Manual Dexterity

Stick Shift

I am happy to report that my wellspring of fatherly advice has not yet run dry.  Or, perhaps more to the point, demand for it has not tapered off to completely nothing.  I report this because I was able to pass on a skill of a well-rounded adulthood that is slowly vanishing from the scene.  No, I have not been teaching my children the fine points about smoking a pipe (something that I shall be able to take up again only upon the premature death of the Mrs.)  Instead, I have passed on the ability to drive a car with a manual transmission.

I have reached the age where much of what I have to teach my now-adult children is more in the way of a negative example (“Don’t do this the way I did . . .”) than of the positive one (“here, let me show you how to do this.”)  When they were younger, I was a genius.  At least in my own mind.  There was no limit to the things I knew how to do, which they would lap up like little sponges for as long as I was there to dole out the wisdom.

Tying shoes, riding bikes and tying neckties are all holes that have been punched on my Fatherhood card.  And just as I have been fearing that I am about to run out of things of worth to pass along, I was hit up for some tips on driving a stick shift.

Those who know me know that I am a “car guy.”  If it has an engine and wheels, it has my undivided attention, and I will happily spend as much time as I can with it.  As a car guy, especially one who got a drivers license in the 1970s, driving a stick was one of those essential skills that one simply couldn’t do without.

I had been fortunate that part of my childhood was spent in a country setting where there were tractors to be driven.  Though I did not live on a farm, my father had an old Oliver tractor on his property, and I was allowed to start driving it quite early.  Tractors (at least tractors built in the early 1960s) did not have automatic transmissions.  So I learned about what a clutch pedal was and how it affected my life as I got that tractor to move from here to there and back again.

In the fall of maybe 1974, about a year before I had my drivers license, my cousin Butch came to visit.  Butch arrived in a yellow MG Midget, a car a small as its name implies.  By this time, I had spent hours on that tractor and hours more pretending to drive all manner of stationary cars that happened to have stick shifts.  With enough imagination, clutching and shifting non-running cars provided some of the “second nature” that makes something that is not all that intuitive into something very familiar.

Teenagers can be pretty skilled at manipulating adults into doing their bidding, but on one fall day I amazed myself at how well such a thing could work.  As Butch and my Mother were talking, I casually suggested that maybe Butch could take me out and let me drive his car around the neighborhood.  My Mother had let me do this a time or two by then, and Butch certainly didn’t want to be a bad guest, and I watched in amazement as both of them seemed OK with the idea.  Frankly, I had seen the move as a gamble that was unlikely to pay off.  But it did.  I probably got about a half an hour of wheel time in the MG that evening, and the way I remember it, I was not too bad with the clutching and shifting.

Over the ensuing years, I have not been a die-hard shifter, but have had enough manual transmission cars sprinkled through my car-history that I long ago took for granted that I could drive a car with three pedals as well as I could drive one with two.  In fact, all things being equal, I prefer a stick to an automatic.  I lobbied for a stick a time or two when buying new cars, but was always vetoed by the Mrs. (who has lots of years of practice shifting gears, but sort of feels that she has graduated beyond such things.)  When I got my Miata a little over a year ago, I was thrilled that it was a 5 speed.  It took a couple of days for me to knock the rust out of my technique, but soon I was happily shifting away.

That Miata was the catalyst for my eldest to ask if I would show him how to drive a stick.  I was, of course, delighted.  Dispensing (appreciated) fatherly wisdom and spending time in a car are two of my favorite things, and here they were together.  And off we went.

This proved to be nowhere near as anxiety-inducing as when he started driving early in high school.  He has logged many thousands of miles since then, and has been a good driver.  We started out at my office parking lot on a Saturday afternoon and after a few laps involving bumping the car along with only the clutch pedal, he graduated into shifting through the first three gears.  But at some point, it became necessary to go out onto, you know, real streets.  And so we did.

First gear starts on inclines are always a sweaty-palm moment, and he got his experience with this troublesome maneuver right out of the gate.  After the first couple of stalls, another car approached us from behind, upping the stakes.  Two more stalls burned about half of the margin between our bumpers, and I will confess that I was beginning to get just a touch anxious.  The next try, however, was a success.  Some tire chirping and bucking was involved, but a success is a success (which I define as anything that does not involve a collision.)

After about an hour or so, we had driven all sorts of roads and he had gotten to the place where he could get the job done if a stick shift were required.  There will be no prizes for smoothness for a little while yet, but that will come with practice.

He wondered if he was learning a skill just in time for it to become obsolete, given the increasing scarcity of three-pedaled cars in today’s world.  I, however, refuse to believe that the ability to drive a car with a clutch will be without value any time soon.  At some point, he might find himself in a group of young adults who become stranded somewhere far from civilization.  And cell service.  When that happens and the only mode of transportation available for seeking help is a battered Ford pickup with a stick shift and all of his friends are looking at it with fear and uncertainty, he will be the guy to say “I can do it.”  And I will have done my job.


16 thoughts on “Manual Dexterity

  1. Stick shifts are both a dying art and one of the best theft deterrents around. It’s bothersome to see that any new cars with one are almost a specialty item and rather difficult to find.

