DEARLY beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of a childhood friend, a college chum, a partner who helped us through our midlife crisis. Farewell, O Manual Transmission, we hardly knew ye.
Some of you came to know old Mr. Stick late in life, some of you were inseparable in your early years but have since moved on and lost touch. Some of you are staring up at me with fresh young faces that will never know the dance called the "bunny hop."
As for myself, I'll miss shaking hands with what used to be called a standard. Three on the three, four on the floor, five-speed, six-speed, Porsche's seven-speed . . . but no more.
We were first introduced on the banks of the Fraser river. I, a callow youth of no more than eight, sat patiently while my father pulled back the lever on the low-range gear-box of our Land Rover. Not so much rabbit to turtle as turtle to elderly-bananaslug.
Depressing the block heavy clutch pedal with both feet, I clunked the two-foot
gearshift into first and then eased out the pedal (no appendages free for the gas pedal) and with a slow grind, suddenly I was driving. Or so I thought; the real moment didn't come until I made the successful one-two shift and lurched forward from crawling to walking pace.
Suddenly, I wasn't just steering anymore, something I'd done many times. Suddenly, I had become an integral part of this machine. By taking control of the gearshift, I had become its master and as my dad walked beside me, giving direction in the manner of a seasoned farrier giving riding lessons to the young laird, I realized I'd never want anything else.
Never, that is, until I drove a car with an automatic transmission while eating a doughnut and drinking a double-double in heavy traffic. "Well," I thought to myself, "this is easy!"
And, pretty much, that's how the automatic transmission, in all its various guises, has slowly infiltrated the market to the point that Manual is no longer Standard. Ever since GM dropped a Hydra-Matic into a 1940s Oldsmobile, the automatic transmission has been the easy option.
For a while, we manual purists could hold our heads high on the subject of fuel economy and acceleration times. Never mind how good your auto-box's hydraulic or electronic controllers were, the human brain is the best computer money can harm with reality TV shows. A skilled driver with a stick was faster, more efficient. Sports cars were manual, land yachts were automatics.
Then, gradually, it wasn't the case anymore. The Continuously Variable Transmission - an old technology that's been improved since its wacky '50s Dutch applications - is considerably more efficient than the manual option. So are most of the five and six speed normal automatic gearboxes . . . and most of the German marques are now up to eight gears in their autos.
Worse, while the CVT isn't exactly a sporting transmission, the dual-clutch gearboxes that are now showing up in everything from the VW GTi to the super-car blitzing Nissan GT-R are, dare I say it, better?
Sporty feeling automatic transmissions have had a rocky start. Anyone who's driven an early BMW SMG semi-automatic gear-box knows that it's the sort of thing you have to get used to. Anyone who's driven an early Tiptronic Porsche knows that while you can shift that automatic transmission manually, it's nowhere near as satisfying as rowing the gears yourself.
So, lurchy or a little bit numb, and the crown of performance was still safe upon the brow of the stick-shift. But then the dualclutch gearbox made its bow in, of all things, a 2003 Golf R32, and that crown started slipping.
What is a dual-clutch gearbox? Imagine, if you will, having a butler ready at hand with second gear pre-loaded and ready to go. Pull the lever and, "Your gear, sah," bang, an instant shift. Most dual-clutch systems have 1,3,5 on one shaft and 2,3,4 on the other, and can swap back and forth much faster than a human being can two-step on a manual's clutch pedal.
What's more, being that there's no mushy torque converter in a dual-clutch, that directly connected feeling is just as good as the manual. In the Cayman R I had a few weeks ago, Porsche's PDK dual-clutch was blindingly fast to change, instantly controllable and felt completely natural for a track-purposed version of the most modern Porsche.
And then there's the latest nail in the coffin, Mazda's Skyactiv automatic transmission. No fancy dual-clutch trickery or million-speed sleight-of-hand, just a six-speed conventional automatic with a greater lock-up range and a manual shift option. Because of precision programming, it's a joy to drive, and maybe even better than the manual option.
Little wonder then, that manufacturers regard us manual-transmission-loving purists as little more than cranks and eccentrics. Vinyl might give you that full, character-laden sound, but nobody's putting turntables in their cars: you get an iPod jack instead.
If there is a manual option offered, you pay a penalty for it, especially in the red-hot crossover and SUV market. Only the basic Subaru Forester can be bought with a stick. CR-V or RAV or Rogue? No way.
So, a sad day approaches: the day the last manual-shift car rolls off the assembly line. I taught my (take your pick: loving, patient, understanding, long-suffering) wife to drive standard before we married and now she loves it. It's a glum thought that my as-yet imaginary children won't have the chance.
But what am I talking about: of course they will! Even as the manufacturers take away the stick-shift choice, the roads are full of well built cars with manual gearboxes, and most of them are better maintained because the drivers who bought the standard car care more about their rides.
So dry your tears, my friends. Today, we may be bidding farewell to the modern manual transmission, but like the hand-tooled shoe, the paper book and those vinyl records, some things never go out of style.
Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.