Do You Shift for Yourself?
By Patrick F. Cannon
Last week, I wrote about the now rare wringer clothes washer, and mentioned that you could still actually buy one. This week, I thought I’d write about another archaic throwback – cars with manual transmissions. Although it gets more difficult every year, you can still get one.
Of the 19 cars I’ve owned in my lifetime, six had manual transmissions: two VW Beetles, a Volvo station wagon, Fiat sports coupe, Ford Escort hatchback, and a Ford Probe GT (my favorite). Before I owned my own cars, I occasionally drove some friend’s beater, which almost always had a three-speed column shifter. I learned to drive on one of these. While in the army, I regularly drove a ¾-ton truck; a few times a 2-1/2 ton truck; jeeps of various vintages; and even an International Scout, which was used for guard duty at Fr. Erwin, California. All, of course, had manual transmissions.
As far as I can recall, the first car with an automatic transmission I ever saw was in a pristine Pre-World War II Oldsmobile sedan that picked us up when we were hitchhiking to caddy at the Edgewood Country Club near Pittsburgh. This would have been in the early 1950s. While automatic transmissions were more widely available by then, they were still an expensive option. They also provided poorer gas mileage, and took longer to accelerate than a well-handled car with a manual transmission.
Automatic transmissions are now standard equipment and none of the above is true. To provide maximum flexibility in today’s generally smaller engines, 8-speed transmissions are common, but as many as 12 are available. Some have various modes, depending on how you’re driving. Most common would be “economy” or “sport.” The latter would delay shifts for maximum acceleration. My BMW can be shifted manually by moving the shifter to the left; you can then shift through five speeds at any RPM point you choose. I rarely do this, as most of my driving is done on level terrain, on expressways and city streets.
While I concede there is a certain pleasure in driving a sporty car with manual transmission on an empty road, this happens so rarely that it’s not worth the trouble of constantly shifting gears in city driving. If I had the extra dough, and the room, I confess I would like nothing better than to have a Morgan Plus 6 (look it up) to tool around the hinterlands of New England of Appalachia (or even parts of Illinois).
Even the most sophisticated race cars – Formula 1 – do not require the driver to tramp down with his left foot on a clutch pedal to change gears. He (there are no women currently) simply uses a steering-wheel-mounted paddle to change gears, a system that is also becoming available on passenger cars. As with most systems on cars today, all of this is controlled by computers.
Speaking of computers, who would actually wish to return to the days of the regular tune up? In the “good old days,” you would bring your car to a mechanic every 10,000 miles or so for a required tune up, which consisted of changing distributer points (again, if you’re a youngster, look it up), installing new spark plugs, cleaning and adjusting the carburetor, changing the oil and filter, greasing running gear and suspension components, and adjusting the timing with a gadget called a timing light. When you picked up your car, you would expect it to run once again like a fine watch.
I once took a course to learn how to do all of this myself, but never really used the knowledge because my next car had computerized systems. People who own and cherish classic and collector cars often still have and use these skills. Of course, some day most cars will be electric, and have no transmissions at all. We’re also told they will drive themselves. While I don’t miss shifting gears, that’s where I think I might draw the line. I can just see Comrade Putin directing his minions to cause chaos on our highways (or at least more than we already have).
Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon