My stick-shift journey started on the mower

Circa 1978 with my father, Frank Hagerty. Surely I’m not the only kid who learned to use a manual on the family lawn tractor. There’s a recent uptick in sales of manual cars. Let’s keep the momentum going, shall we? McKeel Hagerty

It started with mowing the lawn. When I was 10, I decided to use the family Snapper to make some pocket money. But there was a problem: The Snapper had a clutch and a two-speed transmission. Anybody who has ever confronted the mysteries of a manual for the first time remembers how daunting they can be. But, eventually, through trial and error, I figured out the necessary brain/foot/hand coordination, and the rest is lawn care history.

I started with the neighbors’ lawns. Before long, I was also mowing the neighborhood common areas. And it wasn’t long afterward that I decided I needed a bigger machine to scale up the business. I was soon paying $183 a month for the brand-new three-speed Sears mower you see in the old family photo above. An empire was in the making. And what did this empire get me in the end? A $500 rusted-out 1967 Porsche 911 S that Dad and I found in pieces behind an old barn. It took years, but we put it back together. It’s the first car out of my garage each spring and the last put away in fall.

So, you could say that manual transmissions and I go way back, something I’ve been contemplating after recently reading a Wall Street Journal article headlined: “The 20-Somethings Fueling a Stick-Shift Renaissance.” The article noted that “Following a decades-long decline, three-pedaled vehicles are experiencing a modest but real resurgence. Manuals accounted for 1.7% of total new vehicle sales in 2023 … up from 1.2% last year and a low of 0.9% in 2021.”

That sounds like progress to me. As a lifelong car guy, I love the sense that I am more in control of a car with a manual gearbox. There is immediacy, agency, and presence involved that you just don’t get with automatics, no matter how slickly efficient they now are. And the moments I spend behind the wheel of my 911 S on a winding country road are among my happiest.

I have never subscribed to the belief, long held by some, that manual transmissions will ultimately go the way of the dinosaur. To the contrary—and I’ll take The Wall Street Journal article as evidence—I think the manual will be with us always. People crave authenticity in life. They long to be distracted from the din within their minds. Some people eschew manuals because they take more effort, but that effort is precisely the point. It’s the effort that sets us free.

Whether they realize it or not, people who drive a manual often do so because they love the act of driving more than the result, which is the opposite of how most Americans view life these days. Our goal now, in the great age of commuting and over-busy lives, is to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible.

That’s not driving. That’s getting somewhere. I drive a manual for the same reason I have a collection of vinyl records. And for the same reason that others garden when there are perfectly good vegetables at the grocery. It takes a bit of work. And that work puts you in the moment. I live for moments when I’m in the moment. It’s a long way from mowing lawns, but it makes for a good life!

1969 Camaro 4 Speed Hurst Shifter detail

Perhaps that describes you, as well. If so, I have a favor to ask: Carry on the tradition. Teach your kids. I did so with my oldest daughters, Olivia and Sophia. They took to it right away, and their skill impresses the heck out of their stickless friends. My youngest daughter, Ava, is too young to drive, but she’s learning, too. She sits in the passenger seat and puts her hand over the shifter and I put my hand atop hers. And together we drive.

In our household, at least, the tradition will not become a lost art. How about yours?

I hope to see you out on a great road somewhere. Happy spring.




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    The debate over Manual shifts are about as bad as Politics. Religion and Oil.

    There is often much left out of the debate as it is not all equal and things are not like they used to be.

    Years ago you have no choice. You shifted gears. The auto came and opened the door to many more drivers. The market started to move to where the manuals were mostly performance and sports cars as well trucks.

    Now today with major traffic in many areas and stop and go driving the manual has become a pain for some in daily drivers.

    The other factors too are emissions have eliminated many options and many people just can’t find an easy to locate manual just to learn to drive one.

    Other factors like my father who was partially paralyzed could never own one after he was stricken. He always wanted a Mini Cooper but never got it because he could not drive one. He wanted the original one.

    I cut my teeth on our go car. A VW chassis we pulled a body off of and drove through the fields. Also a jeep in the pastures. That 47 was not much but a good teacher.

    Over the years I have had a few Manuals but since clutches are not as easy or cheap to replace anymore. Also I am not racing anymore. I had cars with clutches so heavy it snapped a clutch pedal once.

    We also mastered shifting with no clutch that one time got me home with no need for a tow when I had an issue with the clutch linkage.

    But where I live today it is hard to find a place to get things opened up and row as you like. Also with many cars today you are twice the limits by second gear if you are using the RPM.

