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Clutching to Preserve the Dying Art of Manual Transmissions

Dec 15, 2014

 

We’re here today to pay tribute to a glorious and masterful art form that is slowly becoming extinct.   Many of you imagined it as a child while shifting your imaginary car and making imaginary engine revving sounds as  you’d advance gears.  You couldn’t drive your imaginary race car without shifting, it was a way of life.  Those of you old enough to know what this is, and those of you lucky  enough to have had this legacy and skill passed down from your parents and grandparents we’re talking about the manual transmission.  That nifty little knob in the middle of the console that requires the assistance of a third pedal, better known as the clutch that at some point in time has had your parents pulling your hair out in traffic, rolling backwards on a hill, stalling, or bucking and dropping a tranny.  That same pedal and knob that has allowed clunckers to beat out mustangs, given drivers undeniable bragging rights in the auto world, and the reassurance that nobody will probably be able to drive their car but them (and possibly their dad, who taught them to drive it in the first place).  

 

Not for the faint of heart, manual transmissions give you complete control over your vehicle as you shift gears, both accelerating and decelerating.  Getting the hang of the dance between the clutch, brake, gas and shift knob is not an easy task, but behold the sheer performance and unbelievable driving experience when you get it right.  Even though newer models and transmissions are offering the same gas mileage and acceleration as manuals, what is most revered by all manual transmission lovers, or "pureists" is the actual experience of power, control, and driving that this type of transmission provides.  

 

In the age of technology the stick shift has just become a burden to modern society who sit in endless traffic, try to accomplish other tasks while driving (such as makeup, texting, phone calls and eating) and those who simply don’t have the patience or nostalgia to learn the craft.  But for a select few… a very small percent that are left, it is the only way of life.  They clutch on to the experience of driving manual transmissions with every fiber of their being, pun intended.  With less cars being offered in stick and less drivers still passing down the skill, let alone the lack of sheer interest or passion within young drivers behind learning the skill in the first place, it is definitely an uphill battle. Driving stick is a legacy that has been passed down from generation to generation, from automotive enthusiast to enthusiast, but with only 5% of all cars being sold in the US this year having manual transmissions, it is a dying art, that may soon go extinct… 

 

 

What is Manual Transmission? 

 

You may be familiar with a stick shift car, but not necessarily with what is actually going on when you shift from first to second to fifth and back down again.  Cars need transmissions because of the physics of the gasoline engine.  Any engine has what they call a “redline” - a maximum RPM (revolutions per minute) value in which the engine cannot go over without exploding.   Engines have narrow RPM ranges where horsepower and torque are at their maximum.  The transmission allows the ration between the engine and the drive wheels to change as the car speeds up or slows down.  You shift gears so the engine can stay below the redline and near the RPM level of its optimal performance.  

 

 

The transmission is connected to the engine through the clutch.  The input shaft of the transmission turns at the same RPM as the engine.  A five-speed transmission applies one of five different gear ratios to the input shaft to produce a different RPM value at the output shaft.  In a manual transmission or stick shift car, in order to make the vehicle move, you have to manually maneuver the clutch and stick to advance a piece within the transmission called a “collar” to release and reconnect with its appropriate gear.  In order to make the proper connection the gears and the collar, needs to be released (which happens by applying the clutch) and spinning at the same RPMs as the new gear you want it to connect with.  Stepping on the clutch sets the collar free while moving the shift knob lines the collar up with it’s next gear.  Releasing the clutch makes the connection and locks the car into place allowing the car to move into gear.   Being in “Neutral” means that the collar is disengaged from all gears.   

 

Grinding Your Gears:  The horrible sound you hear when you are grinding gears in your car is the sound of the dog teeth trying to unsuccessfully engage in into the holes in the side of a gear.  The gear must be rotating at the same speed to engage properly and switch gears.  In some older cases, drivers would have to double-clutch, first pressing the clutch to disengage the engine from the transmission, and then to rev the engine so that the gear and the collar are rotating at the same speed before making the connection.  You press the clutch again to lock the collar into the new gear.   Sychronizers in modern cars eliminate the need for double-clutching.  They help make a connection between the collar and gear before the dog teeth engage that makes sure the gear and collar have synchronized speeds before making the connection.  

 

How does this differ from an automatic transmission?  Easy.  You step on the gas pedal and your car shifts on its own based on your RPMs.  

