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These days, the most exotic auto option is one of the oldest: Manual transmission

  • When Colby Morris of Hopkinton gets into his Mini Cooper to drive home after school, he takes hold of an exotic technology that baffles most of his friends: a manual transmission. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Bishop Brady senior Sam Will takes the wheel of he Jeep which sports a manual transmission. “No one else can drive my car. It’s kind of nice, actually,” she noted. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Monday, August 28, 2017

When Colby Morris of Hopkinton gets into his Mini Cooper to drive home after school, he takes hold of an exotic technology that baffles most of his friends.

No, it’s not an autonomous vehicle. His Mini doesn’t use hydrogen fuel, and it doesn’t fly. Instead, it’s got a stick shift.

“I thought it was cool,” said Morris, a senior at Bishop Brady High School, recalling his reaction when his father, Wade, offered to teach him to drive a manual transmission. “It’s fun!”

That’s an increasingly uncommon opinion.

“Drive a manual transmission? I don’t think anybody does any more, to be honest,” said Jack Wedemeyer, who as owner of Jack’s Driving School has been teaching people to drive in Concord since 1983.

This is an exaggeration, but not as big of one as you might think. Only a quarter of car and truck models sold in the U.S. today even offer a manual option, and their sales are dismal. According to analysis from the automotive firm Edmunds, a measly 3 percent of the vehicles sold in the country in 2015 had a stick shift, down from 25 percent in 1992.

The fading popularity of manual transmissions showed up on the front page of the Monitor last week as part of a crime story. A 20-year-old man tried to steal a car by threatening the driver with a knife but was caught because he couldn’t figure out how to drive its stick shift – thus bringing to life a joke that labels four-on-the-floor as the best millennial theft-prevention device.

Wedemeyer said it has been years since his driving school has even offered a manual transmission for teens intent on getting their licenses.

“Way back when, the ’80s, we had a car that was set up with a stick shift, but most kids didn’t want to learn it,” he said.

Another place to see this trend is Carlson’s Motor Sales, where having a manual transmission can lower the price of a used car.

“Not dramatically, but it would be a little less,” said Holly Carlson, the third generation of her family to run the Concord business. “Having a stick shift does limit the market, especially with the younger generation.”

Carlson said manuals have become so rare that transmission type barely enters into the conversation with new customers.

“There’s so few of them who want it, you almost don’t ask the question anymore,” she said. “A few prefer the stick shift, but that is not the norm at all.”

Shifting technology

What has happened to shifting gears in a car? Technology.

Automatic transmissions were developed in the 1930s but only became widely available after World War II and remained a rare and pricey add-on long after that. For baby boomers and Generation Xers, manual-transmission cars had a lower sticker price, got better gas mileage, were cheaper to repair and let drivers handle difficult terrain better, including snowy New Hampshire winters.

But that was then; this is now. Automatic transmissions have continued to improve over the years, boosted by computer technology and the development of continuously variable transmission that smoothes out the step-by-step process. These days, automatic transmissions get better mileage than manuals, are sometimes cheaper and often drive better; there’s no obvious reason not to use them.

“I think, for us, there’s a respect for the technology and how it has reached a point where, at times, it is more fuel-efficient, and gives better performance than a human being is capable of,” said Karl Stone, marketing director for the Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton.

That’s a surprising admission at the Rally School, where automatic transmissions are forbidden because they get in the way of teaching drivers how to stay in control even while skidding; sliding; and dealing with ice, mud and other performance-altering conditions.

“We remove antilock braking, traction control, anything like that, so when you give an input the car is reacting directly – it’s not compensating or covering for your mistakes,” Stone said.

Yet Stone admits that automatic transmissions are getting so good that they are even starting to show up on the track.

“In rally races, some drivers compete with automatic transmissions,” he said. “They’re impressive.”

New standards

They certainly dominate the parking lot of Bishop Brady, where the Monitor – intrigued by that story of the thwarted car theft – went last week to gauge youthful opinions of manual transmissions. We found a few people who could drive a stick, but not many.

Ashley Gearing of Hopkinton was one, but not an enthusiastic one. Her parents made sure she learned.

“They think it’s a good idea for me to know to drive one, in case I ever need to.”

Gearing doesn’t drive a manual transmission and hopes she never does.

“I don’t like it,” she said. “It’s too much to do.”

Another parental convert to shifting is Sam Will of Loudon, who learned to drive a stick when her folks bought her a used Jeep Wrangler.

“Dad has a Mustang and it’s a manual, so he liked the idea,” she said. “They said it would be good to know if you go abroad, because they all drive (stick shifts).”

Will said she has learned to enjoy dealing with clutches, shifting and almost all aspects of driving a standard.

Will and Colby Morris both noted that a couple of things happen when you have four on the floor – or, these days, a five or six on the floor. One is freedom from expectations of car sharing.

“No one else can drive my car. It’s kind of nice, actually,” Will noted.

Another difference is more subtle.

“My dad says that with a stick shift you have to focus more – you can’t really text and drive. It’s safer,” Morris said.

Holly Carlson at Carlson’s Motor Sales said Morris’s father isn’t alone in that opinion.

“We do get parents who come in and want a stick shift for their kids. They say if the kid is shifting the car it’s hard to be playing with your phone,” she said. “It also makes them more aware of how the car functions. Some parents want their children to have a stick shift so they understand how the car works, and why it does what it does.”

Carlson agreed with that idea.

“The whole driving experience is getting so numb, with all the automation,” she said. “Anything that makes you more aware of what’s going on on the road is a good thing.”

Partly because of these traits, Carlson said she expects manual transmissions will never disappear, pointing to the Mazda Miata as an example of a car that uses them as a selling point. But she thinks it will become a niche offering, rather like convertibles.

This may lead nostalgia on those who grew up with shifting. But not necessarily.

“I’ve still got my stick-shift truck, but, you know, I don’t mind admitting it, as you get up in age ... sometimes I just want to sit back, drop it into D, and I’m good,” said Jack Wedemeyer, 61. “Especially in bumper-to-bumper traffic, you really want an automatic.”

“You can either live in the past or look to the future,” he added. “I don’t miss LPs, I don’t miss 8-tracks, I don’t miss cassettes. ... I don’t miss the three on the tree or four on the floor.”

That’s a three-speed manual transmission shifted via a level mounted on the steering column, a common technology through the 1960s, and a four-speed shifter with a lever between the front seats. In case you were wondering.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)