Saving the Manuals Starts at Home

·4 min read
Photo credit: Illustration by Derek Bacon - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Illustration by Derek Bacon - Car and Driver

From the October 2021 issue of Car and Driver.

About seven years ago, I organized a shoot of an Audi TT RS and a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, both of which had manual gearboxes. When the videographer arrived, I asked him which one he wanted to drive to our location. He grimaced and told me he couldn't drive a manual. "Hold on, though, one of my friends might be able to," he said. Moments later, he hung up his phone and said, "He doesn't know how to drive a manual either."

My indignant disbelief quickly gave way to grim resignation. After all, it's exceedingly easy to live your life without ever encountering a manual transmission—neither of those cars is available with one anymore. And that's why I've been giving lessons to anyone who expresses the slightest interest. So far I've enlightened six drivers. I count my nine-year-old in this group because he's mastered a manual-transmission Honda ATV, and if you can slip a clutch with your hand and shift with your foot, you can certainly do things the other way around. Once you can see over the dashboard.

Most of my disciples are young family members, such as my 19-year-old nephew, Colby. His dad bought a Wrangler and deliberately didn't teach him how to drive it so Colby then couldn't borrow it. Cue my alter ego, Captain Clutch. For Colby's lesson, we borrowed my father-in-law's Saturn Sky Red Line, with its rubbery but direct five-speed, and headed to an empty parking lot at a community college.

You'd think the toughest part would be mastering the interplay of clutch and throttle to leave the line without stalling or laying down 10-yard stripes of rubber. Most people can figure that out quickly. But when braking to a stop, they inevitably forget about the clutch pedal—I counsel newbies to give it a quick jab and pop the transmission into neutral. Longtime automatic drivers tend to ride the brake, which presents a conundrum as the engine attempts to keep powering ahead. Shuddering ensues, not all of it from the car. Colby had those moments, but within a half-hour, he was running laps around the lot, ready to commandeer his dad's Wrangler.

Next up was my 18-year-old niece, Natalie. She climbed into my 1993 Bronco and said, "Whoa! It has three pedals?" I knew I'd have to explain the clutch's friction point, the shift pattern, and the approximate speeds for each gear. But when I showed her the five forward speeds on the shift pattern, she said, "There's only one reverse?" She wondered why you need different gears in the first place. She wanted to understand how an engine and a transmission work so she could understand what she needed to do and why. So I delivered a discourse on clutches, what happens when you push and release that pedal, torque curves, and engine rpm—all to someone who'd just learned that cars can have three pedals.

She got it. In fact, she pulled some impressive moves even in her screw-ups. Once, she smoothly shifted from first to second without touching the clutch. Another time, she launched from third gear without stalling. The Bronco, despite its short first gear and heaps of torque, isn't easy to master. It's tough to stall, but its shifter throws are long and vague, and depressing the clutch pedal is like doing a one-legged squat while giving Shaq a piggyback ride. But within 20 minutes, Natalie was getting up into third gear and pulling to smooth stops.

Eventually, she managed to stall it, abruptly popping the clutch without giving it throttle. "No big deal," I said. "Put it in neutral and restart." She pulled the shifter to neutral, stared at the steering column, and furrowed her brow. "So I twist the key?" she asked. "Sorry, I've never driven a key car."

And there's another manual I hadn't considered—manual control of the starter motor. We should save a few of those too.

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