    Also now my friends are complaining about bad knees and hips that are making shifting less attractive to them. Several have sold cars over it and they are still on the low side of 60.

    The truth is there are no absolutes in cars and transmissions are just one more of them. What works for one may not work for the other. If you have the place to really enjoy the drive rowing that is great. If you have the need for an Auto or if that is just what you want that is fine too. The advantages to the Auto where they are faster today means you are no longer at a disadvantage.

    There is no right or wrong just what is right for you and you only. We all face many different factors and that is fine.

    I have had both and have enjoyed both. In my last purchase I was ok with either but car condition was a main factor and just happened the best car I found was an auto. Being it is a torque tube car too in the long run it may be the cheaper car to own as changing the clutch in it is not an at home option as like in my past cars.

    To be honest with all this EV movement coming I would like to see them add a Gear box to an EV and program it to drive like a ICE with a Clutch. There is no reason it could not be done. The computer could managed the torque to make it feel like an ICE engine and it could even be turn on and off. I would find that much better than paddle shifting like we have. I just wonder if any of the sport car companies would consider doing this to keep things interesting as the no gear EV could be a very dull future. Quick yes but no interaction.

    By the way bad knees and all my Uncle is 85 and still takes his 911 out every Saturday for a run. The clutch in it was always a little funky but I did enjoy driving it from San Diego to SF and back on the PCH.

    The only mistake I made was stalling it at the large intersection going to Pebble Beach. Felt like an idiot but we got over it.

    My father was a paraplegic and the vehicles I learned to drive in had automatic transmissions and hand-controls for throttle and brakes. Consequently, it was later in life that I learned to drive a manual shift. I don’t remember exactly what the first stick shift car I drove was, but the first 6 or 8 cars I owned as a teen HAD to have a floor-shifter, even with just a 3-speed. I remember visiting a junkyard to pull clutch parts (pedal, bellcrank, linkage, etc.) to convert a ’55 Chevy with a Powerglide within days of buying it. I’ve since gone back and forth over the decades in HAVE TO HAVE either a manual or an automatic – both have had pros and cons on my list of preferences. I learned that an auto had some real advantages in off-road climbing rigs, and I also learned that rowing gears in a sport car was just a natural thing to do. In my racing days, there were places where both methods found their way into my stable. To this day, I have both automatics and standards in my “stash” so I can actually convert my favorite driving cars if I so desire. And I have vehicles parked in my stable that give me an option to drive either right now, based on my mood. Auto vs. Manual? To me, it’s like an argument about iced tea vs. hot tea. They’re both just versions of the same thing, and both have applications where they seem best. Hey, they BOTH have a place in my life, and having the ability to choose based on my personal preference is part of what makes driving fun for me. 😍

    My father was paralyzed too in one leg and limited in the other., We had hand controls in all our cars. No stick.

    When it comes to stick shifts it is all different for everyone. Depending on what you drive, where you drive, how you drive, how you play etc.

    There is no right or wrong answer here just what is right for that person.

    As I pointed out on the Corvette site where this was debated. Even John Wayne’s Corvette was an Auto.,

    I wanted SO BADLY to drive a great Uncles riding mower as a kid. Alas, when I ratted him out to aunt that he was poisoning feral cats, he knew who the snitch was and that was the end of that..

    Learned the 4-speed courtesy of dad’s ’61 Hillman Minx convertible – quite an outlier vehicle for him, and not that much more powerful than the Hagerty lawnmower – when I was 14 or 15. So easy to drive, I took to it almost immediately.
    In the ’60s & ’70s, it was a badge of honor to execute smooth, no-lift, no RPM-flare powershifts – Ken Dondero being the best I ever saw at Lions Drag Strip – and my ’57 Chevy with a T-10 swap saw a lot of those…
    These days, though I own a couple of automatics, I really enjoy the involvement required of my stick cars. For teaching/learning, I recommend a mild car with smooth controls – decades-old RWD economy cars being easiest, and some discussion about the mechanics and sympathy for same…

    I taught my daughter to drive on a stick shift. None of her friends could drive stick so when they asked to drive her car the “no” was easy. She’s really proud that she can drive stick. I also taught her how to do a 360 on a snowy road. When I took her to learn how to drive I took her to the steepest hill I could find and made her stop in the middle of the hill, then start up again. Once she was confident doing that I told her, that is the worst you will ever encounter so you never have to fear anything else you will encounter.

    Having your daughter stop in the middle of a hill was much more severe test than my father’s: telling me to keep my $50 1940 Ford from crashing into our garage at the end of a a mildly declining driveway. Anxiety factor was still high. Managed it, barely. More pedals than available feet, it seemed….

