Stick Figures: The Last Days of the Manual Transmission

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 01, 2012

I’m teaching my daughter to drive, and we had a productive session in the high school parking lot the other day. The car was a Kia Optima and, of course, it was an automatic. Testing cars, maybe five to ten percent of the cars I put through their paces are manuals. Some 64 percent of American market new cars aren’t even available in manual form, up from 49 percent a decade ago.

The six-speed manual on my test CX5. Just five percent of these Mazda SUVs are ordered with stick shift. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The six-speed manual on my test CX5. Just five percent of these Mazda SUVs are ordered with stick shift. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Driving stick is becoming a lost art in America, with adherents on a steady decline since approximately 1940, when Oldsmobile introduced its optional Hydromatic Drive. By the 50s, autos and manuals were in a 50/50 mix, but automatics—like the pushbuttons in my (and Tom’s) ’63 Dart were the modern choice.

Tom and Ray weighed in on this recently. “In our humble opinion,” they said, “learning how to drive stick is one of those time-honored skills that just might save the day, someday. Like when you need to borrow a car to get someone to the emergency room. Knowing how to drive stick could also get you out of a sticky situation. Like fleeing the scene in a ‘borrowed’ getaway car.”

No joke on that last one—I just read about a Colorado guy abandoning his plan to steal an Audi because it had a stick. According to the Denver Post, “He jumped in her sedan, cranked the engine but couldn't get the manual transmission in gear, the Sheriff’s Department said this afternoon.” If you see the guy, give the sheriff a call: He was wearing a hoodie, so that nails it down (but don’t bring in Mark Zuckerberg).

But when it comes to teaching my daughter to drive, Ray is on her side, because what’s undoubtedly a useful skill (like playing the harmonica) is probably not essential anymore. “It’s just like the argument parents used to make for the preservation of those clay tablets,” Ray said. “Their time came and went, just like the stick shift. If she needs to drive stick, she will learn. I gave every member of our household a few lessons. One really learned. The others at least know the theory of operation, and now they’re on their own.”

My daughter, who’s 18 (they’re starting later these days) sees a vague value in knowing how to drive a manual but her friend --who shall remain nameless-- said it was a bad idea to learn that way, and that’s all the documentation teenagers need. Have you ever seen an 18-year-old reading a scientific study? Or a newspaper, for that matter?

Anyway, back to the manual transmission. It’s still a major factor in the rest of the world, and in Great Britain you need a special stick-shift license if you want to drive one. Here’s one good reason to take stick lessons, via Norm Walsh: “You can rent cars with automatic transmissions in Europe but they’re much more expensive and car rental companies aren't known for their stellar performance in delivering what was reserved.”

But even in Europe, the more sophisticated six-, seven- and even eight-speed automatics are making inroads. Last year, Audi canceled the manual option for European buyers of the S4 and S5, though oddly continuing to make it available in the U.S. That seems kind of odd when, as recently reported, only seven percent of new cars this year have sticks, which actually represents a modest uptick from 2011 (when the sad number was 3.8 percent). You have to go back to 2003 to get a manual “take” rate above eight percent.

In the old days, they had to label the pedals. Given our general level of ignorance, maybe we should go back to that. (Stephen Coles/Flickr)
In the old days, they had to label the pedals. Given our general level of ignorance, maybe we should go back to that. (Stephen Coles/Flickr)

I learned to drive on a stick shift, in a mall parking lot on Sundays. (Remember when malls were closed on the Lord’s Day? How quaint.) The car was a BMW 1600, my aunt’s car then (later, mine), with a nice floor-mounted four-speed. American cars then often had three-on-the-tree. My grandfather had a '62 Belair so equipped, and I once used that transmission to stop the darned thing when the single-circuit brakes went out.

It was great to learn on that BMW, even though I must have stalled it out a hundred times. But I understand from driving instructors that most kids don’t have that option—there are so few manual vehicles out there that they rarely get lessons on one. Soon after I got licensed I was hired as a bus driver, and put in charge of not only a full complement of children but an ancient yellow GM transporter with a three-speed crash box (that means no synchromesh on first gear, for you neophytes). My daughter is lucky in that I have a 1967 Volvo 122S wagon with a four-speed right there in the garage. Now all I have to deal with is her utter refusal to be seen in that car. Sigh.

There are some definite advantages to driving a manual. In many cases (not all these days) you’ll pay less for the car ($1,000 or more), get better gas mileage and higher performance. You’ll have more control over the car, too. Contrarians dispute some of this, but these are articles of faith for me and my ilk.

As it happens, I just got a Mazda CX5 test car, and—wonder of wonders—it’s a manual, clutch pedal, shifter, the whole nine yards. It’s touching that Mazda even considers auto journalists capable of driving a stick these days. I was curious how many Mazdas—other than the Miata, of course—are actually sold in that form on the American market.

Beverly Braga, a spokeswoman, said that everything except the CX9 is available in a manual, but the take rate isn’t exactly stellar. For the CX5 it’s just five percent. So why a CX5 manual test car? “It’s kind of expected of us,” she said. “Manuals offer a great experience—it’s how our cars drive.”

I get that, I really do. People expect performance cars to have manuals, and many still do (though Porsche automatics are hardly rare these days). The MX-5 Miata is still manual-friendly. In 2011, 63 percent of Miata soft-top models were manuals, and 41 percent of the retractable hardtop cars.

So the stick still retains a niche with the driving-gloves and leather-wrapped wheel crowd. I’ll always want one around, but I realize I’m an endangered species, in more ways than one. If you want to start your manual transmission lessons, here's an introductory video:

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