Lorraine Complains: You’ll have to pry my stick-shift from my cold, dead hand

I found the easiest way to become a one-per-center. I bought a car with a manual transmission.

“#SaveTheManuals” is a popular hashtag on social media, as it usurps saving the children, the whales and the planet, it seems. The fact is, it’s a few loud voices doing the yelling, and most of them are people like my colleagues.

We like driving; we like manuals. Yes, we know manuals no longer get better fuel economy, and we know that electronic wizardry has dampened the edges of the experience. We don’t care.

For a dying number of people, your right hand isn’t for holding a coffee or a cell phone; it’s for shifting. My 2020 Hyundai Elantra GT N Line is a hoot.

Manufacturers follow the money, though. Consider the rather sobering news from a J.D. Power study late last year that in the U.S., electric vehicles had surpassed – and nearly doubled – the sales of manuals. Didn’t see that coming. At least I didn’t.

It’s so easy to beat up on electric vehicle sales I failed to notice the demise of my favourite child next to the (tiny) surge of what’s-his-name. Sure, it’s a one per cent versus two per cent discussion, but still. While Canadians are a little more likely to opt for a stick, our offerings are based on what the American market decides, and it is overwhelmingly deciding we can take our cry for a manual, and shift it.

It’s not that manual transmissions got worse (though some would argue even that). It’s that automatic transmissions got better. Much, much better. They beat up every argument for keeping the manuals around.

Fuel consumption? An automatic can slip through more gears faster to get the best. Price? Buying a manual once meant a significant saving on the price tag. Rarely is that the case anymore, and when it is, it’s in the hundreds, not the thousands. No, in a classic debate, all I really have is this: I like it better.

The ongoing demise of the manual transmission is more noticeable in some places than others. Genesis discontinuing the option on their G70 for 2022 didn’t strike my radar as particularly sad, but the Jaguar F-Type? That car was born to be a manual, even if it wasn’t born as one. And no, paddle-shifting isn’t a compromise, it’s a consolation prize. Three pedals or bust.

I consider knowing what to do with a clutch a useful skill, even if you don’t get to exercise it very often. When I was a teenager, it was so “if you’re stuck with an idiot who gets drunk on a date and his car is a stick, you can drive yourself home” — quote courtesy of the late Alfred Sommerfeld. 

I taught both of my sons, wishing to instill the glorious feel of engaging with a vehicle instead of just mastering the point-and-shoot vanilla of an automatic. Both worked at car dealerships in their teens, and both could move cars most of their workmates couldn’t. As much as they complained and got exasperated in the learning – remember stalling in traffic, or on a hill, or (gasp!) in front of a girl? – both became proficient, and more importantly, I could get back to purchasing manual cars. 

Your right hand isn’t for holding a coffee or a cell phone — it’s for shifting

I encourage parents of new drivers to teach them on a manual. There are too many distractions in today’s cars, both those built-in and those we bring with us.

For a new driver, winnowing down what they must concentrate on begins in connection with the engine, finding the gears, anticipating changes in speed, and overcoming the hiccups.

The upsides are many. If you travel in most European and Asian countries and you rent a car, it’s likely to be a stick-shift. It’s a drag to land after a long flight in a strange place and find a car with three pedals you don’t know how to work. If you ever plan on owning a motorcycle, for off-road or on-road use, it’s likely to have a clutch, though even that arena is offering more automatics every year. If you think some of the #SaveTheManuals crowd is passionate, talk to the motorcyclists.

A hand holding a stickshift in a manual transmission car
A hand holding a stickshift in a manual transmission car Getty

I recently spent a few days with a 16-year-old girl and the conversation turned to driving. If you want to know how much the world has changed, my usual spiel about the importance of learning to drive stick was feeble; the conversation was about the importance of getting her licence — like, at all.

She’s not alone. Fewer kids are bothering, and the reasons are all around you. Rideshare apps, transit, and the escalating costs of vehicle ownership are all contributors to car culture losing its allure. And just like cigarettes, if you don’t snare them early, you’re unlikely to get them at all.

The times, they are a-changin’. 

Leave a Comment