Musings on the Manual Transmission

Posted on June 8, 2011


As I write this, my daily driver (a ’69 beetle) sits un-driven for the past two weeks while I wait for parts.

Meanwhile I’ve been daily driving my AMG, a fun car for sure, but one that lacks a third pedal.

To compensate, I went and sat in the bug today and shifted gears, making engine noises like a seven year old just to pretend.  It felt nice.

Bottom line is I miss my manual.

And I might be missing it even more in the future given that, according to the EPA, only 9.1% of cars sold in 2010 were equipped with a manual transmission.  Unsurprising given the general lack of interest shown towards driving by your average American encumbered with their Starbucks, iphone, and GPS unit.

But the steady decline of the stick shift cannot be blamed solely on an American public uninterested in enjoying their drive-technology seems to be playing a huge part as well.

While SUV’s have driven the manual transmission out of the market, they are not the only culprit.

Paddle shifters, twin clutch gearboxes, continuously variable transmissions, and speed-shifting conventional torque converter transmissions are becoming the norm even in the enthusiast and sports car category.

I’ve driven cars with these transmissions, indeed my very own AMG has one.  I don’t like them.

My dislike for these new slick transmissions has nothing to do with speed of gear change or the number of ratios in the gearbox.  These days, many of the paddle shift boxes have as many (or more) gears and can shift them faster than even a seasoned stick driver.

The difference, for me, is involvement.

Shifting gears yourself requires a mechanical and physical sequence of events to occur-feet moving in sequence, hand on the shifter guiding it into place, etc.  Pulling a paddle “up” requires nothing more than asking the computer to shift gears for you via electronics.

An old fashioned manual transmission is responding to an input while a new auto-manual is granting a request.

I’d rather tell than ask.

With that said, however, the new dual clutch gearboxes and CVT’s are certainly the wave of the future, and a good thing.  I’ve driven a DSG VW-it rocked.  Plus many of these trick transmissions are posting better fuel economy numbers than their three pedal counterparts.

Even so, Steve McQueen wouldn’t look quite so bad-ass double clutch shifting the GT 390 in Bullitt if he was forced to use plastic paddle shifters.

For me, I’ll keep my third pedal and my STM sticker.