 

 

 

Pros of Learning the Dying Art:

 

There are quite a few perks to learning how to drive a manual transmission, and choosing it over an automatic car.  

 

• Reason #1 - We’ll be the first to tell you that they are a blast to drive.  Having control over every gear and ounce of acceleration your vehicle has is a skill and a privilege that only the truly blessed and knowledgeable in the 3 pedal art can really appreciate.  

 

• Reason #2 - They are easier to maintain then their automatic counterparts.  With less parts than automatic cars, less can break and go wrong.  As long as you are shifting properly and not grinding your gears, you will need less maintenance.  

 

• Reason #3 - Manual transmissions use gear oil or engine oil, in most case.  Unlike automatics that need transmission fluid, it doesn’t deteriorate over time or need frequent changes.  Some manufacturers even recommend that the manual transmission fluids never need to be changed at all unless there is an issue with the car.  

 

• Reason #4 - Better Fuel Economy.  Power losses from the torque converter and hydraulic pump drain both power and fuel efficiency.  You can increase your MPG by 15% in a manual transmission.  

 

• Reason #5 - More control.  Stick shifts offer a better sense of control over your car.  You’ll have an easier time braking and accelerating.  

 

• Reason #6 - You will save money.  Manual transmission cars tend to always be cheaper than their automatic counterparts, right off the lot.  

 

 

The Cons of the Stick Shift: 

 

• Not for the faint at heart.  Learning to drive stick in the first place, especially if you are an aged or seasoned automatic car driver, it can be very frustrating and have a huge learning curve.  Driving becomes second nature and forcing your subconscoius to accept an extra pedal and an animated gear stick can be a challenge.  

 

• Hills are a physical challenge.  Stopping on a hill and then getting started again can offer a huge challenge for any manual driver, especially new ones.  The car tends to start to roll backwards as you shift it in gear on a hill and even the best and most skilled drivers have stalled on icy hills in very steep conditions.  The biggest fear lies in rolling backwards into another car.  Steep city parking garages plus reverse = a nightmare.  

 

• Thats about it.  Everything else about driving a manual transmission is so completely awesome it will open up your soul and set you freer then a hippie at Woodstock.  I think Henry David Thoreau even said once, “I got into a stick, because I wished to drive deliberately” or something like that.  Don’t quote me on it.  If he didn’t he definitely should have.  

 

 

The Three Pedal Club: 

 

The “3 Pedal Club” is declining year to year with manual transmission sales dropping to an all time low in overall total cars.  The main reason?  If people are not buying, then automakers are simply not making.  There are several brands that have held strongly to the stick shift making it the car’s only option at first.  Even when generations later, offering an automatic, clutch sales still held strong.  Other auto makers offer it as an option but have only few in stock.  Most family cars and sedans have dropped the option all together and it is never seen in trucks anymore.  

 

Volkswagen is an extremely strong supporter of the 3 Pedal Club and vows to continue to do so with their GTI’s first few models going “stick or bust”.   Younger targeted enthusiasts cars such as the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S are two car models that had a majority purchase in manual transmissions.   BMW drivers… those who tend to gravitate toward the M3 models held strong in about a little less than 50% of North American buyers who were clutching to that clutch, despite the fact that many BMW dealerships only apply deals to manual transmissions, and tend not to always stock manual cars.  This could possibly be for “purist” reasons that certain cars are sought after with manual transmission, but definitely a struggle when the manufacturers computer controlled eight-speed shifts faster than any human, accelerates quicker and offers better fuel economy.  

 

Disappearing from many professional race tracks, not even race car drivers need the grace and dexterity needed for the synchronized magic that happens between the driver’s left foot and right hand during the shifting process.   

 

Reported last year, here are some exclusive members of the Three Pedal Club: 

 

Audi TT RS

Subaru WRX/STI

Volkswagen Golf R

Mazda Mazdaspeed3

Chevy Corvette C6 Z06, ZR1, and 427 Convertible

Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

STR Viper

Ford Focus ST

Ford Fiesta ST

Mini John Cooper Works GP

Fiat 500 Abarth 

Nissan 370Z NISMO

Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

Honda Civic Si

Acura ILX 2.4

 

Stick Shift Myths: 

• That all cool sports cars come in stick.  - Nope.  While there are some exclusive makes and models that cater to you 3 Pedal Pushers, not all hot sports cars come in stick.  Automatic has become so efficient that even Lamborghini has dropped the tranny from some of it's vehicles.  Then there are companies like Porsche that offer you automated manual transmissions.  What?  Yeah, you heard right.  It's an oxymoron.  As for Jaguar and Ferrari...  sorry guys...  no sticks here.  They went full throttle years ago.  

