John Decker: Farewell to a long lost driving companion

Some words to remember for stick shift.

This week, a eulogy. A few words of remembrance, even adulation of an old and dear friend, a friend who has faithfully left my right hand for many years. A friend who felt my frustrations in learning to drive, and the first to feel the thrill of finally winning control of an automatic brake, the one who never failed to tell me that the number 2 comes after 1, not 3, not 4, nor the letter ‘R’. I speak of course of my beloved companion – change stick.

Born to Émile Levasseur and Louis-René Panhard in 1894, the manual transmission and its primary component, the transmission, began life as a simple chain drive—basically a bicycle chain assembly attached to a set of sprockets called a variable speed gearbox and moved up and down by a pedal called a clutch.

These first kids’ two-cylinder Panhard-Levassar offered an astonishing four horsepower and could reach a speed of 19 km/h. The ‘Système Panhard’ was the standard for shifting gears until front-wheel drive cars started gaining popularity in the 1960s, but it’s still found in many larger, albeit older, cars today.

Since 1894, changes made to this gearbox at the end of a shift shift have been revolutionary. “Synchro”, “Hydramatic”, “Automatic” and “torque converter” are some of the names synonymous with these leaps in automotive technology. They made our cars not only faster, but more efficient and reliable, without a third pedal.

Most cars today drive off a strange device with an unattractive title: a “Continuously Variable Transmission” or CVT – a system of flexible belts and pulleys unlike traditional gears.

I didn’t learn to drive on a stick, but back in the day when dinosaurs were still ruling the Earth, the economics of driving while at school and work meant driving a cheaper and more efficient car. Manual transmission was the solution.

Sure, the learning curve was steeper but this manual shift of the stick put you in control.

I decided when to get ready or go down. I decided how fast I could speed up the tachometer on my 1972 Datsun 510 1600cc – no one else! Well, except maybe when my dad was in the passenger seat.

Those feelings of simplicity and control were actually very intoxicating. The manual world of a manual gear shifter also means paying more attention to your driving. It can’t always be about sucking the last few drops of grape slurpee as the light has changed to green. You had to make sure you were in speed mode, ready to go, hold on, slow release, first gear and then smoothly transition to level two, third, etc.

Once you understand the process and master the point of friction, where the clutch starts, driving is challenging. Like most 18-year-olds – now I know everything.

Unfortunately, technology is starting to ruin the party. By 2012, engineers were putting more gears into automation than a standard transmission. The car’s ability to easily shift to higher and higher gears made for smoother mechanics and less resistance, resulting in a significant increase in fuel efficiency.

Those who still demanded the comfort and control of a manual transmission have found little sway against the corporate will of the auto giants, and are now prioritizing the growing demand for better mileage.

By 2020, only 1.3% of vehicles sold in the United States had a standard transmission. Even the cheerful Chevy Corvette, the epitome of hard shifting and cool driving, no longer offers a manual transmission.

Recently, auto engineers have come up with some fake alternatives to change the old stick, but they are not the same.

The gearshift paddles, as the name suggests, are paddle like controls on either side of the steering wheel, allowing the driver to change gears by simply moving them with your fingers. But it’s not a good old-fashioned gear change. The paddle simply tells your car computer that you want to use a lower or higher gear.

With the electric car era already in place, will manual transmissions make a comeback? Unlikely, according to most critics. But the industry recognizes that there is still a small market for people who need that stick change and a third pedal experience and are willing to pay for it.

Some aftermarket companies now offer an electric motor conversion kit for those who want to keep the family rickshaw, with a change of wand, forever. But it is an expensive and inefficient conversion.

Currently, there are only two “factory” electric cars on the market that offer some type of manual transmission: the Porsche Taycan Turbo S Cross or the Audi e-tron GT – at the frugal price of US$187,600 and US$10,100 (US) respectively. I’m not keen on being an early adopter.

For now, I will remain confident that one day technology will revive my dear friend at a price I can afford.

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