The Stick Shift is Man’s Best Friend

[This piece appeared in The Tennessean.]

You don’t have to be a gearhead to appreciate the stick shift. I know very little about the innards of my car. Cylinders, valves, hoses – I have no idea what they do. What I do know is that driving a stick feels like driving should. It’s a feeling you don’t know until you’ve driven one. If that sounds a bit touchy-feely, that’s because driving a manual is. Take, for example, the question every non-stick driver asks, “How do you know when to shift gears? The RPM? The speed? The answer: You just know.

So what is it about driving stick? A physical connection with the machine, more control, revving the engine like an idiot, the hand-foot coordination? It’s all that and more. A person who’s never operated a clutch doesn’t know that feeling of terror that a rookie stick driver gets when he’s stopped on an incline and another car pulls up too close behind. “How can I get from the brake to the gas and off the clutch before I roll backwards?!?”

Of course, rude drivers of automatics are dealt with by karma when their batteries die and they’re left searching for another car and a set of jumper cables. We stick drivers just need a good push. Jump in, pop the clutch and we’re off. I once went a month or two before buying a needed battery by parking on a slight hill at home and at work.

Driving an automatic is like being a passenger with slightly more control over the direction of the automobile. It’s something that occurs to me after I’ve driven an automatic for an extended period of time and returned to my stick shift: “Oh this is driving.” Sure, my car may not have a working radio, an air conditioner, or even a window that rolls down, but it’s got a stick shift, and that’s macho. Kinda.