When I took drivers’ ed in high school, the classes themselves (taught by the phys ed teacher, of course) provided basic instruction on the rules of the road and touched on the existence of both manual and automatic transmission cars. That’s when I first was introduced to the mysterious functioning of something called a “clutch”–which, when you think about it, is an odd yet evocative name for an automobile part. In those days during the early ’70s, most cars came in manual and automatic options.
My in-car drivers’ ed classes, though, were taught in an automatic transmission car, so the mysteries of the “clutch” and the “stick shift” were left unexplored. And during my driving career, which is now approaching the 50-year mark, I think I’ve driven a manual transmission vehicle twice–once when I drove out west in a van, and once when I used a rental truck to move from city to city. Each time, I muddled through the stick shift process without really getting the hang of it, and was pretty much glad when the adventures ended and I could go back to the automatic world.
In the battle between automatic and manual, automatic transmissions have triumphed, and manual transmissions are increasingly rare–and soon will be no more, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. A sign of the decline of the stick shift is that in 2000, 15 percent of the new and used cars offered by CarMax were manual transmission vehicles; in 2020, that figure was 2.4 percent. Only about 30 of the hundreds of new vehicles for sale in the U.S. have a manual transmission option, and there are reports that even more manufacturers will be dropping that option in the near future. Even with sports cars that you associate with stick shift driving, automatic transmissions have had their way; in every year since 1970, for example, sales of the automatic versions of the Corvette have surpassed the manual option. After the last manual transmission car rolls off the assembly line, stick-shift aficionados will have to find their clutching pleasures in the used car market–but don’t be surprised if they buy up the last brand-new manual transmission vehicles first.
If you talk to a manual transmission driver, you’ll find there is a deep attachment between them and their stick shift. People drive a stick only by choice these days, and when they explain why they sound like the faithful trying to convert you to their religion. A manual allows you to really be in control of your car, they’ll say, or they will argue that manual drivers are better and safer than automatic drivers, because the need to constantly clutch and shift makes them much more attentive to traffic and road conditions. Really, though, you get the idea that they really just like fiddling around with the stick shift and that weird extra pedal, and for them driving their car is just like playing with a fun toy every morning.
It’s curious that manual transmissions have hung on as long as they have; after all, other throwbacks to the dawn of the automotive era–like hand-cranking the engine–have long since been tossed to the side of the road. The staying power of the stick shift is a testament to the true believers. It will be tough for them when we reach the end of the stick.