Featured: To Drive A Manual Is to Learn a New Language

To Drive A Manual Is to Learn a New Language

By Jonathan WC Mills
September 10, 2013
23 comments

Driving a stick is like learning a language.

Rowing one’s own gearbox engages the driver directly into the automotive equation. Whether it’s the satisfying mechanical ‘snick’ that comes with the metal gate of a Ferrari, or the light flick of the Miata, the stick connects a driver to a car in a way automatic, sequential, paddle or Doppelkupplungsgetriebe transmissions simply cannot.

It can be an arduous process, learning how to sing with a car. The action of depressing the clutch, disengaging the motor, moving the lever, shifting a set of spinning cogs and gently letting out the clutch again while feeling the motor engage is a bio-mechanical duet that, in a V12 Ferrari on a crisp fall day, the song can swell to operatic levels.

Of course, like any form of speech, there are those that take pleasure in conversation and those that do not. For many years, drivers didn’t have a choice—every car had a manual transmission. Nowadays, if you want to speak with your automobile, the transmission lever is the only way. It’s direct communication; removing the computers, the wires, the decision-making software. You can drive angrily, and the car will be there with you, shrieking and howling…or you can drive smoothly, the wind gently flowing through your hair. The tone of the conversation is up to you.

These days, the stick is an anachronism, an ode to a different era. The very notion that a vehicle requires actual effort has become a foreign concept to the vast majority of drivers, which means fewer men and women will ever learn to enjoy the sublime joy of a new language.

Too bad—it’s the only language I know.

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23 Comments on "To Drive A Manual Is to Learn a New Language"

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StephenZ
StephenZ

Just reading this for the first time, but, amen….I learned stick with my dad on his 81′ 308 GTSi…when I was nine years old..(yes, my dad was brave and very cool). I’ve barely had any automatic cars in my decades of driving, and my kids will definitely learn stick when that time soon comes…:-). I don’t drive to get from point A to point B. I drive to enjoy becoming connected to the experience.

Cordell Zachery

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Schnell87
Schnell87
I’m so used to my ’87 Carrera forcing me to mechanically and definitively select a gear like instruction from a German housewife, that when I had the pleasure of driving my father-in-law’s ’63 E-Type on a 6 hr drive across Wisconsin backroads, I truly experienced what Jonathon described above. Getting used to what RPMs the engine desired in which of the four gears and where those gears were underneath the cracked leather of a preservation car’s boot was a totally new (and beautiful experience). My wife commented by the end of the trip that I had gotten “in sync” with… Read more »
Balazs Barna
Balazs Barna

Manual transmissions are no joy any longer in modern average, overcomplicated, super safe, computerized cars, where the accelerator feels like a sponge and the “amount of going” is in the hand of some “low emission motivated box” and all its sensors. But in some lovely old fashion car with a “happy to rev” engine…. oh yeah. I’d definitely stick with the stick.

JB21
JB21
You nailed it. It’s not really due to people who don’t wanna bother with the third pedal. Auto industries, reviewers, and to many degrees, we enthusiasts have focused so much on the stuff that’s not quite what made man-machine interaction interesting for so long, we pretty much killed it. I mean, most 4 cylinder engine today have twin cam, but you can’t even tell what it is, there’s no “on the cam” feel at all. And because of the drivability and the flexibility of the engines today, manual is more often than not just simply mismatched but redundant, especially with… Read more »
Mathieu Echallier
Mathieu Echallier

I’ve always owned manual cars, I’m from Europe and only a few people around me own an automatic. When I had to dirve an automatic, I found it sad, without this “connection” with the car it felt like it is mute. Driving a manual allows you to express your own personnality through the car.

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson
In Sweden you don’t get to drive a manual if you get your license in an automatic. You get a special, restricted license in that case. However, I don’t know or even heard about anyone that’s ever gotten that kind of license. Up until just a few years ago, almost every car sold had a manual, but automatics are rapidly taking over. My brother thinks I’m “counter-evolutionary” or something when I talk about manual transmissions, but I couldn’t care less. Sure, an automatic is very nice when you’re in a traffic queue, but a manual is unbeatable when you intend… Read more »
Erik StGelais
Erik StGelais

And yet, I love oddly love dealing with a manual transmission in heavy traffic. My friends all think I’m crazy, going into downtown at rush hour and putting myself on the steepest hills in the city. Complaining about the asshole behind me that’s so close I can’t even see his hood. To me, it’s part of owning a car. Sure, my clutch would probably rather I avoided the hills and heavy traffic at all costs, but if I’m going to get into a car that I own, it’s going to have 3 pedals.

