Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Clutching the Obsolete: A Meditation On The Stick Shift

I recently purchased a new (to me) car. It was definitely time--my old car, a 1998 Honda Civic, had finally reached the point where the cost to repair its many problems far outweighed its actual value. With the assistance of my girlfriend, I auditioned new cars and found one that seemed like an acceptable replacement. In many ways the new car is a huge upgrade over my previous car. First and foremost, it has air conditioning. It has power windows and locks! It's a hybrid! It's also a Honda Civic! It doesn't have over 200,000 miles! You can't pick off rusty pieces from its side in an idle moment! It has a USB port! It has a trunk that actually stays closed! However...

However.

It's an automatic. I've never had a car that was my car that didn't have a standard transmission. My mother taught me to drive stick on our family's Honda Civic (sensing a trend yet?) station wagon, which was a tearful and sometimes frustrating process for both of us, but ultimately I mastered the ability to shift. Sure, I went to Driver's Ed as well, but I really learned to drive when I was in that car with my mom. Once you've stalled in the middle of a busy intersection and can't get going again, or in the middle of a large hill--unable to continue, but afraid to roll back--it all comes together fairly quickly. It takes longer for the remembered panic to fade, however. I never quite pushed the envelope the way that she did, whipping around corners in third gear, but I relished the control over my cars that shifting seemed to impart.

I discovered after leaving home that driving a stick was not really a . . . standard skill to have, especially as a woman. Demand for manual transmissions is down, as are the numbers of people who know how to drive them. Most new cars aren't even made with manual transmissions, and fewer than 7% of cars sold are standards. When I was making my car purchase, I actually did make a conscious choice between a manual Honda Fit and an automatic Civic. I went with the automatic for a lot of reasons that continue to make sense. But a certain portion of me--personified while I'm driving by my restless, useless left foot--regrets the choice.

Late, lamented
While I'm enjoying my new automatic, I also miss that tie to my mother, especially my ability to pass on the knowledge to the next generation. My toddler and I used to sit in my old car and roll the windows up and down, push and pull the locks, and play with the gear shift. These are things that will soon be as obsolete as dialing a rotary telephone or owning VHS tapes. Even though I knew I was going to have to buy a new car in the next thirteen or fourteen years, I had a romantic notion of teaching my son to drive a stick shift. Obsolete skills, like DNA, have a strong urge for self-perpetuation. A small voice argues that it might be useful someday, wherever his life eventually takes him.

Aside from the opportunity for parental instruction, I regret the fact that I am no longer a part of the club of stick shift drivers, even though my exit was voluntary. I've always loved coming to a stop on a hill and keeping perfect balance between my clutch and gas, standing still without needing a brake. I loved listening to my car and figuring out the perfect time to change gears. When I graduated from college, I got a car from my family. It was a four-speed Honda Civic (surprise!), and I adored it and promptly drove it across the country and back again. Using my car, I taught (or tried to teach) several people to drive a stick. I relish the idea that I can drive pretty much any car that's parked in front of me, once I have the keys in hand. It feels independent. I miss the feeling of control, the nuance, the fact that you are forced to pay attention to the car and not the phone or the drink.

Luckily, I have a plan. In fourteen years, I will go to Europe. I can teach my son to drive a standard and sight-see at the same time. My mother would definitely approve.

Further Reading:
Check the Manual (Transmission): Stick Shift Cars Going Away
Death to the Stick Shift (ouch)
Parents Hope Stick Shifts Will Keep Kids Minds on Driving (ah, local news)

Meditation Index

14 comments:

Sarah said...

You totally make me want to learn how to drive a stick! My father was always willing to teach me but given his low patience threshold I didn't want to chance it on his truck. I've been an automatic driver all my life.

Helgagrace said...

It's really fun! Having a patient teacher definitely helps.

jpetroroy said...

Just forward this to Brian--he's in love with his Honda Civic hybrid standard. He had to special order it in 2004 :)

Helgagrace said...

I'm jealous! Hmm, maybe next time I can special order . . .

Kirsten said...

I just got rid of my 1993 Honda Civic (but mine was an automatic!). I had to learn on stick shift cars when I was 16 (that's all my family owned), and though my personal cars have always been automatics, I do think it's important to have the ability to drive a stick. There are several times in my life it's reallllllly come in handy (I'm thinking of a night in college when I was the only sober person who knew how to drive the stick shift car.....). I'll make sure my kid learns how to drive one, when the time comes. (Fortunately, her dad insists that his car be a stick shift, so there's no danger there.)

Katherine C. James said...

Driving a stick shift is the only kind of driving that makes sense to me: it's fun and involving; no shift is boring. I had a stick shift used VW bug in college and then a stick shift new Volvo. From 1998-2005, I chose to have no car in SF. When I got my 2005 Prius, it was a bizarre feeling to go from a stick to *just a knob on the dashboard.* I often feel that something is missing, particularly when I am on one of SF's steep hills. As you describe, the skill of keeping the car perfectly balanced between clutch and gas gave me a feeling of mastery in which I took great pleasure.

Susan Champlin said...

My soul sister! You perfectly encapsulated my feelings about driving a stick shift--it started when I was little and my dad would let me do the "up-over-up" or the "straight back" in his Triumph--and the pang I felt when I gave up my 1997 Honda Civic stick for a used 1999 Honda Civic automatic because my Beloved had back problems. Now, here in NYC, I have no car at all, but I still dream of getting behind the wheel of a stick and hitting the road--preferably a winding country backroad.

Andrea Twombly said...

I learned to drive a stick shift with my dad in a 1972 VW van, and an automatic VW with my mother, and I drove a stick until motherhood loomed, at which time I decided that a four-door sedan would save our soon-to-be daughter many head injuries during my clumsy attempts to get her into a carseat in the backseat of a sportscar. JT and I went test driving cars recently, and she insisted on trying only cars with a stick. We learned while driving a HONDA CIVIC that the new automatic transmissions with electronic controls actually use less gasoline than stick shifts. But still - there's nothing like being fully involved with driving. I still miss watching the tachometer rise as I ready for the next gear. And those wonderful memories of my parents giving me wings via wheels leave me with a hankering for another Volkswagen.

DancingDog said...

I miss driving a standard. I felt so much more in control, especailly in snow or on wet roads. It's been years and I still rest my hand on the gear shift because it feels so right.
My husband's truck is a standard and I love driving it.

dissa12 said...

My mom also taught me to drive stick, although, unlike you, I never mastered it. She taught me on the giant hills of Gloucester MA (afraid to take my foot off the brake for fear we'd slide backwards down the hill) and on the logging roads of Pittsburg, NH (afraid of being plowed over by a logging truck). Fond memories now, but I nearly peed my pants then.

Major Bedhead said...

I love driving a manual. I had an automatic for a few years and was continually stomping on the floor. I don't know that I'd go back to automatic unless forced to.

nielsent said...

maybe i could have learned this if YOU had taught me?

Anonymous said...

Bravo, excellent idea

Anonymous said...

You summed up my feelings about stick shifts perfectly. I learned to drive a stick in a Ford Aerostar, and later had a personal car that was a stick shift. I was very proud that all the women in my family (my sister, my mom and her two sisters) all owned stick shift cars. There's certainly something about defying stereotypes that is satisfactory.