My attitude toward vehicles most of my life has been ambivalence. Yes, I want something that is dependable, does well in the snow and is big enough to haul bags of yard mulch. Beyond that, I have no particular brand loyalty or color preference.
But there have been two exceptions.
The first was a 1968 blue Ford Mustang four-speed with a 289 V-8 engine. That car accompanied me from my formative years into manhood. In college, it was stranded in a snowstorm near Keysers Ridge in Maryland. A friend once borrowed it and spent a weekend driving with the parking break on. It also somehow managed to avoid the ubiquitous Morgantown tow trucks.
The second was a brief affair with a silver Alfa Romeo, a two-week long rental my wife and I used on a drive through Europe some years back. The five gears (or was it six?), sleek design and high-performance engine were perfect for the Austrian Autobahn and the curved highways of the Italian Dolomites.
The common denominator of these two vehicles was a manual transmission which, unfortunately, is going the way of whip antennas, cigarette lighters and full-sized spare tires. Ian Bogost, writing in The Atlantic, reports that soon nearly all vehicles will have fully automatic transmissions.
“In 2000, more than 15 percent of new and used cars sold by the auto retailer CarMax came with stick shifts; by 2020, that figure had dropped to 2.4 percent,” Bogost writes. “Among the hundreds of new car models for sale in the United States this year, only about 30 can be purchased with a manual transmission.”
The shift away from shifters is being hastened by the growing popularly of electric vehicles, which don’t even have gearboxes. This gradual but inevitable transition is leaving gear shifters adrift on a sea of automatic transmission fluid.
The consensus among manual transmission devotees is that shifting gears makes the driver feel more—dare I say—at one with the vehicle. As Bogost wrote, “The manual transmission’s chief appeal derives from the feeling it imparts to the drivers: a sense, whether real or imagined, that he or she is in control.”
I felt that way as a young man tearing down Flowing Springs Road from Jefferson High School, winding out each gear, watching the tachometer head toward red before shifting. And then again later in life, speeding through Austrian countryside, slipping easily from gear to gear. I got the distinct feeling that the car was doing what it was made to do.
But that was about the experience of driving instead of what it has become—a function, a transportation necessity. I don’t think about those gear-shifting days much anymore, but Bogost’s story made me wistful for lost youth, exotic travel, and the joy of driving.
Maybe, if I live long enough, driving won’t be like driving at all, as vehicles become more autonomous. It will be more like riding in an elevator—get in, push a button, hear the soft whine of an electric engine and sense motion.
That may be easier and safer, but it will undoubtedly be a little sadder.