Predicting the end of the world is a surprisingly durable business. Bishop Hilary of Poitiers announced that the world would end in the year 365. Pope Sylvester II said the Apocalypse would arrive on the millennium. Countless doomsayers have followed, and yet the world survives.
But now I have seen a sign that the End of Days may be upon us: the option list for Porsche’s new 911 GT3 and Turbo does not include a manual transmission. And Jaguar’s just-released F-Type sports car? Automatic only. The Four Horsemen can’t be far behind.
How could this be? The 911 and the sporting Jaguar once embodied the manual-shift faith in the same way that Mahatma Gandhi embodied pacifism – hearing that they had gone automatic was like hearing that Neil Young had cut his hair and taken a Pepsi sponsorship.
As always, reality is slightly more complicated than broad theory. The gearbox in the 911 is not a slush-box-style auto like the one in a 1960s Buick. To be precise, it is a Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT, although Porsche calls it a PDK, an abbreviation of the ultra-Teutonic Porsche Doppelkupplung.) Technically, DCTs are manual transmissions that happen to be controlled by logic boards and actuators instead of a shift lever and clutch pedal. But the car handles the shifting, not you. So let’s call a spade a spade: the 911 and the Jag are automatics.
If you read this column regularly, you’ll know that I love manual transmissions for their elegance, lightness and the incomparable connection they create with your car (driving a manual well is like playing Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster). Even so, I drive automatics fairly often, and enjoy them in the right vehicle (like minivans and hybrids). When it comes to cars, I am ecumenical – although I always opt for the manual, I am not offended when others go a different way.
But now I can see that a golden age is ending – the manual shift car is heading into the twilight.
Observing the relentless rise of the automatic has been like watching one of those movies that uses a flood of ink stain to show the spread of Nazism across the map of Europe, circa 1939. Twenty years ago, I didn’t know a single enthusiast who drove an automatic sports car. Now, two-thirds of my friends drive without a clutch.
According to Porsche spokesman Patrick St. Pierre, nearly three-quarters of all 911 buyers now choose the PDK transmission over the standard version. The company also believes that the PDK offers performance advantages over the manual transmission, including the ability to freewheel, which saves fuel. (It should also be noted that the PDK happens to cost nearly $5,000 more, adding to the company’s profit margin on each car.)
There is a historical inevitability to all this, of course. The market economy means that your choices will be dictated by corporate forces and the tastes of the mass market: you may love family-run shoe stores and funky diners, but the body republic has cast its dollar vote with big box malls and national food chains, so that’s what you will get. And the crowd has also chosen the automatic.
Playing devil’s advocate, I will concede that the clutchless transmission is technically superior to the deeply flawed shift-control device known as the human being. Unlike a human, the DCT never misreads engine speed, blows a mid-corner downshift, or tries to drive in stiletto heels. And the DCT can shift in milliseconds.
The technology is now standard (no pun intended) in the world of Formula One, where engineers will do whatever it takes to cut lap times. Why let a driver interfere with the perfection of digital shifting? The DCT shifts faster than a driver can, and it automates the finicky task of rev-matching on high-speed downshifts – a digital processor reads wheel speed, then revs the motor to the perfect rpm, so even an amateur can shift without a lurch.
The first time I drove a clutchless Porsche on a race track, I was amazed: as I arced into the notoriously tricky Turn Five at Mosport (now called Canadian Tire Motorsport Park), the car ripped off a flawless, completely unbidden downshift, as if the ghost of Ayrton Senna had drifted into the Porsche’s cabin to replace me on the pedals and shift lever. The perfection of the shifts was uncanny, and the Porsche could do it all without my assistance (although there were little steering-wheel buttons I could push to command a shift, the onboard computers could time the shifts better than any human, so why bother?).
Last week, I drove the track in my own car, a manual-shift Lotus that is driven in classical fashion, with three pedals and a stubby shift lever. In my car, the entry to Turn Five is a moment of high technical demand: you drive down a steep hill at more than 170 km/h, then brake hard with the toes of your right foot while blipping the throttle with your heel so the engine’s speed will match when you release the clutch in the new gear. Your left foot, meanwhile, plays the clutch, temporarily releasing it while the shifter passes through neutral, then squeezes it rapidly back in, then out, as you simultaneously co-ordinate the throttle so the rear tires don’t lock up. As all this happens, you are sliding the car up a hill toward the apex of Turn Five, pulling close to one G laterally.
Although I can’t play the piano, I imagine this is what Vladimir Horowitz would have felt if he had tried playing a difficult Liszt piece while wearing a helmet and being pushed sideways at high speed. When it works out well, there’s nothing like it (after hundreds of laps, I’m still perfecting my downshift shift into that corner). With the PDK, it was easy – a non-event, in fact.
Easy isn’t necessarily better. Humans have an inchoate longing for beauty and connection to forces larger than themselves, and that state is rarely discovered the easy way. I thought of this recently as I watched The Last Samurai, a movie about a 19th century American soldier who learns the technique and philosophy of Japanese warriors. The samurai wielded their swords with otherworldly skill and courage, and practised from the time they were children, perfecting every move and counter-move. They wrote poetry and watched cherry blossoms drift in the spring wind, seeking moments of grace and aesthetic perfection. (In the end, they were mowed by troops with Gatling guns.)
To me, the manual shift lever is the equivalent of the samurai’s katana – a simple device that demands endless practice and rewards the skilled practitioner. The automatic is the Gatling gun – it may get the job done, but there is no beauty in it. You may be faster around a racetrack with the PDK, but the cherry blossoms do not drift in the wind.
I’m not ready to predict the end of the world yet, but some valuable things have disappeared since I was a little boy. Doctors don’t come to your house any more. The police don’t walk the beat. And the last stick shift is somewhere down the road. The firmament has shifted (clutchlessly).
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