Shifting for Yourself

  Jerome Shea       January 31, 2010      Weekend Wonk

I’m driving through my neighborhood the other day and come upon an old Honda hatchback with these cautionary words soaped on the back window:

Learning 5-speed
Keep Distance

Well, that forthright admission tickled me all the way home, where I raced to my computer and emailed Dan and his sister, passing along my find and adding, “Ah, the memories came flooding back to old Pops.” And indeed they did. I made it a point that our progeny learn to drive a stick shift, a transmission by which you have to use a clutch to shift gears. The Little Red Beast and his garage mate, Wanda Honda, are both stick shifts (or “have stick shifts”: the expressions seem to be interchangeable).

I don’t have the figures, but I would guess that most cars in this country today have automatic transmissions. This was not always so. (A discussion of transmissions can get incredibly complex; let us just note that in any car you have to transfer power from the engine to the drive wheels, and a transmission is what does that.) Automatic transmissions (i.e., clutchless) came out just after WWII with the Hydra-Matic* in Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs. The automatic transmission was arguably the most significant advance in technology since the automobile had been invented. Hydra-Matic was followed by variations that were marketing poetry: Dynaflow, Powerglide, Torqueflite, Ford-O-Matic (a tad prosaic, that one). By the mid-50s, it was rare to find an Olds, or a Buick, Chrysler, Lincoln, or other mid-level or high-end car with a stick shift, and Chevys and Fords were quickly following suit. It wasn’t long before the first urban legend took hold, the one about the moron who thought that the “R” on the gear selector stood for “Race,” with predictably disastrous results. The diehard stick shift aficionados derided automatics as “slushboxes” and still do.

Many, I’m sure, thought the stick shift would go the way of the buggy whip. But then the Volkswagen Beetle became a surprise success and ushered in a slew of other economy cars, practically all of them with stick shifts. Stick shifts get better mileage (though automatics are catching up), are less expensive to produce, and are more efficient in getting power to the drive wheels. This made a difference—to cite an extreme example—in a three-cylinder Geo Metro which could muster only 57 horsepower! And, if you ask me, sticks are just more fun and give the driver more say so in the driving, which is a very liberating, empowering feeling.**

These new 4-speed (most are now 5-speed) stick shift “econoboxes” had bucket seats, so the gearshift got moved back onto the floor (“four on the floor”) where it had been until the mid-30s, when the gearshift got moved up to the steering column. Because 3-speed transmissions were then the rule, this arrangement became known as “three in the tree.” “Three in the tree” allowed for three people to squeeze in more comfortably on the bench seat. (More important, it allowed your honey to snuggle up to you without accidentally kicking the car out of gear.) The bucket seats/floor gearshift arrangement caught on to the extent that many car makers have now put the automatic gear selector on the floor also. Your Buick sedan is not a sports car by any stretch, but the cockpit gives a pleasant illusion of its being one. Three in the tree required more complicated linkage, which was a good reason to phase it out. The linkage was so worn on my ’51 Chevy that frequently I would be shifting confidently through the gears and get hung up in second gear. Wouldn’t go into third, wouldn’t even go back into neutral. The remedy was simple if bothersome: pull over, pop the hood, and re-align the “fingers,” the levers that were farther down on the steering column. Then you were good to go again. Until the next week. And don’t forget to wipe the crud off your hands.

The automatic transmission also effected changes in the emergency brake (or “parking brake” or “hand brake”), both in where it was located and how it worked. This may seem trivial, but quite often it made a big difference in the delicate accommodations that a stick shift driver has to make between the clutch, the (foot) brake and the gas. Having three pedals and only two feet puts a driver at an obvious disadvantage, as we shall see next week.

I know people—not just teens but twenty-somethings and even thirty-somethings—who cannot drive a stickshift and likely never will. In the grand scheme of things this hardly matters a whit anymore, I guess. Even the cheapest rental cars are slushboxes, at least in this country. Still, I salute our intrepid teenage neighbor with the amusing sign on the back of her old Civic. She is learning a very useful skill. I think she will be a better driver because of it, and I know she will have more fun.

*Yes, the Hydra was that many-headed serpent in Greek mythology. Whatever were they thinking (or smoking) at GM?

**Wanda Honda, our CR-V, has a 4-wheel drive system that is completely automatic. If she slips into or out of 4-wheel drive (at the urging of her computers), you never know that she has done so. I resent that, too. With our old Mazda van it was a major project to switch into 4-wheel drive, and I gloried in it!

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