TCS Daily


Stick-to-it-iveness

By Kenneth Silber - February 13, 2007 12:00 AM

Long ago I read somewhere that there are two things that people—or perhaps it's just men—will never admit to being bad at: sex and driving. However, it may be time that Americans confess to an ongoing erosion of skills in one of those areas. In particular, I refer to the declining public interest and ability in driving vehicles equipped with a manual transmission, or stick shift.

Currently, about 10 percent of new cars in the United States have manual transmissions, and this market share has been declining for decades. By contrast, some 85 percent of cars sold in Europe are manual, and throughout much of the world what was traditionally called the "standard" transmission remains in fact the standard. In the U.S., stick shift retains a subculture of enthusiasts, but their preference seems well on the way to becoming a rare and exotic taste.

This is unfortunate, because the advantages of the manual transmission are not trivial. They include improved gas mileage (some five to 10 percent better than comparable automatic transmissions), lower costs to purchase and maintain (less engineering is required at the outset, and there is less wear on the brakes), a wider range of options for controlling the vehicle (such as shifting to a lower gear or to neutral rather than braking), and a more fun driving experience (once you have actually learned how to do it).

Granted, the manual transmission has disadvantages as well, mostly stemming from the possibility of operator error. Shifting incorrectly can damage the transmission and potentially the engine. The clutch can be worn down by excessive use. The requirements of shifting might distract drivers from what is happening on the road. However, the fact that stick shift is more demanding is also an advantage, as it discourages inattentive driving and the holding of cell phones and coffee cups by those at the wheel.

I do not approach this subject as an automotive snob, nor as someone who disparages Daniel Craig, the actor now playing James Bond, for (possibly false) reports that he couldn't drive a manual. I am a Manhattan resident who has never owned a car, and I found stick shift difficult to learn (although not as difficult as have some). I briefly became adequate at it during a mid-1980s vacation in Scotland, with the stick on my left side, and then relearned the forgotten skill about a year ago so I could drive my fiancée's car. I still take no pleasure in driving stick in heavy traffic in and around New York. However, when I now drive an automatic, I feel some regret at having fewer means at hand (or foot) to control the car.

Yet the dichotomy between manuals and automatics may become less clear-cut, due to the growing availability of alternative transmission technologies that combine features or benefits of the two. These include semiautomatic transmissions, which enable drivers to shift gears manually but eliminate the need for a clutch pedal; one type of semiautomatic, the dual-clutch transmission, allows gears to be shifted with no interruption in power flow from engine to transmission. A different alternative is the continuously variable transmission, which requires neither manual nor automatic shifting, replacing discrete gears altogether with a flexible pulley system.

It is unclear, at this point, which if any of these alternative technologies will gain more than a foothold in the market, and what their overall effect will be on the way Americans drive. One can imagine technologies such as the continuously variable transmission accelerating the eclipse of the stick shift, by maximizing driver ease while allowing greater efficiency than traditional automatics. Or, perhaps technologies like the dual-clutch transmission will spark new awareness of the benefits of active driver involvement in the subtleties of the car's performance. While I personally hope for the latter, I recognize that no one-size-fits-all solution is appropriate for the diverse situations and skill sets of American drivers.

Moreover, there is a broader question that the evolution of automobile transmissions raises about technology. Much science fiction and social commentary has evoked the idea that technology will make people passive and dependent, for example in a Star Trek episode where aliens have ceased to control or understand the machines their ancestors built. But the real history of technology shows a countervailing trend; people often prefer a hands-on approach, in areas ranging from blogging to amateur astronomy to home improvement. For some people, control and performance will remain priorities in choosing their cars, and for this reason I suspect the stick shift is not going to disappear anytime soon.


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25 Comments

I am reminded about the old joke:
LBJ (Mr. Great Society) wanted to ban the manual transmission, because he didn't want anyone shifting for themselves.

It was a joke, wasn't it?

Stuck with stick
Until about ten years ago, I drove stick shifts. But then I broke my right wrist. And I lost comfortable use of my car for several months while my wrist healed.

Since then, it's been automatic transmissions all the way.

all better now
so if you're all healed go on and get back to actually *enjoying* driving, have some interaction with the road instead of just being a passenger

outlaw the auto! :)

Zeroshift
Great article, but you missed the most exciting new manual transmission technology out there. http://www.zeroshift.com/

Standard Transmissions
Without being impolite I must say that this article, while mildly interesting, is hardly original. Back in the early 60's (I am getting old by the way) this “same” article appeared in a national magazine. No, I am not accusing anyone of plagiarism, just lack of originality. The details are somewhat different, but the thrust is the same and they had a nice picture with spider webs all over the stick shift too. I guess all things old really are new again. The standard transmission has been dying since the 50’s, then the 60’s, the 70s, and so on and so forth, etc., etc., etc., …..Oh well, you get the message.

DSG and similar transmissions
We have a new VW GTI with DSG transmission (Dual Shift Gearing), and it can be driven in automatic mode, manual mode (manual shift/6 gears, no clutch) and sport mode (automatic but winds the gears out). We love it! DSG looks to be a very popular and growing technology over the coming years. Hubby and I both enjoy stick but arthritis has prevented us from buying any more manual cars with clutch.

We also have a new Infinity G35X (X is the all-wheel drive version) and it has both automatic and clutchless manual modes (5 gears). Since it does not employ dual gearing you cannot shift on the fly instantaneously as in the GTI, but the G has beaucoup charms in other areas.

Both cars are so much fun to drive (and the G has the Studio on Wheels with a 9GB hard drive for music!) that we enjoy both in different ways and pine for whichever car we are not in. A good problem, to be sure.

Infiniti, that is
Not something spellcheck would catch even if I used it. ;-)

no fluid drive of any kind?
The connection is always 100% mechanical, not fluid?

60 years ago Studebaker (?) had a vacuum clutch that only required foot operation when starting from a stop.

Hate automatic transmission
Good in a traffic jam but otherwise....

Try a stick in San Francisco...
While I much prefer a stick to automatic, I found that a stick shift is a real pain in the hindquartes in a hilly city like San Francisco. If I lived there, I'd drive an automatic.

Kneemoe
Bite me, Kneemoe. I'm a sixty-five year old woman. I don't HAVE to get all testosterone about driving.

about 2 weekends ago...
I was driving into work on a Saturday Morning, a little O/T.

Off to the side of I-5 South just inside Oceanside, CA, I saw a steering wheel and part of the steering column off to the side of the road. Just laying there.

There was no sign of the rest of the car, even up the embankments.

I wonder how far he got without that rather vital piece of the car's anatomy...

I don't get it
I've owned both stick and auto and presently have two vehicles with auto trans and one with a stick. The stick is a 5-speed manual and it is more fun around town, but there is no difference between the two on the highway.

Either are fine with me, unless it's in a hot rod; then it is stick only!

Disagree
Heck, we even deisagree on this. Amazing. Unless it is a Porsche a manual suck.

I grew up on manuals and in traffic they are a utter pain. Same for towing.

Standard Transmission - histoical note - a matter of habits - good and bad ...
I recollect a DeSoto "Semi Automatic" in the early days of automatic transmissions ... some neighbors had one - I think the model year was 1953 or earlier. It was a sturdy car. But it was strange to drive.
I grew up with standard transmission, learned to drive with it, darn near flunked driver ed trying to drive an automatic, didn't pass any car control tests until I got behind the wheel of the good old stick. Later, I had to drive another automatic ... took me a while to get used to it; but it was better than the driver-ed disaster --- until one day I was in a hurry and darn near killed myself trying to put the thing is 2nd gear - the auto shift lever was on the right of the steering column. So I stick with the stick. It's a good habit to keep control of the car - it's saved my car, if not my life lots of times, from icy roads, erratic traffic, and super-highway blowouts. I wouldn't have one without a clutch. I'm an old guy now, with spinal chord injury that's really screwed up the balence and walking. But I still drive the stickshift car. The only place I have annoyances with it is on those hills; I can still handle them, but it is a littler harder - need more practice since I'm not in San Franciso - where I'd more likely take the cable car or ride the bus than drive the car. From my perspective, the stickshift promotes good driving habits which you should never leave behind. But I now wonder how long it'll last. When I recently picked up the car at the dealer's repair shop, I had to wait a spell to get the car out of storage - the repair shop had to find a mechanic/tech who still knew how to drive the stick - especially without burning out the clutch. I think we asked 4 or 5 before we found one who could and would comfortably drive the stick.
-- As we leave the traditional combustion engine behind, so too will we leave the stick shift behind. I wonder what it'll take to assure the development of all those good car control habits, or will the robots acquire them, too??

Stick is better until they.....
The stick is best until they come up with an automatic as solid as a stick-clutch and at same times as universal when coming or going up hills or down hills. I can take a stick shift and drive in mud up to the frame in car or truck and not get stuck with out needing four wheel drive. That is because of 30 plus years of driving stick mostly and auto semi mostly. It becomes a feeling of when to down shift and when not to. They tend to get better mileage in sticks, but have driven a few automatics that put the mileage in gas to shame of the stick. That is because that particular vehicle did have the right ratio to ratio in the trans and drive train system with weight including car load capabilities. Most automatics do not...do not I said.
AGAIN...The stick is best until they come up with an automatic as solid as a stick-clutch and at same times as universal when coming or going up hills or down hills ON WET OR ICED OR MUD ROADS..

Not my fault if you don't know how to drive
Take lessons, you'd be surprised.

San Francisco is a good test.

Rude...
If you truly are a 65 year old woman, then I would have expected you to have some manners. "Bite me" is hardly good form, and I saw nothing in Kneemoe's post that deserved such a comeback.

-Bob

Rude...
If you truly are a 65 year old woman, then I would have expected you to have some manners. "Bite me" is hardly good form, and I saw nothing in Kneemoe's post that deserved such a comeback.

-Bob

Rude...
If you truly are a 65 year old woman, then I would have expected you to have some manners. "Bite me" is hardly good form, and I saw nothing in Kneemoe's post that deserved such a comeback.

-Bob

Oops
Response to wrong post. Since corrected.

Stick It!
Oh, how I loved driving my '92 Eagle Talon TSi, with the turbo and all-wheel drive and five speed manual. I burned out at least three clutches on that baby, until the crummy Mitsubishi engine self-destructed. But what fun to drive! Now it sits in my garage, awaiting a junk yard.

Can't wait until I get something without a top that can really move!

But I do have to say: Driving a stick in stop-n-go traffic is really the pits. But on the open road, get outa my way, here I come! (Well, when I get my next one...)

-Bob

65 year old woman..........?
You're right hobnobbob. This woman sounds like the one that use to drive around our town acting that way. Till she met her just as crazy male driver. After he pulled out in front of her like she did everyone and caused her lock up all four wheels to keep from hitting him. She and her pink Caddy drove a little more respectful. At least when she seen him nearby she did not pull out in front of him again...ha..
Best of lunk to you 65 year old. I hope your grandkids is praying for you before you drive and those you meet also.

Stick shift works better on hills for me...
I strongly prefer a stick shift over an automatic going up hills. Sometimes automatics feel like they're having too hard of a time getting up the hills. I live in the Ozarks where hill climbing ability counts & there are some that the van with auto transmission can barely climb. Have to downshift the Miata but the little five speed makes the climb without having me worried before getting up that hill. Shifting gears soon becomes second nature when you drive these regularly. I doubt I'll buy anymore automatics so long as manuals are still available.

Durability also.....and tuff
I have a 68 chev pu. It also has the orginal starter not just the same engine and trans. Yep, you heard me; orignal starter. Every few years I put in new bushings brass or copper and new brushes. The armature looks ruff but it still clicks and goes.

It the truck has enough miles on it to out do three engines. But, I pulled a slick trick that if more of you people would do; you would not have to buy a newer vehicle every few years. What is that trick?

You, either have the engine pulled and have it blue-printed balanced/or you have the engine pulled at about 80 to 100,000 miles(VERY IMPORTANT YOU DO THIS BEFORE PROPER ENGINE OIL PRESSURE STARTS DROPPING THAT IS FACTORY SPEC), anyway, you have engined pulled and have only(only) the main bearings and rod bearings, and cam bearings pulled and replaced and possibly the a valve job.

You see the surfaces of the crank and cam are now more polished(smoother) from breakin time and what have you where they almost contact the bearings, and so is the surface of the cam lobes that contact the cam.

By replacing the bearings and all, it is putting new bearings against a more polished surface. You now have an engine that will last yrs longer(if you do regular maintance), which makes it worth it if you have to have the automatic tranny rebuilt. But, if you had the standard tranny, you would need to this and you will have a vehicle that last almost twice the time and not twice the price.


The tranny is a 62-63 three speed. I could sue GM I guess because this was factory installed-I have proof. They ran short or a strike was going on and they installed the older model tranny instead of the one being used in 1968.

For those who know very little about trannys-transmissions?
The older standard has a different designed front seal which is not a seal at all. It has a special designed sling ring with a return groove in the casing. With very small clearance between the front shaft and the housing this seal-all metal is designed; this allows only little amount of 80 weight gear oil to get by; just enough to oil thrust shim. With this design the oil returns to tranny crank through the return channel. Permanent seal most of time.

Obvious this worked so well they redsigned and made it a rubber against shaft seal so that we have to have them fixed more often, ha...

The rest of the tranny is built well also. I have had to take apart the tranny in my truck only once about ten years ago to clean it up Oil gumm build up, and put in fresh gear oil.

Still going strong and there is no slipping like auto-slip trannys are..

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