My stick-shift journey started on the mower
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!
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.