Why it’s up to us to save the manuals
Manual gearboxes have been on my mind lately. Whether it’s teaching someone how to shift for themselves, enjoying the anachronism that is a three-pedal Porsche 992, or driving the auto-only mid-engine Corvette, I’m becoming increasingly aware that the future of the manual is under threat. And I’ve contributed to the situation.
We’ve always had manuals at home, even before our son was born, and my wife dailies a six-speed herself, but when the young man learned to drive, we had different ideas. We bought a Honda Civic with—gasp—an automatic.
I grew up in rural Ontario, where the open roads of the countryside gave me the latitude to learn from my mistakes while learning to drive a stick-shift. On the other hand, modern Toronto drivers define impatience and if you’ve stalled your manual car in traffic, it won’t take more than a blink of an eye before another driver crashes into yours or blares their horn. Teaching our son to how to drive with a manual in a densely populated city is akin to long-term torture for both teacher and student, making our decision to purchase the automatic Civic an easy one.
For those of us who enjoy the engagement that a manual transmission provides, we have a duty to pass along our knowledge to the next generation. In my case, I was testing a new Toyota Corolla L manual and decided to take the opportunity to teach my son the skills set for an episode on YouTube. In his case, the apple fell far from the tree; he’s a talented driver and could pursue motor racing, but he doesn’t possess the passion required for wheel-to-wheel competition.
My son’s grown into a skilled and (mostly) conscientious driver, but his inexperience with manual transmissions has been weighing on me. If anyone is obligated to pass along the knowledge, it’s me. Whether it’s racing, teaching performance driving, or selling #SaveTheManuals t-shirts on my merch store, I’m a de facto advocate for the manual gearbox.
The final cut of the episode condensed ninety minutes of theory, practical training, and real-world exercises into a usable guide for manual-transmission novices. Rather than using much of the traditional knowledge base, my approach was to rapidly teach him the basics of starting, shifting, stopping, reversing, and stall recovery. In modern parlance, one could call my accelerated approach a #lifehack.
My goal was to instill the fundamentals in him so that, by the end of our quick lesson, he would drive us from the countryside to our home in Toronto. Little did he know what I had in mind.
With new cars, we’re seeing some renewed enthusiasm for the manual from certain manufacturers. Porsche has committed to the manual for many of its sports-car models and my recent 2021 BMW M4 tester had a six-speed, not the automatic. Even Toyota is offering a couple of models with three pedals. On the other hand, plenty of manuals have disappeared from the market recently. A lack of enthusiasm compounded by low take rates does not a business case make.
I suppose it started in the ’90s with that rush of single-clutch, automated manual gearboxes. Remember Ferrari’s F1 gearbox in the F355? That was cool for less time than Vanilla Ice’s entire career. F430 manuals are in demand and a three-pedal example has a market value double that of an auto-equipped one.
Years ago, I drove an Aston Martin Vantage with that single-clutch automated gearbox and after a few minutes, I remember thinking, “It can’t be this bad, can it?” Indeed it was, but the market demanded that automated transmission because plenty of blokes at the time didn’t want—or couldn’t drive—manuals. Today’s Vantage has an automatic transaxle and a manual is said to be available by special order, at least before Gaydon cancels it permanently. Lamborghini’s single-clutch gearbox in the Aventador SVJ is surprisingly enjoyable to shift, but single-clutch autos will be a footnote soon enough. I’m not even going to wade into the Tiptronic discussion, thankyouverymuch.
For those of us who like to shift for ourselves, we’re confronted with modern, turbocharged engines that are better optimized for dual-clutch or traditional automatic gearboxes. I think of the McLarens, BMWs, Porsches, and AMGs I’ve driven in recent years and their engines are in perfect harmony with automated gearboxes, particularly those highly-tuned dual-clutch units. On the other hand, the mid-engine Corvette’s crisp, naturally-aspirated V-8 demands a manual. That glaring oversight is on you, Chevrolet.
I won’t deny that I enjoy driving these modern dual-clutch cars, but what about the handful of manuals still available, let alone all of our collector cars? Who is going to teach the next generation to appreciate these mechanical marvels? Well, my friends, that responsibility falls upon us. For those of us who appreciate the automobile as something more than just transportation, we have an obligation to pass on our knowledge and enthusiasm for driving cars with manual transmissions.
There are plenty of practical reasons to advocate for manuals. I’ve told my son that if a friend with the manual car falls ill, you should be able to drive safely to your destination. A friend of mine has ordered a manual for his eldest child because shifting is one of the greatest deterrents to distracted driving. Plus, we’ve all seen that meme about the manual transmission being the greatest millennial anti-theft device.
For as long as the internal combustion engine is with us, so will the manual. If we’re going to save the manual gearbox and pass along our passion for the automobile, we’re obliged to share our enthusiasm for driving the manual transmission long before we take that final carriage ride to the race track in the sky.
Teach your daughters, sons, nieces, and nephews, and teach them well. If you’re proficient with driving a manual, you have everything you need to inspire and instruct them. Perhaps my methodology doesn’t work for you, so find or develop one that does.
As for my son, the lesson went to plan and he’s now got a foundation of manual-transmission operational knowledge upon which he can build some proficiency. Despite his lack of interest in cars, he’s pretty darn insightful and, off the cuff, was able to further articulate helpful tips and tricks for viewers of the episode. The best part of my day? He drove that Corolla L manual back to the city, navigating Ontario’s horrific Highway 401, then onto the mean streets of Toronto, and took us home. Colour me impressed.
We’ll keep up the practice, but my job isn’t yet over. I’ve got a couple of nephews who need my help saving the manuals.