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Sit down behind the wheel. Close the door. Fasten your seatbelt and shoulder harness.

With your right hand, grasp the gearshift knob, eighteen inches off the floor atop the shifter stick. Grasp the knob from above, so that it fits into the palm of your hand.

With your left foot, press the clutch pedal to the floor. Push the stick around until you find "neutral," that slot that allows the stick left-right movement. Once in neutral, release the clutch.

Shove the key into the ignition switch -- yes, a simple, flat metal key. Turn the key clockwise, and hear the little engine spring to life with a tenor roar. Is the engine warm and eager? Or cold and reluctant? Let it idle a few seconds to grow warm, or not: your choice, and your consequences.

Now it's time to get under way. Put your right foot on the brake pedal and release the parking brake with your left foot. Then move your left foot back to the clutch and press it to the floor. With your right hand, still clutching the shift knob, shove the stick hard left and then up. The shifter engages first gear with a brisk "thunk."

Pivot your right foot on its heel so that the ball of your foot shifts rightward from the brake pedal to the accelerator pedal. Rest your foot lightly on the accelerator. Partially lift your left foot off the clutch. Let the car edge forward for just a second before releasing the clutch completely; and in that brief time, listen to the engine:

Is it revving high enough, or not? If so, release the clutch fully, gently, so that the car moves smoothly into full motion. If the revs seem low, or if the car is pointed uphill, depress the accelerator lightly before releasing the clutch; you don't want the engine to die, but you don't want to powershift either. It is a matter of judgment. You and the car will discuss it, through sound, vibration, and acceleration (or the lack thereof) in the half-second that this decision requires.

Clutch released, the car moves out smartly; three miles an hour, then five. Lift your right hand off the gearshift knob and grasp the steering wheel in the two o'clock position. Depress the accelerator: eight miles an hour; twelve. It'll soon be time to consider second gear.

Congratulations. You've just started a 1991 Honda Civic sedan with a four-speed manual transmission. All those steps, all those decision points -- and yet the complete process takes five seconds. Seven, perhaps. Easy as pie.

Or it seems that way -- if you've driven a stick, and only a stick, for 35 years. Tens of thousands of cold starts, hundreds of thousands of shifts, the endless soft-shoe dance across three foot pedals: they engrave themselves on your nervous system until you could no sooner forget them than forget to breathe.

But every stick-shift jockey has to start somewhere. For me, "somewhere" was an empty church parking lot and a '64 Volkswagen. It took some work, it did, to learn to pop the clutch reliably, without stalling.

I got there, though, thanks to my father's tutelage. Dad wasn't an easy man to know; moody, touchy, insensitive, insecure. Surprise, surprise, he wasn't much of a teacher. He took the typical questions that a kid might ask as a challenge to his own competence.

And yet Dad held his temper, that time when he taught me the art of the stick shift. No matter how often I stalled out that poor Beetle he would offer sound advice and send me out to try again.

I don't know how he managed it, or why, but I'm grateful. High school driving classes taught me how to drive Mom's car -- a big wide Buick with an automatic transmission and power everything, a car that did all the work for you. But ddn't do it very well. Dad taught me to drive simple, severe cars that did none of the work for you, but would do whatever you could physically make them do.

And for 35 years thereafter, I drove a stick: four speeds, five speeds, even an eight speed for awhile. I'm no great driver, nor a lover of big engines and many horses; but I liked little cars that let you feel the surface of the road, that would sing to you with their gearboxes and, if you listened, tell you just how much more of third gear they were willing to put up with. Simple cars for simpler times. Cars you could wear like a tee shirt.

And besides, manual transmissions got better mileage and performed better than automatics, right?

As the years passed, not so right. Automatic transmission improved -- in capability, flexibility, and in the end, even fuel efficiency. And you didn't have to learn to clutch, or even shift much if you didn't want to. Your robot masters in the drive train have it all taken care of.

When America fell in love with sport utility vehicles, that was pretty much the end for manual transmissions. Nobody wanted to wrangle a clutch in one of those monsters. Today, maybe seven percent of cars sold in this country are equipped with manual transmissions. Automatic transmissions are good, they're efficient, they're easy to use. People want them.

There's no tragedy here. America will not fall because today's teens, mostly, don't know what a clutch pedal is for. Maybe for other reasons, but not that one.

And me? I've driven an automatic for six years. Not just any automatic, either, but a Prius hybrid. I wanted a hybrid; and for such a car, a manual transmission is not an option.

A Prius offers the driver, basically, two gears: forward and reverse. All the finesse is handled by the sophisticated software that runs the car according to its own logic. A logic that, by the way, I don't always agree with. And yet I have no regrets; the Prius is a comfortable, capable car, and a miracle of engineering. It has never let us down.

But the Prius doesn't sing to me, nor let the feel of the road seep up through the tires. You don't wear a Prius; you sit back in it, as in an easy chair, and let it do the work. And I'm older now, and maybe that's best.

But we have an old car we don't drive much -- a '91 Civic, by odd coincidence. We keep it around for emergencies. The Civic is a very simple car; it's so much smaller and lighter than today's cars, even than today's Civics. Windows that crank, power nothing, no radio, and a five-speed stick.

