Saving the stick shift, one driver at a time

Mar 26, 2012

Seventy years ago, 70% of American-made cars came with a stick shift. 

The number is less than nine percent today.  

One man is on a quest to reverse that slide.

Eddie Alterman is the top editor at Car and Driver magazine.  He doesn't mind being called a gearhead.   His whole career, he’s watched the sales of cars with stick shifts decline.  And when Ferrari failed to offer a manual option for the new 458 Italia, he said, enough’s enough.  Basta. 

Alterman is going to do something about it, even if he has to convert people one by one.

On a warm and windy day in mid-March, he meets Julia Espinosa in a high school parking lot in Ann Arbor, to give the University of Michigan student her first lesson in driving a manual transmission. 

Espinosa says, ever since her uncle regaled her with tales of touring the back roads of England as a young man, she’s wanted to learn how to drive a real car.  You know, one with a stick. 

Espinosa:  "So the clutch pedal needs to be depressed completely before it’s going to engage?  or you said half way."  Alterman:  "About halfway and you will feel that engagement point."

Then, like millions of new drivers before her, Espinosa stalls the car. A second time.  And a third.

Alterman doesn't get upset - at all.  After all, the car that's being used for the lesson is a company fleet car, a new  Focus, driven in for this lesson by Ford's Chris Terry.

"Put a little more gas in," Alterman coaches gently.

And, lo and behold on the fourth try, the angels of the road sing.  Espinosa starts the car and begins moving slowly down the parking lot.

Alterman whoops, "You did it!  Now to get into second gear…"

By the time the lesson is over, Espinosa has mastered the basics.  She’s not ready for the back roads of England yet but it’s a start.   Chris Terry hopes the world has a new convert.

"A great number of people become addicted to stick shifts," he says.

Although the average take rate among Americans for cars with manual transmissions is about 9%, Ford Motor Company's rate is higher, about 12%.  And the company just recently added a manual transmission option for its highest trim level of the Focus - due to popular demand.

I ask him, isn't it too much trouble to offer manual transmissions for a shrinking minority of customers?

"No.  The trouble would be if consumers didn’t think they were going to get a choice -- and that they thought Ford Motor Company was going to turn its back on driving enthusiasts," he says.

Eddie Alterman figures young people in particular should focus more on driving and less on distractions. 

"It’s about do it yourself," he asserts, "it’s about having fun in the car, and not doing it through apps or downloading Pandora or anything like that, it’s about actually having a connection to the mechanical part of the car."

When Alterman takes the wheel, he shows Espinosa what more there is to learn, including how to match revs on a downshift.

It does look like fun.  But the numbers keep going down.  Increasingly, cars with automatic transmissions are just as fuel efficient as stick shifts, giving consumers one less reason to go with a stick.

Tim Kotlarek is Engineering Group Manager at GM Powertrain.  He says GM's Oldsmobile brand was the first to offer a commercially successful automatic transmission in 1940.  And it was wildly successful.

Kotlarek doesn't think there's any way to reverse the trend of Americans choosing automatics over manuals.  He figures cars with manual transmissions will stabilize at about 6%; mostly in sports cars, like the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro.

Even though Kotlarek is a car guy, too, he himself prefers an automatic.  So do stick shift enthusiasts think that’s lazy?

"Yeah, I am.   I’ll be the first to admit it."  He laughs heartily.  "But – it’s the ease of things, right?"

And just get stuck in a stop and go traffic jam with a manual.   That’ll suck the joy out of driving a stick for sure.

But to Eddie Alterman, this Don Quixote of the car world, a world without manual transmissions, well --

"I don’t want to live in that world to tell you the truth.  It’s a world without guys building tree houses for their kids, it’s a world without train sets," (here he laughs despite himself) "it’s a world without fun."

So Eddie Alterman fights the good fight, armed with a website, some decals, and T-shirts that read, Save the Manuals.