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Road Rush

The joy of driving stick Add to ...

When a friend at Porsche told me that the majority of its vehicles are now sold with an automatic transmission (even the iconic 911), it was a watershed moment. How could it be? It was like finding out that Led Zeppelin had traded in its guitars and drums for a synthesizer that could play Stairway to Heaven with fewer missed notes than Jimmie Page and John Bonham.

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Are the Porsche sales figures yet another sign of the driving apocalypse? I realized a while ago that manual shifting is going the way of the horse-drawn carriage and the vinyl LP record. Even Formula One has ditched the clutch pedal and the shift lever in favour of digitally controlled sequential transmissions that shift faster than a driver can.

And yet I remain a fan of the manual transmission.

Before you fire off an angry response about the technical superiority of today’s dual-clutch automatics, allow me to make the case for the manual. For a while, I was actually prepared to concede that the high-tech automatic is a better mousetrap – when I tested a pair of new Porsche 911s on a racetrack (one was a six-speed manual, the other a PDK auto), my lap times were lower with the PDK.

This wasn’t surprising. The PDK shifted faster than I could, and it automatically matched the engines’ revs to my speed as I downshifted for corners. In the manual car, this called for a balletic manoeuvre known as heel and toe – I had to brake with the toes of my right foot, while blipping the throttle with my right heel. (My left foot was working the clutch pedal.)

With the auto, I could focus on the racing line and keep both hands on the wheel. Every shift was perfect, executed by an unseen army of digital wizards. This technical advantage is what has made the high-tech automatic dominant in racing. Virtually every driver on the race circuit from F1 on down is an expert manual driver, but when your sole objective is the lowest lap time, you use the tools for the job – and that’s the automatic.

But that doesn’t mean automatics are better.

Modern automatics are a far cry from the crude “slush-boxes” of days gone by. The old automatics sapped much of the engine’s power through their torque converter (a fluid coupling that allows the car to sit still at stoplights) and they had a limited number of gear ratios – for more than 20 years, General Motors used a two-speed automatic known as a Powerglide.

Modern automatics are infinitely superior. But the manual transmission still has a number of built-in advantages over even the best current automatics. The manual is lighter, simpler and more reliable. It costs less. If the battery dies, you can jump-start a manual car by pushing it. But the most important advantage is one that you must experience to appreciate – a manual transmission connects you with a car in a way that no automatic can.

In a manual car, you can feel the engine labouring if you’re in too high a gear. If you hit the red line after a missed upshift, you will know the car’s pain. If you have to start on a hill, you will get an instant physics lesson as you balance the countervailing forces of gravity and thrust through the soles of your feet.

Like the violin, the manual transmission is a demanding instrument. I had the fundamentals hammered home by my father back in the 1960s when he took me to an abandoned military airfield outside Calgary in our Mercury Comet. If I wanted to drive, I had to pass through the gauntlet that was the clutch pedal. It wasn’t fun. Although I understood the theory, I was unable to get the car moving – each attempt produced a stall, a violent buck, or both.

And then I got it. Learning the clutch was like breaking a horse, and I will never forget the feeling of accomplishment that came with it. Fifteen years later, I taught my wife how to drive a manual car, and watched her go through the same bucking and stalling ordeals. (She’s now a manual shift pro.)

I’m not fazed by hills any more, and I shift without thinking about it. And yet decades after I began driving, I feel like I’m still learning the fine points of the manual. When I went to the racetrack with my Lotus a couple of weeks ago, I finally nailed the tricky downshift into Turn Five, blipping down into second while sliding the car sideways toward the apex, matching the revs so the rear tires wouldn’t be suddenly decelerated by the engine and spin me out of control.

That was probably my 100th time through that corner in a manual car, but it was the first time that it actually felt perfect. Working a manual is like sharpening a samurai sword or raking a Japanese garden – you can always do better. An automatic makes all this easy, but easy isn’t what I want. What I’m looking for is the kind of moment that Eric Clapton must have experienced when he nailed the notes to Layla on his Fender Stratocaster for the first time.

I’m no Clapton, of course. And I’m not Ayrton Senna, either. Senna reached the pinnacle of Formula One when the cars still had three pedals and a shift lever. Watching a YouTube video of Senna’s hands and feet working the controls made me realize what a master Senna really was. Although I admire today’s drivers, watching Sebastian Vettel flick the paddle shifters in his Red Bull F1 car just isn’t the same.

I know that the manual transmission is slowly dying. When my children learned to drive, they spurned our manual shift car in favour of an automatic. It was easier, and most cars are automatic now, anyway. To this day, neither them really understands what a clutch pedal is (an educational omission that played a key role in my son’s disaster with a manual-shift Porsche Turbo and our garage door back in 2010).

I’ve heard all the arguments against the manual. Yes, it’s easier to drive an automatic in stop-and-go traffic. And yes, an automatic leaves your right hand free to work the radio or a cellphone. But I don’t care about any of that when I click off a perfect downshift – as my feet and hands work the controls, I can feel the mechanisms sliding into place, and I can envision the gears spinning inside the transmission case like silver planets in a mechanical cosmos. It’s up to me to make sure they that they align.

There’s more to life than shifting into Drive.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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