My first experience behind the wheel of a car was in my family’s blue Subaru station wagon. It wasn’t luxurious. The Subaru predated automatic locks and power windows, its chassis had started to rust, and turning the steering wheel could be a Herculean struggle.
Then again, I was only about seven years old.
It didn’t matter, though: I was convinced that “my” car — for I’d declared that when I was old enough to drive, it would be behind the wheel of said Subaru — was more than just a car. It was a time machine, a spaceship, and a racing machine par excellence. Even though I could barely see over the dashboard or reach the pedals, an hour could be spent working the gearshift or punching in the jump to hyperspace. (Seriously, who hasn’t thought the hazard flasher button looks like it would engage the hyperdrive?)
Our bond, between car and driver, was unbreakable, like Michael Knight and KITT or B.A. Baracus and his van or Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. We escaped death on a weekly basis, rescued friends, and defeated enemies. Together, there was nothing we couldn’t do — assuming, of course, that it didn’t involve leaving the garage.
When the tow truck pulled that venerable rusted-out blue hulk out of our driveway for the last time, my only regret was that I’d never gotten the chance to start the engine.
At the age of 19, I took possession of my dad’s 1997 Honda Accord, a four-door sedan in a deep red. I’d driven our other car in the years since getting my license, a light blue Toyota Camry station wagon that was our third of that model.1
I’d become adept at piloting the Camry through the back streets and parking lots of my hometown, but the Accord presented a new challenge. At age 58, my dad had bought the Accord to be his fun-to-drive car. And that meant a manual transmission. (A librarian, even my father’s mid-life crises are responsible.)
I admit it: I initially pooh-poohed the idea of a manual transmission. What was the point of shifting gears when the car could just do it for you? Why run the risk of stalling out? Why deal with the unsettling experience of rolling backwards on a hill? And parallel parking was bad enough in Boston and environs with an automatic — why the hell make it even worse?
Never trust the judgment of teenagers.
Stick with it
Learning to drive stick is a frustrating process, especially for a kid who is sure he already knows everything there is to know about driving. If I’d had my way, I would have stuck with the comfort of the automatic transmission until the heat death of the universe.
My dad — quite the driver himself — wanted me to learn to drive stick. Getting back into the car with him for driving lessons years after I’d first learned was a bit like moving back into your parents’ house after college. (I can state this authoritatively, having done it not once but twice, to my chagrin.) Much as it seems like the power dynamic should have changed, that you should have outgrown being told what to do, everything somehow reverts back to old patterns. It’s a recipe for friction.
I struggled at first. There were more than a few rolled eyes and shouting matches. Like so many things we learn, driving stick is trial and error — emphasis on “error.” When starting out, for every time you successfully get the car into first, you stall out a dozen.
The trickiest part — at least for me — was the apparent lack of structure, like playing a game where you don’t know the rules. I remember being annoyed, for example, that there was no way for me to tell, from the dashboard, what gear I was in.
And the nerd in me wanted to watch the tachometer, to try and figure out exactly what RPMs signaled time to shift. Among other flaws with that plan, it’s quite hard to stare at a dial while you’re also trying to, you know, drive a car. I’m sure there are mathematical formulas that could tell you the precise time to shift gears, but what every driver of a manual transmission eventually learns is that the only way to know for sure is to listen to your car.
Can you hear me driving?
Listening to your car may not seem like something that comes naturally. But nerds are better at it than most: Not only are we usually surrounded by machines, but in many cases we’re already attuned to them. Ever gone to troubleshoot a relative’s ancient computer and heard the fans kicking up? Or found their network connection pushing bits a bit more slowly than it should? A lot of people don’t notice these things, or ignore them if they do.
Driving a stick shift is much the same. There’s a rhythm to it, but you appreciate the music only after long experience. (If you doubt that, then you’ve obviously never heard the discordant, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard screech of a mistimed shift attempt.) The more you drive stick, the more you get a feel for when the car wants you to shift: the pitch of the engine, the feel of acceleration when you step on the gas, and the exact point when the gears engage when you release the clutch.
The clutch pedal controls how quickly you release the clutch plate towards the flywheel; the two parts have to mesh and spin together to engage the gear you’re changing into and let the engine do its thing. On some cars, the transmission is forgiving and it’s an easy matter to sync up. On others, it feels like a hair’s-breadth movement of the pedal separates a perfect connection and a popped clutch, which can stall a car or worse. You can only learn by experience. I once assured a friend I could safely drive his BMW, then let the clutch out too fast and almost backed it into the parking garage wall.2
See, a stick-shift car isn’t an appliance. It’s not a toaster or a washing machine, where you push a button and it chugs along at its job. You have to take the time to get to know your car, to develop a relationship with it. Every manual car you drive asks and offers different things, and you have to adapt to unfamiliar vehicles; they don’t change themselves to fit your needs.
Highway to heaven
Why drive a stick? I can’t show you evidence that it will make you a safer driver, or a better driver, or that it will save you money on gas or repairs. It used to be true that a well-driven manual would consume less gasoline, and though stick-shift models still often cost a few hundred dollars less than their automatic siblings, anyone who’s had a clutch replaced knows the bill comes sooner or later. These days, neither safety, expertise, nor cost remain significant factors.
Qualitatively, though, there’s no comparison. Driving an automatic is a task; driving a stick shift is an art — an art that’s quickly disappearing. Edmunds, which tracks car sales, says that just seven percent of cars sold in the U.S. in the first half of 2012 had manual transmissions. These days, many probably consider driving a stick as quaint as churning your own butter, writing a letter by hand, or brewing a decent cup of tea.
So, maybe it’s not for everyone. But we nerds like lost causes. We learn Elvish, write FORTRAN on an iPhone, roast our own coffee, and shave with a straight razor not because those tasks are easy or make us fit in with the crowd. Nor, in many cases, do we even do such things because they’re empirically better.
We’re driven — if you’ll permit the expression — by a fundamental curiosity, and a basic need to challenge ourselves. To master what is hard.
Sometimes the hard thing is worth doing simply because it’s hard. It’s a philosophy behind great accomplishments from Hilary’s ascent of Everest to Kennedy’s promise of going to the moon. The hard things we do define us: They stretch our brains and our limits, and they give us the courage and confidence to do the even harder things.
I wish I could say that, at 19, I chose to get back in the car with my dad because it was the hard — but ultimately rewarding — thing to do. Truth is, I don’t remember why I decided to learn to drive stick. Maybe because I liked driving and it seemed like a way to get more out of it. Maybe because I was enticed by the promise of getting to drive something sportier than a station wagon. Maybe I was just bored that summer.
But the years have validated my decision: Since starting to drive a manual transmission 13 years ago, I’ve never looked back. I’ve even put my money where my mouth is: the car I bought last June is a manual. It even tells me what gear I’m in, that feature I longed for as a teenager, and has little arrow icons to indicate when I should be shifting up or down.
You know what? I wish I could turn that off.
Photo by Marco Arment.
Dan Moren is a writer whose work has appeared in Macworld, the Boston Globe, and on his parents' refrigerator. He's also a regular panelist on the award-winning podcast The Incomparable, a would-be novelist, and an occasional Dungeon Master. Shhhh.