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Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017

Shifting gears

Posted Saturday, April 25, 2009, at 8:22 AM

There's only one way authentic way to drive a car.

If you're not shifting gears, you're really just aiming in the direction you want to go and hanging on for the ride.

Am I right, fellow stick-shifters? Are we not the only people who really know how to drive a car? You people with the automatics are just steering and anybody can do that. Stick-shifters are in charge of their vehicles and no driver of an automatic can really, truly, claim that.

My people, the stick-shifters, really work at the business of driving. And we take our abilities seriously. Picking the right gear, adjusting to road conditions on the fly, truly feeling the road under our tires -- it's in our DNA.

Snowstorms don't bother the stick-shifters. We know we can get our cars moving when everyone else is just spinning their wheels. We know how to rock 'n' roll a car out of a rut. We sneer at you "automatics" who slip and slide through intersections, clinging to the steering wheel, wide-eyed with fear.

Stick-shifters aren't afraid -- we're in control.

But, sadly, there are fewer of us on the road today.

This morning's Kansas City Star carried a story by David Coffey of McClatchy Newspapers about the decline in the number of drivers who want to drive a car with a stick shift.

Coffey cites market research showing only 11 percent of male drivers want a stick shift these days, down from 50 percent in 1985. Just 10 years ago, he says, a third of buyers under 25 opted for a stick shift; only half that number do so today.

I didn't get a driver's license until I was 19, but when I took the test -- and passed with flying colors -- I took it while driving a 1958 Volkswagen with a floor shift. I was pretty proud of that back then and still am.

For the next several years, I drove nothing but Volkswagens -- the aforementioned '58, a '56, a '67, a '72 and, unhappily, a '75 Dasher. Driving a car equipped with a manual transmission was a well-ingrained habit by the time I married a man who'd only rarely driven a stick and wasn't at all happy about it.

Coffey says in his story that "marriage is hard on the stick shift market," and that was certainly the case for me. After many arguments about when to shift, second nature to the true stick-shifter but a mystery to those favoring automatics, it was time for me to change my ways. We could either continue having screaming arguments about "Shift, for God's sake, you're doing sixty in third gear," or "For the fiftieth time, you have to downshift BEFORE you turn the corner ... " or we could buy a different car.

And so for the next 10 years, I descended into the uncontrolled world of the automatic transmission. Although I loved my Chevy Malibu for its looks, I didn't like driving it in the snow or any other adverse weather conditions. Too big, too slippery, too ... automatic.

But looks aren't everything, especially in a car. And when the marriage began to go south, well, that was my chance to return to the real world of driving.

Before the ink was dry on the divorce papers, I was back in a stick-shift automobile, where I have happily remained ever since, with a Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, two Nissan Sentras and my current Subaru Forester.

My admiration and affection for the stick shift has faltered only once, when I had knee surgery in 2008 and couldn't drive at all for six weeks. Now that I'm back on both feet again, I realize the error of my ways. It just isn't any fun to drive without the stick. Without the gear shift, you're just boring a hole in the air above the highway.

There may come a day when I have to give it up, I know that. But until that day arrives, and I believe it's quite far in the future, I'll stick to the stick.

And it appears they'll still be around for a few years. There is more than a glimmer of hope for its survival. Even though men are losing their taste for it, women are not. According to Coffey, only four percent of women were interested in a stick shift in 1985. That number has risen to 15 percent today.

Coffey quotes a female bartender in Washington, D.C., who says she thinks the numbers for women are rising because a stick shift makes women "feel manly and in control."

Well ... she's half right.

Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

You provoked me into trying to remember how/when I learned to drive a car with a manual transmission, and I can't! The family car was equipped with an automatic transmission, so I guess I must have learned by driving the cars of friends.

The first car I owned was a 1938 Chevrolet which I bought during the summer of 1958. By that time I'd mastered the clutch/gas pedal coordination, so it came sometime prior to that summer.

The last car I owned with a manual transmission was a 1966 Corvette, but after that one I became lazy and opted for the automatic - no more clutch pedals and no more having to move the gearshift lever. It freed up the left foot to be used on the brake pedal, and the right hand to mess with the radio or light a cigarette or hold onto the beer bottle. :)

-- Posted by Slater on Wed, Apr 29, 2009, at 2:18 PM

Slater: In violation of one of the primary rules about learning to drive, my boyfriend taught me how to drive the stick. I took driver's ed in high school, so I already had the basics and just had to add the extra skill of shifting. I have to tell you - he really did a good job. I've never gotten into a car or any other vehicle (tractor, grader, scraper, etc.) that I couldn't get moving on the first try and without killing the engine.

I do appreciate the ability to hold the cigarette, but if you're used to it, you can tune the radio, shift and smoke, all with one hand and at the same time. Which, of course, I've never, ever done. ;) And surely you have never, ever driven with a beer bottle in one hand.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Wed, Apr 29, 2009, at 5:52 PM

My mother taught me how to drive a stick shift in one day, and I, in turn, taught my half-brother in about the same amount of time. Although I now drive an automatic (there are a LOT of stopsigns in my little town!), I still take advantage of every time my mother visits to "steal" her car so that I can get my practice in!

-- Posted by koeller77 on Mon, May 4, 2009, at 9:47 PM

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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.
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