driven erosion of transmission choice in modern cars wasn’t enough of a problem, automatics are now quicker and more efficient than swapping gears yourself. You really have to be a crotchety old grump to hold on to the past.

Happily, there are apparently dozens of these crotchety types aged 15–25. Perhaps it’s not a case of wanting to hold on to outdated mechanics, but a world-weariness with growing up in a sea of increasing incomprehensible technologies. Driving a manual transmission is like shaking hands with a car, engendering a greater understanding of driving dynamics beyond just “right pedal means go.”

Chevrolet Nomad
Brendan McAleer

Further, popular culture still enshrines the manual transmission as a holy sacrament of performance driving. Ansel Elgort had to row gears like a madman in a Subaru WRX while sliding across screens in Baby Driver, and the characters in The Fast and the Furious series seem incapable of driving even short distances without eight downshifts.

So kids are curious about driving stick. The problem is, what are they supposed to learn on? Odds are the family hauler in the driveway is some indistinguishable crossover with all-wheel drive, a four-cylinder engine, and competent and oh-so-dull automatic. And then there’s the project car in the garage, which is almost ready, perhaps in a couple of months… certainly by next year… 2020 at the latest… maybe.

Thank institutions like the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, and owners like Mike Connolly and Jim Herbert, who offer up their vehicles as sacrifice for the greater good. The museum hosted the Hagerty Driving Experience in late July, and this year’s driving instruction saw a handful of prairie youngsters trying out everything from a Triumph Spitfire, to an MG ZR160, to the aforementioned ’57 Bel Air station wagon. Under patient tutelage, in a parking lot where there’s little to crash into, all parties were soon beaming.

MG ZR 160
Brendan McAleer
MG ZR 160 nose
Brendan McAleer

blue MG ZR 160
Brendan McAleer

The Reynolds-Alberta Museum is a gem of the Canadian prairies, and a must-stop for anyone with even a passing interest in machinery. Founded by collector Stan Reynolds, known for spotting finds from high above in his light airplane, the museum has a huge array of cars, trucks, and farm equipment, along with the largest collection of historical aircraft outside of the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa.

Along with multimillion-dollar Duesenbergs, McLaughlin-Buicks, and the oldest-known surviving Chevrolet in the world, the museum has an entire hangar filled with vehicles in partially restored condition. It’s possible to get a closer look at them if you know who to ask, and for the manual driving course, something fun is always pulled out for a bit of hands-on experience rather than static display. On this day, it’s the Bel Air.

The casual observer’s usual first reaction on being told that classics are being used for instructional purposes is a sharp, sucking intake of breath through clenched teeth. It’s like hearing that a set of priceless charcoal drawings has been given to a crayon-wielding toddler as a way to learn about coloring inside the lines.

If you treat the young like children, then don’t be surprised if they have a hard time warming up to your interests. Give them respect and trust, and find it rewarded in kind. Every car loaned for manual teaching will leave today under its own power—with the exception of the Bel Air, which stays on-site as part of the Reynold-Alberta’s massive collection. Lend your car to an older driver who “used to drive stick all the time back in college,” and feel your nostrils fill with the smell of burnt clutch. Take the time to explain things to a complete newbie, and that lack of experience comes with a lack of arrogance.

kids learning to drive a manual transmission
Brendan McAleer

Besides, the kids are all right. Chantel Schultz, whose father works in the museum’s restoration department, already has some experience driving old grain-hauling trucks. She’s a natural in both left-hand-drive and right-hand-drive cars, beaming cheerfully as the little Triumph raspily hits second gear and zips forward past spectators.

Lucas Hayden, 19, and his brother Mason, 17, each own Dodge Magnum wagons. Mason has attended a couple of these manual-driving sessions, and speaks with a glow about the 1978 and 1987 Porsche 911s that attended a couple of years back. Based on the current air-cooled 911 market, I suggest he may want to launch a Silicon Valley startup as soon as possible.

The Hayden brothers’ father, Lee, stands back while his sons and the rest of the participants have their fill, then he steps forward for a turn behind the shifter of the charismatic Bel Air. Ethan Horkulak, who arrived as passenger in his mother’s Spitfire, is eager to have a go in Connolly’s hot-hatchback MG ZR160, the only example currently in Canada.

“Oh good, another victim!” intones Jim Herbert, president of the Specialty Vehicle Association of Alberta. His 1968 MGB is tractable and torquey, ideal for this kind of work.

The young may be future of car collecting, but let’s face it, they haven’t got much money. Or at least I didn’t when I was that age. What they’ve got in spades is boundless optimism and the desire to learn new things.

Chevy nomad
Brendan McAleer
Chevy Bel Air Nomad
Brendan McAleer

And, happily, they have parents. Parents who perhaps don’t currently have a classic in the garage, but who see how much fun their kids have circling a parking lot, and start thinking about recreating the joy of their youth, and passing it on. In previous times, getting your driver’s license was a primary way to escape your parents’ house. In modern times, the vintage car hobby is in part a way to maintain those family connections through a shared passion.

Good news then, for all ages, as Hagerty is looking at expanding the driving experience in Canada, and adding more hands-on events at existing shows. There are currently just the two main manual-driving courses, here and in Caledonia, Ontario, but the plan is to double the number. At a previous one-off event near Vancouver, the response from the classic car community was huge, with almost 20 cars and dozens of manual-driving pupils.

Contrary to today’s oft-heard narrative, the manual transmission isn’t dead, no more than the electric guitar was killed off by the invention of the synthesizer. The youth of today aren’t so different. They’re still interested in genuine things. They still see the value in picking up a skill. They still know how to dance to rock ’n’ roll, even with three pedals.

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