• If your dream car comes in manual, they will always offer an automatic option.  No not always...  If you cannot shift gears you're not getting behind the wheel.  Some makers decide to only offer manual transmision on certain models.  

• Better Gas Mileage - Yes, in general.  But with recent advancements in electric cars its become a real battle in the world of fuel efficiency.  

• Manual Transmissions are faster - Not always.  In the past yes they were, but due to recent advances in transmissions automatics are up to speed if not faster then their manual transmission counterparts.   

 

Crash Course in Driving Stick: 

 

1. Find a great friend with a lot of patience, who isn’t going to ring your neck when you stall his car or grind his gears.  A general rule of thumb is the less nice the car is, the more willing the owner may be to teaching you how to drive stick.  Its a pretty good bet that you’ll get behind the wheel of your buddy’s aged Honda Civic, before you are sitting pretty in your rich uncle’s Audi TT RS.  And you’ll feel less guilty throughout the learning process.  

 

2. Get familiar with pedal #3 all the way to the left, called the clutch.  He is going to be your new best friend.  Remember pedals Burt & Ernie?  Well, now you’ve got Grover. 

 

3. Push the clutch all the way down and turn the car on. 

 

4. Slide the stick into first gear.  

 

5. Slowly release the clutch and as you feel the car start to move apply the gas.  

 

6. Take your left foot off the gas and accelerate.  Easy right?  

 

7.  When it’s time to shift, put your foot on the clutch again, shift the car to the next gear and release the clutch.  There is a delicate balance between clutch and gas pedal that you’ll have to master while shifting gears.  When do you shift?  When your “tachometer” (the what?), the dial that measures your RPMS starts to overdose on horse power and reaches the red line.  You’ll also be able to both feel and hear your car’s engine rev to it’s upper limits.  Then its time to switch gears if you’d like to continue accelerating safely.  Ignore this and your engine will explode.  Just kidding.  But not really…    

 

8.  When you come to a stop, push the clutch and brake at the same time and shift the car to neutral. Take your foot off the clutch and continue to hold the brake.  If you just step on the brake like your first instincts have been telling you to do the past 15 years of driving an automatic, It will stall.  

 

9.  To start again, go back to step 2 by stepping on the clutch and shifting the car into first gear.    If you are on a hill use your parking brake to hold the car from rolling backwards.  I know this may be foreign to even some of you automatic drivers, but it’s the handle that has always been neatly tucked to the side of your console that you have probably never used before.  Release the clutch slowly while applying the gas.  As you feel the clutch engage, release the parking brake.  

 

10. When you get really good at it you can downshift to come to a complete stop.  Just like the pros. 

 

11.  Don’t get frustrated.  You will buck, grind and stall your car.  Just be patient.  Stick shift is an art form that requires practice and skill to master and many levels.  Once you get good you can master techniques like downshifting and heel/toe shifting, which is essentially braking while shifting.  

 

Helpful tips: 

 

• Learn with a friend.  Then both of you can be frustrated together.  Best scenario is that the person who is teaching you does not own the car you are learning on. He’ll have more patience when you grind gears and stall out the car.  

• Take your foot off the gas when its time to shift gears, or else you’ll get a loud roaring noise in the engine.  

• Avoid hills while learning.  If you must navigate or park on a hill, give yourself plenty of room and remember your parking brake.  

• Practice braking!  You’ll need two feet instead of one.  

• When first driving on the open road don't stress.  If you stall your car out, they can go around you.  Take your time and don't get frustrated.  

• Reverse?  Good luck! 

 

We challenge you to keep the art of manual transmission alive.  For all of you members of the 3 Pedal Club, do your part to keep stick shifts in gear by teaching a friend to drive yours this weekend!  Help keep up the love and demand for manual transmissions in the auto industry! If you are a proud member of the 3 pedal club give us a shout below in the comments section by telling us what is your favorite stick shift you've ever owned!    

 

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