Car Guru: Stop Downshift In Manual Transmissions

Mar 26, 2012
Originally published on March 26, 2012 5:17 pm

Seventy years ago, 70 percent of U.S.-made cars came with a stick shift. The number is less than 9 percent today.

But at least one man is on a quest to reverse that slide.

Eddie Alterman loves automobiles. He's a gear head. He's the top editor at Car and Driver magazine. His whole career, he has watched the sales of cars with stick shifts decline. And when Ferrari failed to offer a manual option for the new 458 Italia, he said, enough's enough. Basta.

Alterman is making converts one by one. Recently, he gave Julia Espinosa her first lesson in driving a manual transmission, in a high school parking lot. Espinosa says, ever since her uncle regaled her with tales of touring the back roads of England as a young man, she has wanted to learn how to drive a real car. You know, one with a stick.

"So the clutch pedal needs to be depressed completely before it's going to engage? Or you said halfway," Espinosa says before the car stalls.

And stalls. And stalls a third time. But, on the fourth try she gets it.

"There you go! WHOO!" Alterman says. "You did it! Now to get into second gear."

By the time the lesson is over, Espinosa has mastered the basics. She's not ready for the back roads of England yet, but it's a start.

"A great number of people become addicted to stick shifts," says Chris Terry of Ford, who brought the car for the lesson. He says it isn't too much trouble to offer manual transmissions for a small pool of customers.

"The trouble would be if consumers didn't think they were gonna get a choice and that they thought Ford Motor Co. was gonna turn its back on driving enthusiasts," Terry says.

Alterman figures young people in particular should focus more on driving and less on distractions.

"It's about do-it-yourself, it's about having fun in the car, and not doing it through apps or downloading Pandora or anything like that," he says. "It's about actually having a connection to the mechanical part of the car."

But still, the numbers of manual shift cars keep declining.

"In 1940, we sold our first Hydromatic transmission," says GM Engineer Tim Kotlarek. His company introduced the first commercially successful automatic transmission in the U.S.

Kotlarek expects most sports cars will always come with a stick option, but even though he's a car guy, too, he prefers an automatic. Do stick shift enthusiasts think that's lazy?

"Yeah, I am, I'll be the first to admit it," he says, laughing. "But, it's the ease of things, right?"

That, plus, automatics are now as fuel efficient as manuals. And just get stuck in a stop-and-go traffic jam with a manual; that'll suck the joy out of driving a stick for sure.

But Alterman isn't ready to accept a world without manual transmissions.

"I don't want to live in that world, to tell you the truth," he says. "It's a world without guys building treehouses for their kids. It's a world without train sets. It's a world without fun."

So Alterman fights the good fight, armed with a website, some decals, and T-shirts that read, "Save the Manuals."

Copyright 2013 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit http://michiganradio.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Seventy years ago in the U.S., 70 percent of cars came with a stick shift. How many American cars have stick shifts today? The answer is 9 percent. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton has the story of one man who would like to reverse that.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Eddie Alterman loves automobiles. Yeah, he's a gear head. He's the top editor at Car and Driver magazine. His whole career, he's watched the sales of cars with stick shifts decline. And when Ferrari failed to offer a manual option for the new 458 Italia, he said enough is enough - basta.

EDDIE ALTERMAN: OK. Let's start at the beginning.

SAMILTON: Today, Alterman will give Julia Espinosa her first lesson in driving a manual transmission. He's making converts one by one. Espinosa says ever since her uncle regaled her with tales of touring the back roads of England as a young man, she's wanted to learn how to drive a real car, you know, one with a stick.

JULIA ESPINOSA: The clutch pedal needs to be depressed completely before it's going to engage, or you said halfway?

ALTERMAN: About half way.

ESPINOSA: About...

ALTERMAN: And you will feel that engagement point.

SAMILTON: So here in a high school parking lot, like so many before her, Espinosa stalls the car, a second time and a third.

ALTERMAN: And then start to let roll into the gas.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALTERMAN: Just a little more gas in.

SAMILTON: But lo and behold, on the fourth try...

ALTERMAN: There you go.

SAMILTON: There you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ALTERMAN: Whoo, you did it. OK. Now, to get into second gear...

SAMILTON: By the time the lesson is over, Espinosa has mastered the basics. She's not ready for the back roads of England yet, but it's a start.

CHRIS TERRY: A great number of people become addicted to driving stick shifts.

SAMILTON: That's Chris Terry of Ford. He brought the car for the lesson. I ask him, isn't it too much trouble to offer manual transmissions for such a small pool of customers?

TERRY: No. The trouble would be is if consumers didn't think that they were going to get a choice and that they thought that Ford Motor Company was going to turn their back on driving enthusiasts.

SAMILTON: Eddie Alterman figures young people, in particular, should focus more on driving and less on distractions.

ALTERMAN: It's about do it yourself. It's about having fun in the car and not doing it through apps or downloading Pandora or anything like that. It's about actually having a connection to the mechanical part of the car.

SAMILTON: So now, Alterman takes the wheel. Espinosa just took Stick Shift 101. Now, it's time for the advanced class, matching revs on a downshift.

ALTERMAN: And when I go back down to second, I'm flipping the throttle.

SAMILTON: It does look like fun, but the numbers keep going down.

TIM KOTLAREK: In 1940, we sold our first Hydromatic transmission.

SAMILTON: GM engineer Tim Kotlarek says his company introduced the first commercially successful automatic transmission in the U.S. He expects most sports cars will always come with a stick option, but even though he's a car guy, too, he prefers an automatic. So do stick shift enthusiasts think that's lazy?

KOTLAREK: Yeah, I am. I'll be the first to admit it, but it's the ease of things. Right?

SAMILTON: That, plus automatics are now about as fuel efficient as manuals. And just get stuck in a stop-and-go traffic jam with a manual and that'll suck the joy out of driving a stick, for sure. But to this Don Quixote of the car world, a world without manual transmissions...

ALTERMAN: I don't want to live in that world, to tell you the truth. It's a world without guys building tree houses for their kids. It's a world without train sets. It's a world without any fun, as far as I'm concerned.

SAMILTON: So Eddie Alterman fights the good fight, armed with a website, some decals and t-shirts that read, Save the Manuals. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.