    I love driving a manual car but at the same time I have bought only automatic cars mainly for the reason that I live in a city area with stop and go traffic. I don’t feel I got shorted on the driving experience or have a lesser car because I have an automatic despite what some people may think. My favorite is oh you have a …. cool. Oh it has an automatic. My response is so, I still have it and love it. Do you have one? If the only way to get one was to go auto would you? It’s a preference thing and nothing else.

    biggest excuse is always the traffic. i’m 76 years old and have lived in the thickest of traffic in ca starting first in san francisco for 35 years then later in southern california. i’ve driven “clutches” all during that time and crawling through stop and go traffic has never been a problem. you just have to know when to brake, coast in neutral, and when to use the accelerator.

    I loved garden tractors too, but you turned out better. Out on my uncle’s farm the neighbors were all spaced a mile+ away on gravel roads so no enterprise play there. The two-acre lawn duty not sufficient, one day I drove out into the field and carved a tight figure eight around the gopher holes – top gear, full throttle. After some good fun time, I saw the cloud of dust – uncle roaring up in the truck to stop me and give me holy hell. So ended my racing and lawn-mowing career at age 10.

    I learned to drive a stick in a Seat; we went from Algeciras Spain to Tarifa to catch the day ferry to Tangier. It was a scary proposition as part of the road had a mountain on one side and a long drop to the sea on the other. This was 1969, and I’ve been driving a stick ever since. I taught my son to drive on my 87 Porsche Carrera and he did well enough that he bought a 944. My daily driver is automatic, but the weekends are reserved for my 75 Lancia Fulvia, and soon to return 72 911 T.

    If you care about things like internal combustion engines and manual transmissions then vote wisely and hold your politicians accountable. The current political trajectory will have them eventually banned.

    I learned how to drive in my father’s two-stroke SAAB with a torqueless engine and four on the column. That little car pretty much defines driving involvement and still love driving it 55 years later (it’s had a few bits replaced over the years). If you can start up-hill in that car, you can do anything! As the engine typically lasts about 50,000 miles, I never wore out a clutch before it was time for an engine rebuild (and it’s been slipped plenty)! To this day, I have never owned a car with an automatic. Tried out a 2017 Golf GTI with the twin-clutch auto and paddle shifters because no manual was available for test drive. The darned thing wouldn’t downshift when I told it to, so no sale. Bought the same car with a 6-speed manual a few months later and couldn’t be happier. I might feel differently if I lived in San Francisco or had to deal with gridlock. Oh, and I developed my early clutch skills on a 1959 Wheel Horse lawn tractor with a 3-speed; it would pop wheelies in 3rd.

    My sister had a 63 Saab 93 with that 4 on the column. That car was so much fun ripping across muddy fields that I never told her about.

    I learned to drive in High School Driver’s Ed class. In those days the car was a Chevy with a stick shift on the steering coloum, loaned to the school from the local Chevy Dealer. When class ended a PA State Police Officer came to the school and tested every student. Knowing the day that was to happen, my mother baked her chocolate chip cookies and gave me some to take to school. I took them with me when it was my trun for the test and put them in the middle of the seat between me and the officer. Needless to say he loved the cookies, and I passed with flying colors.

    I mowed neighborhood yards in high school, too, but used a 1965 Lawn-Boy 21″. But my first car was a 1969 Beetle 4-speed; I, and later my wife and I, have owned 6 other stick-shifts. I taught both of our daughters to drive them, all 7 of my siblings-in-law can drive them, and we have at least 6 nieces/nephews and grand-nieces/nephews who can drive stick-shifts. Seems to be a family thing with my wife’s family.

    My dad could drive a stick quite well, but only did it when he had to. He saved his energy and coordination for golf, and was quite good at it.

    I hope to have at least one manual-transmission car to drive until I simply cannot anymore, even if I only drive it a few hundred miles a year. They remain fun, under most driving conditions.

    Soooooo, why did you find it necessary to cross the double yellow on a blind left, 2 lane road with such a
    beee-yoo-tiful car??

    I learned in my Dad’s GMC trucks on construction sites. I taught my wife when we were dating, in my Audi 90 Quattro. And we taught our daughter in my wife’s Saturn Vue. A few years ago, her co-worker got a new Camaro and asked her if she wanted to drive it. She said yes, and excitedly headed out towards the parking lot. On the way out she asked if it was a stick and was told “No.”. She turned around. I’m so proud of my little girl. Manuals Forever!

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