Vincent P
Vincent P

The only pre requisition I had with my wife when we got married some 14 years ago was that she learned to drive a manual. I left my MK1 GTI with her at school and said if she wanted to visit she best learn to drive it. Well some 2 weeks later she made the 300 mile drive to where I was and had finally mastered the manual. She might have popped the clutch and hit a wall but the damage was all but forgoten when she pulled up in that special car.

Long live the manual…

Jon Warshawsky
Jon Warshawsky

The cable-operated clutch, where you actually had to modulate the pedal, has been gone and forgotten for years. And syncromesh long ago took most of the skills out of driving a three-pedal manual. So yeah, sorry to see the third pedal die off, just like it was sad when carburetters bit the dust, but the notion of a three-pedal-and-lever manual in a modern car is sort of bizarre. I don’t even think Ferrari offer an old school three-pedal setup anymore.

Richard H
Richard H

What a great article – nothing better than rowing through the gears and finding that oh-so-sweet torque curve.

If only the guy driving the ‘stang would wear proper shoes… thong sandals? Those only belong on the beach or in the showers at the gym.

Schnell87
Schnell87

Haha! Great catch. Although if they’re thin enough you might even feel the pedal’s well enough to heel-toe 🙂

John Cochran
John Cochran

Dammit I love this website. I taught my wife to drive a manual on our honeymoon in Costa Rica in our Suzuki Jimmy rental. What a memorable experience for us both. Plus it was much more forgiving than our P-car.

Robert Goldstein
Robert Goldstein

I learned how to drive a manual on an Alfa Romeo Spyder Veloce and have never looked back. Whether it was my Toyota Celica, Jeep CJ7 or one of the many of the BMWs I have owned, they have always had manual transmissions. Unless I am physically unable to work a manual tranny, I will always have one in my garage.

Mosca Valerio
Mosca Valerio

With a manual transmission you can do also a heel-and-toe technique that made a fantastic sensation if you do it right…

Steven Stamopoulos
Steven Stamopoulos

Absolutely. That noise when double clutching/heel and toeing is magnificent, and you can feel your car appreciate it, when the gear slots in without any effort.

Joe Gomez
Joe Gomez

A long time ago my first Car was a push button Automatic Doge Lancer My next Car was a 55 Chevy wit a 327 Corvette engine and a 4 speed manual and have not looked back since !

Alex Clise
Alex Clise

Nice piece. It reads like the introduction to the Rosetta Stone of Standard Transmission driving.

Adam Holter
Adam Holter

I learned to drive stick on my old ’69 Chevy C10. The previous owner had converted it from column shift to super-long-throw floor shift…1st gear was about a half inch into the bench seat cushion, second was up roughly where your knuckles would start banging the dashboard, and third was uncomfortable rubbing the leg of your riding partner. Fun, though!

john tolle
john tolle

Save the Manual !
Driving is so much more than 0-60 time or quickest time around the track. It is a language to those who care to learn it. E.g., can any enthusiast really imagine driving a Jaguar E Type without a manual ? It’s rapidly approaching that true 3 pedals will not be available in new cars, but I’m not welcoming it.

Steven Stamopoulos
Steven Stamopoulos

In this era of emissions and fuel conservations with 8 and 9 speeds approaching, there is no way cars will continue to have 3 pedals. Fortunately for us the best cars ever made had only 3, 4 or 5 forward gears.

Chris Mann
Chris Mann

Nice piece Jonathan. Probably resonates more with your readers in the USA than over here in Europe, where most of us drive manuals!

Having recently returned to having a manual 2001 VW Polo GTI and a 1983 BMW E30 316 (4 speed) from a year on Autobox controlled V8 in a 1998 Audi S8, I certainly feel much more connected to what the car is doing…especially in the BMW.

Vintage Son
Vintage Son
It is, in a way. The first car I drove with a manual was an AAR Cuda, and I stalled a lot. Then I got another try with a 440-6 Cuda, easier but still a lot of stalling problems, let alone getting to learn how to handle the power of that car. I recently got a 91 Shelby Daytona, which has a stick, mainly I just wanted to learn. Problem is, previous owner installed a high performance pressure plate. Man is this thing a handful for regular use. But now I am confident I can drive just about anything with… Read more »
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