I take it out from time to time. I sit in the driver's seat, turn the key, and my hands and feet know exactly what to do. They'll never forget, they can never forget.

And I pop the clutch and the Civic hops light-footedly down the road. Singing, I'm still in first, I'm ready for second, I'm ready for second, second is good, second is good, try third, try third. And I work the lever and push the clutch and manipulate the drive train my own self. On a quick spin back to simpler times.

Originally posted to Robert Dobbs on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 06:19 AM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA.

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Comment Preferences

  •  We own three vehicles (9+ / 0-)

    The Mister's Scion, my Cruiser, and an old Ford pickup the entire neighborhood uses for hauling crap.

    All three are manuals.   Which means there's a couple of people in the neighborhood that can't borrow the pick up.

    I learned to drive on a manual -- and yes, I remember the frustration of learning how to coordinate the clutch with the gas and move without stalling.  And how, suddenly, it "clicked" -- but in those early days of driving, the ability would leave me when trying to start on a hill, or under the pressure of heavy traffic.  But I lived in a semi-rural area, so had space and time for it all to become second nature.

    Our sons are of an age now that they'll be learning to drive.  We're planning on getting a used car with an automatic for them to use -- we live in a city and the roads and traffic aren't as forgiving as they were when I was a teenager.  I'll feel more comfortable with their using an automatic.

    But we'll also make sure they know how to drive a manual, so they aren't the poor unfortunates who can't borrow a pick up, because they never learned to drive a stick.

    I'm a Ripplearian: I don't know; don't really care; let there be songs to fill the air

    by Frankenoid on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 06:39:25 AM PDT

    •  Since people keep pickups running for decades... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      rockhound, Spirit of Life, chimene

      ...that's probably the most practical reason to for kids to learn a stick.  You don't want to ignore older tech in your environment until it's truly gone.  And old pickups take a long, long time to go.  They're almost always valuable enough to fix.  

      Some time back I saw a guy trying to start a classic Mercedes gull wing, '50s era, and having a world of trouble -- sputtering engine, uneven idle. He kept fiddling with something on the dash.  I realized he was trying to work the choke, and not doing it very well. But most of us aren't likely to run into a car with a manually operated carburetor anymore.

  •  Adapting back and forth… (6+ / 0-)

    We've been spending three months a year for the last 5 where there are only sticks to drive (I used to so it was easy). When we arrive, I adapt instantly, with no issues whatsoever. The return home is another matter. After three months of steady stick driving, I spend the next week or so reaching for the clutch with my left foot. Is this a symptom of the fact that it seems to be more difficult for people to "unlearn" something than learn? Yes, I'm doubling back to politics in that the opposition seems to know that all they have to do is throw extreme idiocy out there and it has a tendency to stick, even after proven wrong. My favorite example: with some people I have to prove over and over again that Social Security is not on the road to bankruptcy, and why.

    I'm voting for the UPPITY ONE

    by qua on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 06:41:40 AM PDT

    •  I have read... (0+ / 0-)

      ...that we have neurons spread throughout our entire body, and that they are where much of  learned motion -- the moves we practice till we don't have to think about them anymore -- resides.  I suspect that they take awhile to let go of their conditioned responses.

      Political analogy? Only insofar that political opinions that go against reason are not based in the part of the brain that handles reasoning.

  •  When I Got My V6 VW Passat (6+ / 0-)

    I had to order it special from Germany so I could get a stick. Everything was either auto or that clutchless shifting. I figured if I was going to spend that much money and get a car with a powerful engine, well I wanted to be able to enjoy it :).

    When opportunity calls pick up the phone and give it directions to your house.

    by webranding on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 06:46:54 AM PDT

  •  My old '83 Ford Ranger is a stick shift. (5+ / 0-)

    My youngest daughter is intimidated by it and has not learned to drive it yet.  

    When my first daughter was sixteen, her first car was an MGB.  I made her take it to a large shopping center parking lot that closed on Sundays, so when it was empty we would practice.  I would not let her 'solo' in it until she could park on a steep slope, turn off the engine, restart and start forward without rolling backward.  One thing about an MGB, the damn thing is a garage queen.  The brakes seem to last no longer than two weeks, and there is always something breaking or wearing out on it.  We traded it in on more reliable transportation for her, which was another stick shift car.

    The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

    by Otteray Scribe on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 06:48:32 AM PDT

  •  I suppose that I'm a quasi-Luddite... (6+ / 0-)

    I've always had manual transmissions. The SO and I recently spent an inordinate amount of time finding a new car with a manual transmission, as none (repeat: "none") of our local dealerships order anything but automatics for their lots. Grrr....

    And don't get me started on those damned Keurig coffee-machines, which take the "art" out of making a tasty cup of coffee.

    And get off my lawn, LOL :~)

    Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

    by angry marmot on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 06:51:47 AM PDT

  •  When I drive the stick, my brain sounds just like (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rockhound, BonesJones

    your diary!  I can do it, but I have to think about it.  At one time my sister had a truck with the handle of the shifter on upside down.  I need the "gear map", I couldn't process the upside down one fast enough to drive the car!