    Since you have taught your offspring how to do this, you might consider graduating them to the advanced session. To do this, you will need something with a three-on-the-tree, such as an old Studebaker. In turn, you could offer these services to local people for a nominal fee, giving you a nearly free Studebaker while enriching your community.

    I’m sure Mrs. JPC will see the terrific public service this will be providing and won’t mind parking outside.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article. I learned to drive a stick shift on my father’s 1986 Ford Escort Pony in early 1987. The shifter mechanism felt more than a little rubbery, a fact that was driven home a year later when, on a trip to North Dakota, I drove a rental Toyota Corolla hatchback with a stick shift. It shifted so smoothly and easily that it was a revelation compared to the Escort. Do rental car companies even stock stick-shift models anymore? When I was in Germany in 2004, I rented a BMW Z3 for an afternoon, and was shocked to discover that it had an automatic! The counter person told me that most of the renters were Americans, and most of them couldn’t drive a stick shift!


  3. Every car I’ve had with an automatic transmission has failed me. I had to rebuild the transmission in my ’85 XJS, and when the automatic transmission in my 3 Series started flaking out, I bought a 6-speed manual and eliminated the (well, that) problem.

    Though she’s still three-ish years away from needing one, we’ve already bought my daughter’s first car. And I insisted on a 6-speed because I, like you, think this is a skill she needs to have.


  4. Out of our families’ 5 vehicles 4 are manual shift (includes two motorcycles). Mrs DougD would disallow the purchase of a small car with an automatic. 🙂

    (always marry the Mechanic’s daughter) I’m really looking forward to teaching the kids to drive standard in the 63 VW.

    One of my co-workers bought a used Fiat 500 for his daughters. It was a stick, and although they learned it they HATED it so they got rid of it during the next family car shuffle. I said at least if they ever get on The Amazing Race they won’t get stuck on the South America leg not knowing how to drive the car..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I taught my older son how to drive stick. He needed a first car, so we went to St. Vinnies and bought an ’81 Mazda 626, the old RWD kind. And I taught my sister in law. And sort of taught my younger son, although he never tried again after his first go at it. And I failed with Stephanie; it was on our honeymoon in the Anza Borrego desert in east San Diego County, in my ’68 Dodge A100 van. But that was also her first time driving anything; she did not have a license yet. It did not go well, despite being in the remote desert. She refused to touch a car until she got pregnant, when the reality of living in LA without a license (and a child) suddenly hit home. But I had to find her a Peugeot 404 automatic wagon first. And she took to that very quickly.

    The odd thing is that I’m struggling right now to remember the first car I drove with a stick (on the streets). I’d driven tractors and such on the farms I had spent summers on since I was nine. But which was the first car? Hmmm. It was an illicit drive, in any case, when I was 15. The three possibilities are my father’s ’68 Dart, my brother’s ’58 MGA and the ’64 Suburban at the work (gas station). I know I took them all out for drives in the country about the same time, but I can’t remember which was first. Dang! I’m having a senior moment! Well, it was one of those three…


    • I remembered your clutch-bumping technique and started there. The trouble is that the Miata is so light and geared so low that clutch feel can be mastered this way in about 7 minutes and quickly becomes boring. But it was a great way to start.


      • I was wondering about that…but it really is step one, no matter how quickly it is mastered.

        And 20 minutes after writing my comment last night I had the Aha! moment (about which stick car I first drove on the streets). None of those three! It was my 10th grade French teacher’s VW bus, on the grounds of the Maryland School for the Blind. How could I forget that?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. When I was in college in the late ’80s I had a full sized Buick, and a friend had an Ford Escort, so it was much cheaper to take his car on road trips. Then I discovered that he had REALLY bad night vision issues. So as a matter of self preservation I got him to teach me to drive stick, so I could share the wheel time.

    Since then, the only time a manual has been a problem was the night another friend asked me to move his MR2 from one parking lot to another. This would have been fine, except that the dome light was burned out, and I had to figure out the shift pattern by trial and error.


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  8. My older son drove my 5-speed Ford Ranger all last summer, which gave me a sense of satisfaction, too. I’m glad to hear I am not alone in thst and smiled to read about the MX-5.
    P.S. A customer from Europe visited a few years ago and I was a little self conscious picking him up in the Ranger. He got in, looked at me and exclaimed, “Thankfully you have a proper shifting vehicle!”


  9. My elder son son drove my 5-speed Ford Ranger all of last summer. I felt a sense of satisfaction about it and am glad to hear I am not alone in that.
    P.S. I once picked up a visitor from Europe in my Ranger and was a bit self conscious about it. When he climbed in he exclaimed, “Finally a proper shifting vehicle!”


    • I used to occasionally drive colleagues or customers visiting from Taiwan in our Corolla (in the late ’90’s). When they saw the car, they were surprised that a mid-level Silicon Valley manager would be driving a Corolla. But when they climbed in, and saw that it was a stick, they were really surprised. At that time, the only manual transmission cars I saw in Taiwan were the older taxis (Nissan Sunny or Ford Lazer). By the year 2000 or so, they were all gone. By the way, my personal car is now an automatic; but my wife’s is a stick and both my kids are three-pedal proficient. In fact, most people I know either own or can drive a “standard” car.


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