Jerome Shea       February 9, 2010      Weekend Wonk

Interesting word, “shift.” Or perhaps I should say a word with interesting variations and connotations. “Shift for yourself” connotes a hardy resourcefulness. On the other hand, “shiftless” connotes laziness. The entry takes up over three column inches in my dictionary. “Makeshift” suggests crudeness but also ingenuity. Day shift. Graveyard shift. Shifts and stratagems. And certainly to describe someone as shifty is not a compliment. (Shift as camisole can’t possibly have the same etymology [can it?] but it is right in there with the other definitions.)

Last week I was singing the praises of the stick shift (aka the standard or manual transmission). I have a few verses left to sing before I grudgingly give the automatic transmission its due. With a stick, you have more control over the movement of the car, for one thing: I would much rather have a stick shift in treacherous road conditions. And should your battery die—or your starter—you can ask a willing stranger to push you. You put the car in second gear, depress the clutch (so that the car will roll freely), turn on the ignition, and then, at speed, “pop” the clutch, so that the drive wheels turn the engine rather than vice versa. Voila! The car bucks once, the engine coughs into life, and you’re good to go to the repair shop. Much less bother than the jumper cables you have to use with an automatic, and if the starter in your slushbox Beemer goes kaput, your only recourse is a tow truck.

Now for a shameful disclosure. I did not learn to drive on a stick shift. I took my driver’s test in my father’s ’56 Olds. Hydra-Matic. Only two pedals to worry about, which is probably why I passed. But I knew that I wanted to learn to drive a stick,* and I took no half measures. The car at hand was my brother’s 1931 Chevy coupe, a wonderful car with a rumble seat, and a stick shift that was not even synchromesh.

Synchromesh, probably the greatest advance before the automatic transmission, would not come in until five or six years later. You can thank the synchronizers for the fact that it is almost impossible to grind the gears in a manual transmission these days. A “crashbox,” as in Steve’s Chevy, was another matter entirely. You started out in first gear as usual, and then you depressed the clutch, slipped the stick into neutral, RELEASED the clutch, goosed the gas ever so slightly and cocked your ear, hoping to get the engine and transmission turning at about the same speed. Then you depressed the clutch, AGAIN—this is called double-clutching and, yes, it will be on the test—and ever so subtly tried to snick the stick into second gear, without your passenger grinning and saying “Hey, grind me a pound of that, too, wudja?” That, believe me, is a trial by fire. Later I used to drive a big Reo dump truck that was also a crashbox. I never did get really good at it. Incidentally, if your clutch linkage breaks, as the cable used to do with depressing regularity on our poor Dodge Aries, you can actually drive to the repair shop without a clutch. The technique is very much like driving an old crashbox.

Ok, let me throw a bone to the automatic transmission partisans, shiftless though they be (sorry, couldn’t resist). The skunk in the woodpile here is the clutch. With no clutch there is no linkage to break and no discs to wear out and need replacing. Although a clutch will last a long time nowadays, a clutch job will set you back a very pretty penny. But most of all with an automatic, you have only two pedals for your two feet to engage—a level playing field, as it were. And you can yak on your cell phone, scarf your Big Mac, or put on your make-up without that annoying shifting. (Yes, I have driven these so-called manual override automatics. Sorry—just ain’t the same.)

Once you are cruising along, a stick shift is no big deal. It’s the delicate interplay between the clutch and the gas pedal from a dead stop that struck fear into the heart of sixteen-year-old Dan Shea and his father, riding shotgun. Too little gas and you stall out, ignominiously. Too much gas and too quick on the clutch and my little Metro convertible would bolt ahead like a demented Brahma bull, a rictus of terror on old Pop’s face. (We will not speak of trying to start out on an incline.**). But Dan has been in the club for years now, wheeling his little 5-speed Civic with aplomb. For that, among many other things, old Pops is proud of the boy.

He can shift for himself.

*I have found out that in some countries if you take your driving test with an automatic transmission, it is so stamped on your license. You have to take the test again on a stick shift to get that extra endorsement.

**Years ago some cars had an ingenious device called a “hill holder.” When you depressed the clutch in such a situation, it also activated the brakes, so there was no danger of rolling back into the guy behind you. Sadly, it seems to have gone the way of the dodo, although rumor has it that it survives on some Subarus, and good on them.

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