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Objects of Desire November 2013

Passion for a stick

By Emily Atkins

They say variety keeps things interesting. A gear shift, in a skillful hand, is like a musical instrument. Together with its player, it creates beautiful music. You play it with nuance and it’s never exactly the same way twice. The timing varies, the motion is minutely different and the co-ordination of hands and feet comes together to produce delectable combination of symphonic howl, punching acceleration and g-force joy. You can bring it together with the beauty of a practiced orchestra, or occasionally with the cringe-inducing clash of a bad high school band.

The point is, with a manual transmission, you are in control of the car, it’s your timing changes, your foot shifted over a millimeter from the last time, your brain processing the light differently. It’s different every time and it’s NEVER boring.

Driving with finesse is not about perfection, it’s about learning, slightly altering what you do every time, in the never-ending quest for the elusive perfect corner, the nirvana lap. It matters not if you are a track driver or stick to the street. Every time you shift gears using the manual transmission  you are engaged fully in the operation of the vehicle. The cost a mistake is higher – a dropped clutch, a late shift, these can get you into serious trouble, on the track or highway. That makes the endeavor so much more serious.

With an automatic, you lose direct control over the series of events that keeps the car going where you want it. A computer is driving the car. It’s just not the same. Snick, snick, snick–paddles are surgical instruments, slicing through time and gravity with computerized precision. You may as well sit at home on the couch and play video games.

Driving an automatic takes away the fun and a lot of the challenge. Sure, Porsche has mastered the science of the automatic transmission. It’s definitely a great technology. And it might make us all faster drivers with its split-second shifts, and spot-on rev-matching.

I recently drove a 2014 Cayman S for a week. I had high expectations from the car; if the Cayman was great, surely its more powerful brother would be awesome. I hope to tell more in a review, but let’s say for brevity the experience was underwhelming. Why? I have to say it was the automatic transmission. I felt more like a passenger than the driver. I don’t mind an automatic in the right circumstances, but when driving enjoyment is my objective, it has to be manual.

Technology is improving cars so much that they will soon be driving themselves. It’s not a concept; it’s here. Manual transmissions are going the way of the in-dash cassette deck. Soon they will be a quaint novelty that only the occasional old guy or retro-loving geek will know how to operate. Even driving schools are discontinuing lessons in manual cars, because demand is no longer there.

And when even fabled car makers like Porsche decide that they will only produce automatic transmissions for certain models of car, you know big changes are coming.

Those of us with manual transmissions have an obligation to posterity to ensure our vehicles are kept in good running order as long as we can turn a wrench or have money to pay our mechanics. We all own a piece of automotive history that must be kept alive.

Those who get it, have it. Those who have it want to keep it. I want to be able to keep on practicing, and likely never achieving perfection. Driving is about passion, and passion cannot be computerized. It’s sometimes raw, sometimes sweet, always powerful and never clinical. Driving is one of the last refuges from structure, schedule and electronic minders in my life. That’s why I will clutch my stick to the end.

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