Dinosaurs and Trannies by Ben Shahrabani

May 23, 2013—When I think of 'keeping it wide open' (both the 'go pedal' as well as this fine website), I think of manual transmissions. You've heard of them, right? Sometimes they're called stick shifts or 5 or 6-speeds (Porsche and Chevy now have 7-speed!). Once upon a time they were called 'standards' as in manuals were the standard transmission. Get it? And if you actually wanted to go somewhere in your car, you had to shift the gears yourself. Nowadays, only a very small percentage of cars in the USA are sold with manual transmissions, at last check only 5% or so of total vehicle sales.

The reasons for the demise of the manual transmission are many. Driver's Ed isn't teaching students anymore (although this may be a chicken-or-egg situation). I know when I learned, it was not my driver's education class that taught me, it was one of my uncles in London on a 1-litre Ford Fiesta 4-speed. The gearshift was on the 'wrong' side. I thank him anyway. Another reason is fuel economy. Once upon a time, manual transmissions got much better fuel economy than automatics. Now that's mostly no longer the case. Automatics have gotten so good that in most cases they equal or exceed the mileage you get from shifting yourself. Some automatics are so good (DSG & PDK which are dual-clutch automatics) that the average person cannot shift smoother or faster than the car can.

Another reason is that most people seem to want to do as little as possible. Operating an extra lever and a third pedal is too much work. They feel that a car with an automatic transmission makes life easier. They might also wish to have an extra hand free for eating, texting, shaving, etc. Such is the world we live in.

Porsche 911 shifter

The author's optional $500 shift knob. He really enjoys shifting.

But for Drivers, driving a car with a manual tranny is a badge of pride. Having full control of your car carries an appeal that may well go back to the time when man first rode astride a tyrannosaurus rex. That's what they say in some circles, anyway. There's the romantic notion of the stick shift too. You don't see too many car movies, whether action (Ronin or Bullit comes to mind) or romantic (I can't think of any right now, but imagine a beautiful girl, a convertible, and a stick shift) where the people are driving automatics.

There is the pride one takes in a perfectly timed two-three upshift, wringing it out to the redline and listening to the symphony of pumping pistons and whirring camshafts, or perhaps mastering the dark art of heel-and-toe shifting and precisely matching revs on a downshift as you brake into a corner. There is the conviction that the driver knows best.

Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure our kind are fighting a losing battle on this one. The news is grim—Ferrari no longer offers a manual transmission option of any kind. Porsche's hard core 991 GT3 and upcoming turbo—same. Who knows when the last manual transmission car will be built?

Truly, we're the last of the dinosaurs. [kiWO]