In Praise of the Manual

Sometimes the “easy” way is the best way. Sometimes the “harder” way provides a richer, more rewarding experience.

Such is the manual transmission.

I did not learn to drive on a manual. Frankly, I was scared enough with the automatic. Worrying about shifting and using two feet for three pedals might have sent me over the edge. Still, the stick-shift stuck in the back of my mind – I envied those who knew how to drive one. They seemed like superior, more mature beings than me. And I felt slightly inferior knowing there was a common skill out there that I didn’t know and that I was scared of.

JCW shifter

Then I started reading car magazines and evolving into a gearhead, and I reeeeaaally felt behind the curve. All the “experts” said the same thing – driving stick is much sportier and a lot more fun.

That did it.

When I ordered my first Mini (the blue one), I picked the manual (a 5-speed). I figured owning a manual would make me learn how to drive it.  (Plus the automatic was a $1,250 option.) Those eight weeks I waited for my Mini to be built and shipped from Oxford, England were slightly high-stress. I practiced on a few friends’ cars, which further reinforced my belief that driving stick is HARD. At night, I would lie awake and practice shift patterns. Let me save you some time right now – that does not work.

I’ll save the long version of the story of those first several weeks with the blue Mini for another post, but suffice it to say that a lot o’ learning was done. I recommend using your emergency flashers if you stall at a traffic light.

Abarth shifter

Fast forward 10 years and one six-speed Mini later, and driving a manual is so second-nature to me that I could hardly even describe how to do it. I just hop in the red Mini, release the emergency brake, depress the clutch and go.

And, of course, now I’m haggling with even more advanced forms of driving stick. I still feel about heel-toe downshifting the way I used to feel about driving a manual in general – oh, you dastardly skill set, why must you be so elusive?

Based on past experience, I guess I’ll get there.

But the point of all this is that manuals are awesome, and you should all learn if you don’t already know. When you drive a manual, you are connected to the car. Maybe it’s my innate love of pushing buttons and pulling levers, but snicking through the gears and feeling the effect that has on the car – the change in revs, the bursts of power – creates that ultimate (wo)man and machine moment that is one of the things I love most about driving. You’re strapped into this living concoction of metals and liquids and wires and plastics, and the two of you are working in sync, responding to each other’s inputs and acting as one.

It’s kind of a beautiful thing.

Driving a manual is real driving. When you drive an automatic, you’re a glorified passenger.

Lotus Evora shifter

Leaving the sporty and cool factors aside, driving stick also makes you a better, more attentive driver. You have to pay attention to revs and speed, know what gear you’re in, know when you need to upshift or downshift. It’s more difficult to talk on your phone, drink your Starbucks Big Gulp and drive all at the same time – so you set the drink down and save your calls for later. If I go on much longer, I’ll start getting all evangelical and claim driving a manual could save your life.

Maybe, maybe not. But it can’t hurt!


The manual transmission is going away. Before I bought the red Mini, I went to the BMW dealership next door and asked if they had any manuals in stock. They had one. ONE. Mercedes doesn’t make a manual transmission these days, nor does Jaguar. Like BMW, you’re not going to find many on Audi lots. Porsche and Mini tend to do a bit better, but even Porsche is giving in to the siren call of the “automated manual.” Those are the fancy transmissions with shift paddles that claim to replicate the feeling of driving a manual and that are mechanically similar and, often, superior to a traditional manual. They’ve just taken the work out of it.

Which makes it not a manual. Unless I can – and have to – row through the gears using a traditional shifting device, I’m not having it. Porsche’s automated manual, or PDK, transmission (that’s Porsche doppelkupplung to you) is far faster, more seamless and altogether mechanically superior to any manual transmission out there. But it’s not a manual. You don’t have to DO anything. To many people, that is understandably a selling point. Meh.

Learn to drive stick. It’s a life skill. You will be proud of yourself for learning, and I think you will find that you enjoy being more connected to the car. It’s a different and more fulfilling driving experience. And you get better gas mileage. And save money. And lives. And make baby pandas smile. And stuff.

Don’t let the manual transmission become an endangered species. Take a stand today!

Brought to you by the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

P.S. Auto Buddy‘s parents should keep all this in mind when little man comes of age. If manuals still exist then…