Manual vs. PDK Part I 2012

By Andrew Fitzpatrick, Member at Large

A few months ago there appeared a series of articles in Panorama that posed the question, “can a car without a manual transmission be considered a sports car?” Panorama published a number of letters on both sides of the manual-PDK divide, but in its ever-diplomatic way failed to offer a conclusion. I labour under no such constraint and with no fear of lost advertising revenue or access to press cars will posit that sports cars have clutches. Not some fancy dual clutch gizmo but a real honest to goodness clutch connected to a pedal operated by the left leg.

The key words for consideration here are “sports car” and more particularly “sport”. The main thrust of the pro-PDK crowd boils down to the fact that all else being equal a PDK-equipped Porsche is faster around a track than its old-school counterpart and that it’s a technological marvel. None of this is denied. If you want to win races get yourself a PDK. Formula 1 cars have had some type of automated gearbox since back in the day when I would struggle to stay awake watching Senna and Piquet duke it out in black and white on CBC’s long-departed Late Night Racing. If lap times are all it’s about than it’s no contest.

But that’s not what it’s all about. We need to differentiate between race cars and sports cars. Race cars are for winning races, sports cars are for sport. Race cars are tools, objects of utility driven purely by rationality. They can be beautiful but that’s a happy coincidence, not the designer’s intent. If it doesn’t make it go faster or make it safer it has no place on a race car.

With sports cars there is more to the equation than the cold hard logic of the stopwatch. They are about sport, they are about play, about an emotional connection. To drive a manual well, especially at the track, takes skill, patience and practice. The perfect heel-toe is an ever-elusive thing of joy. That’s why it has value, because it is hard and not everyone can do it and indeed most folks probably think it’s some kind of line-dancing move. It sounds amazing and for that reason alone why would anyone want a PDK? I know that the PDK matches revs perfectly on downshifts but that strikes me as similar to my electronic piano playing the classics programmed in at the Yamaha factory. It sounds great and it’s a good solution for dinner-parties but it’s quite a different thing than me pulling up the stool and belting out some Beethoven. I will never play as perfectly as the computer in the piano or shift as well as a PDK, but that doesn’t mean I should stop trying.

I also find the argument that PDK should be embraced as the way forward because of its technological excellence and because it represents “progress” to be a bit ironic when made by members of club that cherishes, and was largely built upon a car, with the engine in the trunk. If the latest technology and the fastest way around a track are hall marks of what marks a great sports car than many of our members are barking up the wrong tree. I guess this is understandable as they may well have run into said tree rear end first. Surely of all automotive enthusiasts, PCA members who revere the 911 for the raw and alive way it feels, for the way it hooks up coming out of a corner and that very special front-end feedback, can understand that the latest, greatest and most logical is not always the most sporting or most endearing.

My final anti-PDK argument involves a fishing analogy. How many of you fish with a fly? A fly you tied yourself the night before taking into consideration the date, water levels and the particular river on the morning’s agenda? Fly fishing is difficult. It takes enormous practice to be able to tie your own fly and be able to place it exactly where you want, cast after cast, regardless of wind and current. If all you are concerned about is getting all the salmon out of the pool as soon as possible you would just haul a net across and be done with it. Or maybe throw in an explosive and pick up the fish as they float to the top. There is a time and place for nets. Those fishing for a living are more concerned with the bottom line than the arcane pleasures of split cane and Hardy and rightfully so. However, those fishing for sport don’t use nets.

I recently had occasion to watch the 1966 classic Grand Prix staring James Garner. Anyone with even a faint interest is motor sports must see this film. Some of the footage was shot from on-board cameras attached to contemporary F1 cars driven by contemporary F1 drivers at real and still used F1 tracks. Names like Graham Hill, Juan-Manuel Fangio and Bruce McLaren litter the credits and famous faces make cameos. There is even close up footage of the drivers’ feet and pedals as they heel toe to a glorious soundtrack. Like any such movie there must be some non-car related plot, otherwise our significant others would never sit through it. Multiple romantic subplots unfold. During one of these off-track scenes the French world-champion is teaching his love interest, of all things, to fly fish. She asks in her well-bred American voice, “why is it so important to place the fly right there when it is such a big lake and there are so many fish”? “It’s the sport of it,” our gentleman hero replies, “it’s the sport of it”. Enough said.

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