Death Song For the Manual Transmission

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There are things in life you desperately want but know you can’t have anymore. Maybe it’s a 20-year-old girlfriend  . . . if you’re 45 and not rich/not Brad Pitt.

A two-pound bag of M&Ms . . . if you’re Oprah.

The manual transmission is another.

It’s not very practical; and the truth is it may not be good for you anymore, either.

I realized this the other day – very much in the same way that a 45-year-old realizes 20-year-olds are no longer what he needs (even if they are very much what he might want).

There I was, stop-and-going in suburban DC-area traffic. In my truck, with a five-speed stick. Roll forward for maybe 20 yards, then hit the brakes – and depress the clutch – as traffic bunches up. Roll to a stop. Wait a few. Repeat. Over and over and over and over, uncountable times. In. Out. In Out. Get to third or fourth, maybe. Downshift, upshift, Neutral. You become a mindless machine minder. A drone performing a repetitive motion. It is no longer particularly fun – and meanwhile, it’s harder to drink your coffee or send a text.

Once upon a time, manuals were referred to as standard transmissions. Because most cars came with them, standard. Today, manuals are to an increasing extent very much optional.

If they’re available at all.

Did you know that every full-size truck on the market right now is automatic-only? Remember when three-on-the-tree (or perhaps four on the floor) was as much a part of the Truck Experience as shotgun racks and manual-lock hubs? When a high-performance sports car with an automatic was an oxymoron? Or at least, shameful . . . if the car wasn’t your wife’s car?

Not even hydraulic-assist has been able to stave off the decline and fall of the manual transmission. People simply aren’t much interested in doing their own footwork, so to speak.

And I get why.

It’s not that clutches are heavy (they were sometimes, prior to hydraulic assist) nor are manual equipped cars hard to drive (in fact they’ve never been easier).

They’re just tedious to drive – because you’re not really driving much anymore.

Creeping along at 0-35 or so (and then 35-0, repeat) as one of an endless conga line of cars is travel, certainly. You are transporting yourself from A to B. But to call it “driving” is like calling a meal at McDonald’s “dining.”

Your daily grind is something you have to do. Not something you want to do. Like prison rape, you want to get it over with as quickly as possible, with the least amount of damage to your soul.

When you’re stuck in the slow-motion monotony of perpetually gridlocked traffic – which describes more and more of the average American’s driving, as the population swells past 320 million and road capacity isn’t coming close to keeping up with this kudzu-like growth – your priorities change. What matters most of all is that the car is quiet; that with the windows up and the AC (or heater) on, you are insulated – and isolated – from the outside unpleasantness (this, incidentally, is why AC is all-but-ubiquitous these days  . . . and vent wing windows extinct). That the radio – oops, the audio system – is superb. That you can call up the office or your buddy or your wife via the Bluetooth wireless and distract yourself from the unpleasant chore at hand with conversation.

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