When I started driving in the early 1970s, many of the cars on the road had a manual transmission. Being less expensive than an automatic transmission, most kids had a stick shift. An automatic was a luxury, just like having an air conditioner, so that’s how a vast majority of young people learned how to drive – with a stick and no AC.
Today, if you look around, an air conditioner is in almost every vehicle. But the stick shift? Not so much.
Can you still buy a car or truck with a manual transmission? Yep, you can. It’s more available than I thought, but what is surprising is that a manual transmission these days isn’t necessarily more efficient than an automatic. Stick shifts used to provide better mileage.
We’ve gone from three-on-the-tree to six-in-the-floor. If you’ve got the money, you can shift from automatic back to a stick.
Let’s first look at then versus now.
In the early 1970s, my dad pulled over to the shoulder of a country road and told me to switch places with him. His car (later my car) was a 1966 Ford Mustang, which had a 200 cubic inch, straight six-cylinder engine, and a three-speed manual transmission.
I did as he asked. He told me to put my left foot on the clutch, my right foot on the brake, and to slowly place the shifter into first gear. I then followed his next instruction to look for traffic and then move my right foot from the brake to the gas and slowly release the clutch as I accelerated the engine.
You can probably picture in your mind how this went the first few times, but eventually I got it. I also was able to shift gears to reach highway speeds, and learned to smoothly downshift as I neared intersections or slower traffic.
New, that 1966 Ford Mustang cost around $2,300. My dad almost never bought a new car, so he paid $500 for it when it was just a few years old. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t even buy a set of hubcaps for a 1966 Mustang for that price today.
But a $500 car drove just fine. And a manual transmission? We never thought a thing about it. It was just part of how a car worked. Automatic transmissions were for moms to drive. It allowed them to safely operate the vehicle while reaching over to the back seat to swat misbehaving children.
Dads and kids drove stick shifts. And we were fine with it.
Today, a manual transmission is a rarity. The number of new vehicle models you can order with a stick has dropped significantly, compared to what I grew up with, but they’re still available in decent numbers.
There’s a really good online article by Car and Driver magazine that lists 50 cars you can still buy today with a stick shift option.
Some of the vehicles aren’t surprising at all, while others are. Chevrolet still offers a number of different models with a stick, including the Camaro, Corvette, Cruze, Spark, and Sonic.
Ford also still offers a manual in the Fiesta, Focus, and Mustang. Dodge sells the Challenger.
Fiat, Honda, Nissan, Hundyai, Subaru, Toyota, and other manufacturers offer budget-conscious models, but many of the high-end vehicles that offer a manual will cost you.
The Chevrolet Cruze can be bought for less than $14,000, while the Porsche 911 is just shy of $100K. Of course, there’s a slight difference in how cool you look in a Chevy Cruze, as opposed to the Porsche.
Audi, BMW, Cadillac, and other luxury and performance vehicles also provide the manual transmission option. But most of these models cost more than my house. Since I’m not into living in my car, even if it is a really nice car, I won’t be motoring around town in any of these. But if you’ve got that kind of money, you can.
Why did Americans get away from driving a manual transmission? The theory most people point to, other than moms needing to discipline kids in the back seat of a Buick, is laziness. An automatic transmission is just easier.
While that’s true, stick shifts are fun. But, I guess they’re not that fun. The last one I owned was a 1982 Toyota Starlet. It was about as basic as basic gets. Even though it was a 1982 model, it still had a one-barrel carburetor and a manual choke. It also had a five-speed manual transmission. I loved that car.
So why did I get rid of it? I found a car that allowed me to relive my youth. It was a blue, 1966 Mustang with a 200 cubic inch, six-cylinder engine, just like the one that my dad had given me, but I no longer had.
However, I have to confess. That blue Mustang had an automatic transmission. And air conditioning.
So, to be honest, laziness is why I didn’t stick with a manual.
©2018 John Moore
John’s book Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon.
Email John at John@TheCountryWriter.com.