    If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.

    by weck on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 07:09:56 AM PDT

  •  Yes, it does seem awfully complicated... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    weck, rockhound, BonesJones, angry marmot

    ...when you break it out like that.  The trick is not to think about it and just go on instinct.  The only time I worry about it is when I'm stopped on a steep hill and some jerk pulls up too close behind me.  That's when I start thinking about the actual mechanics of getting the car moving without rolling back.  I've never rolled into someone, but I worry about it.

    A while back, my wife and I were listening to some music, and she remarked that she was in awe of drummers, because they're independently using all four limbs to create something that's cohesive, and how she could never do that.  I replied to her, "you can drive a stick shift, can't you?"

    She also learned on a VW Beetle, by the way, and she says that if you can work one of those, you can work any manual transmission. And she truly learned the hard way -- her dad was working the stick shift from the passenger side, and he kept starting her in third gear.  Once she figured out how to get it in first, it was a lot easier.

    •  There's a lot to learn... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bill W

      ...but it sinks in with practice, and becomes automatic.  The human brain and nervous system is truly a wondrous thing.

      I drove a stick for many years in San Francisco.  And yes, I many times had to halt at that dread stop sign halfway up Gough Street hill and hope I could pop the clutch before rolling backward into the car behind me.  That was where I picked up the eight speed, a Plymouth Champ (a rebadged Mitsubishi) with a "twin-stick" transmission that was actually a junior-grade truck transmission.  You had your four gears on one stick, and another stick to an auxiliary two-speed transmission that changed the torque and top-end on the four regular gears.  So there could be high first, low first, high second, low second.  

      With the clutch in low first, I could pop the clutch on Gough Street hill and not roll backward two inches.  I loved that thing.

  •  First car I had was a 69 VW bug (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    weck, BonesJones

    With a stick, which was the first stick I drove.  Bought it one day and drove it 300 miles back to college the next day.  There were some stall moments!

    The darkness drops again but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? William Butler Yeats

    by deepsouthdoug on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 07:29:47 AM PDT

  •  Learned to drive in a '74 Gremlin 3-speed (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    weck, BonesJones

    Moved back and forth between automatics and stick shifts for my entire driving life. I now drive a 2002 PT Cruiser with a 5-speed manual, complete with the factory "cue ball" shifter, and I love it! Plus, it gets much better gas mileage than the '02 PT automatic our family has.

    I vote we run Rick Scott out of Florida on a high-speed rail.

    by ObamOcala on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 08:02:11 AM PDT

  •  nice poetry to this... (4+ / 0-)

    ...though truth to tell, all my recent cars have been sticks and I only fell off the wagon this year because the used car market (when yours has just been totalled and the clock is ticking) doesn't always give you first choice. (note to my car:  I love you just the way you are, keep working!)  Automatics are a very american thing.  Makes it easier to eat the cheeseburger.

    ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

    by jessical on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 08:12:43 AM PDT

  •  My parents said they wouldn't let me get a (0+ / 0-)

    drivers license unless I took the test in a stick shift car. I passed the driving portion  of the test in a '58 MGA, my moms car. I passed first time! If you can drive a stick, you can drive damn near anything.

  •  I love my MX-5 manual! (0+ / 0-)

    Mix the blood and make new people!

    by Yonkers Boy on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 10:20:36 AM PDT

  •  i've read that almost half (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    angry marmot

    Of all VW GTIs in the US are sold with the (wonderful) six speed manual gearbox.

    I didn't even consider anything else.

    And Volkswagen did something cool... The car holds the rear brakes for three seconds at a full stop. You can't roll backwards.

    Looks like my e-brake holding skills are going to atrophy.

    --Shannon

    "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees." -- Emiliano Zapata Salazar
    "Dissent is patriotic. Blind obedience is treason." --me

    by Leftie Gunner on Sat Jun 09, 2012 at 12:59:52 PM PDT

    •  The rear brake function is interesting. (0+ / 0-)

      I learned how to drive in Japan.  One of the required lessons is demonstrating one's ability to move from a stop, uphill, without any backwards rolling.  With the typical Japanese car set up (hand operated e-brake between the front bucket seats), it is quite simple.  Hold the lever up while pushing the button.  As you engage the clutch, slowly let the hand brake down, and forward you go!  I figured that is what you meant with your e-brake "atrophy" comment.  With my 1985 four speed Ford F-150, the foot e-brake makes that more challenging (a lot more), but it still works with a loud "bang" when the brake is released.  Either way, this is a really important skill to understand, and I prefer the German/Japanese approach.

      I enjoyed reading about the "back stop" break on your GTI.  Very cool.  Thanks.

      Side note:  In Japan (last time I was there), two types of driver's licenses exist.  One for manual and one for automatic ONLY.  These are good skills to learn, and I always wondered why the U.S. does not have comprehensive testing . . . .  

      I agree with you on the six speed--my Mazdaspeed MX-5 has a really, really smooth one, too.

      Mix the blood and make new people!

      by Yonkers Boy on Wed Jun 13, 2012 at 08:53:28 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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