Skip to main content
road rush

My son and the manual transmission have a checkered history. At 15, he washed out of initial stick-shift training. At 17, he accidentally launched a Porsche 911 through our garage door. But, as he finished his third year of university this spring, I had a vision: Will would finally learn the way of the manual.

My plan included a great father-and-son adventure: after he conquered the clutch, Will and I would take my six-speed Lotus to North Carolina to drive one of the most renowned roads in the world – a twisting stretch of Route 129 known as the Tail of the Dragon.

With 318 curves in 11 miles, the Dragon winds through the deep green slopes of the Smokey Mountain chain, and it is to driving what Fenway Park is to baseball – a storied venue that attracts the faithful. Now Will would drive the Dragon in my beautiful sports car, and bond over the clutch.

Or so I hoped.

Like many young people, Will has never had much interest in manual transmissions, which he regarded as an old-fashioned, entirely unnecessary complication, not unlike the crank starter on a Ford Model T. When I taught Will to drive at the age of 15, we had two Honda Accords – one a five-speed manual, the other an automatic. Will tried the stick shift, but quickly gave up and moved on to the auto – there was no learning curve, and that's what all his friends drove.

I could see that my son was part of a generational shift that has pushed the standard-shift car toward extinction. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 29.1 per cent of new vehicles were purchased with a manual transmission back in 1987 – by 2010, that number had fallen to just 3.8 per cent.

As we prepared for our trip to the Dragon, I had renewed hope that Will might come around to my way of thinking. For the first time, he actually seemed at least slightly interested in learning to drive a manual, if only so he could drive my Lotus (which would definitely improve his chances with women compared to the dented, 11-year-old Honda he currently drives).

Unlike me, Will is not a gear head. I grew up disassembling machinery and watching Formula One. Will's obsession is sports – he knows every player in the NHL, and can reel off scoring percentages in the same way that I can reel off horsepower and torque statistics. His interests altered the trajectory of my life: for more than a decade, I was a hockey dad, ferrying Will to rinks across eastern North America.

Because of Will, I know what a power play is, and how great players work strategies I had never imagined, altering their trajectory and envisioning where others would be in a split second, seeing patterns in the apparent chaos of a game.

Will had taken me into his world. Now I would take him into mine. On the Dragon, he would see how the physics of cornering played out, and how your feet and hands must work the stick and pedals with the same finesse that a hockey player brings to the stick and skate blades.

By the time we left for North Carolina, Will had a basic understanding of how to work the clutch and run up through the gears, but his downshifting and hill-start skills were about equal to my skating and stick handling (i.e., bad.) I figured we could add the fine points out on the road.

My son and I headed to the highway on a clear, sunlit morning. We had a day and half to make the 1,100-kilometre journey down into Tennessee and North Carolina (the Dragon runs across the state line, in the hills south of Knoxville). At Will's request, I took the first shift at the Lotus's wheel – he wanted no part of driving through Toronto (and possibly getting stuck with traffic behind him on a hill).

An hour later, we pulled into an industrial park south of Guelph, where Will could practise on the empty streets and parking lots. He did well, but his eyes glazed over when I tried to explain the technical concepts behind what he was doing. The conversation quickly shifted back to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

By the time we got to Kentucky, Will was running up and down through the gears fairly smoothly. But he panicked when he had to start on a hill in Knoxville, and told me to take over.

I remembered my own brutal introduction to the manual transmission back in the 1960s, when my father took me to an abandoned military airfield and put me behind the wheel of our Mercury Comet. I had no option but the manual – that's what my racing heroes drove, and the three-speed Comet was the only car we had. After several hours of bucking and lurching, I was finally able to make a passable start on level ground, but it would be months before I could do the same thing on a grade.

As we approached the Dragon the next day, the hills became steeper, and the roads twisted through deep green hallways of trees and hanging vines. My son and I were entering a driver's Valhalla.

"Cool," Will announced.

On the southern end of the Dragon, we stopped at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. The parking lot was jammed with bikes and high-performance cars, and Will and I inspected the infamous Tree of Shame – a giant hardwood where they hang a piece of your vehicle if you crash. (The tree was covered, and more parts were heaped at the base.) Inside the gift shop, there was a gallery of accident pictures – cars upside down in the woods, bikes ripped in half, and riders being airlifted out by medevac helicopters.

"How often do you see a crash?" I asked the clerk.

"Every day," he replied. "You want to see one, just head up the road, pick a corner, and wait a while."

Out on the Dragon, Will was astounded by the sheer number of curves, and how quickly he had to shift, brake and accelerate to keep up. "This is crazy," he announced.

A few miles later, he asked me to take over. As I carved through the corners, he watched me working the controls, finally understanding what was involved in a rev-matched, heel-and-toe downshift through a diminishing radius corner.

"For you, this is hockey," he said. "And I'm probably the only kid in the world whose dad wants him to drive faster."

On the long drive back to Toronto, I reflected on our mission: Will had learned to work the manual, and he had driven the Tail of the Dragon. But I could see that this had been my dream, not his, and that Will would be happy if I traded in my six-speed Lotus for one with an automatic.

We watched hockey in a sports bar that night, and had a great time together.

A few days later, back at home, Will asked me if we could go for a drive. His clutch skills had magically improved – he'd been practising at the car dealership where he works in the summer, jockeying manual-shift cars around the lot. Last weekend, he drove a five-speed Alfa-Romeo Spyder back from a car auction in Barrie by himself.

This week, he asked if we could get a family car with a stick shift. "It's more fun," he said. "It's cool."

I realized that my son and I had taken a journey of a thousand miles. And it had begun with a single step – the measured release of a clutch pedal, carefully balanced against the throttle.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive


Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: