The love of manual transmissions among automotive journalists has become something of a cliché. I absolutely understand that. That cliché has likely become more intense as the number of manual cars available for sale dwindles every year, becoming more and more niche. Recently, I’ve noticed a strain of criticism about this affinity for manuals, mostly coming from inside the automotive and automotive journalism industries themselves. Now, at the risk of sounding like a cliché myself, I think I need to take a moment to defend the admittedly irrational love of manuals.
While I’ve been noticing this for a while, the particular Twitter thread that motivated me to write something was this:
Harsh reality from Tim Kuniskis today:
You know who always asks me about manual transmissions: journalists.
You know who never does: customers
— Gary Gastelu (@garygastelu) July 28, 2020
For those of you without easy access to your kid’s copy of Who’s Who at FCA (the Stellantis version is in the mail, they said), Mr. Kuniskis is the Head of Passenger Cars for FCA-North America. As you can imagine, the dude knows something about what mainstream American car buyers are interested in, and it’s really not surprising that clutch pedals are not on those lists.
What is actually surprising are the opinions of a number of known and respected auto journalists who chimed into this, and they’re stating an opinion I’ve certainly heard from many others: Grow up, manuals are dead.
This argument hinges on ideas about “understanding/acceptance of market realities” or coming to terms with the facts that take rates for manuals are minuscule, or showy laments that journalists who drive manuals can’t drive them well enough.
Here’s the thing, though: None of that shit matters.
That’s not to say that any of what’s being said here is wrong, because it’s not. Manuals are not selling well on new cars, and technically automatics now deliver better ms and better acceleration. Technically, automatics won, no question at all.
That’s just an indisputable fact. Also an indisputable fact: I don’t give a shit.
I say that without malice, but with the bottomless confidence that comes from the knowledge of an even bigger, even more, important fact about cars: They’re not rational things, and they never were, and they never will be.
That’s why you cry when you get rid of a car you’ve had for ten years but you don’t bat an eye when you ditch the washing machine you’ve had for 20. Because cars are not like the other machines we use in life, which you know already, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this at all.
Look, if you care about market realities or how well other people can heel-toe then you’re interested in the business of how cars sell or you like considering how skilled other people are at driving. And that’s fine, I’m not going to kink-shame anyone, but none of that matters one atomic fuckton when it comes to enjoying driving a car with a manual transmission.
If executives at car companies aren’t hearing demands for manuals from customers, it doesn’t mean that manual appreciators don’t exist, it means they’re not looking for new cars, partially because those new cars don’t offer manuals. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling cycle.
The love of manual transmissions isn’t rational and doesn’t need to be. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things it shouldn’t be, though. For example, if you’re the sort of person that uses knowing how to drive a manual as a way to gate-keep people out of gearhead culture, then you’re just a dickhead.
Even if you can’t drive, you can be a car enthusiast, and if you don’t like driving manuals or can’t, then that’s fine, too. You’re still welcome here, and I have a pair of peachy tangelo-sized fists ready for anyone who wants to argue about that.
(Writer’s note: Andrew thought I should just end this here, and I think he’s right in that the point is made, but I don’t feel like cutting out the rest. So, if you want to stop here, I’m cool with that.)
But for those of us that do genuinely love driving cars with manual transmissions, I think it’s time for all of these auto journos who like reminding us that we need to get used to the idea of the death of the manual or whatever to just leave us alone, already.
They’re probably right! But who gives a shit? If no more new manuals are offered in new cars in America tomorrow, I think that will be deeply shitty, but it’s not going to make every manual transmission car disappear. It’s sure as hell not going to alter the way I feel when I drive a manual car, either.
You can love driving a manual just because of the way it feels, even if it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. You can get perverse joy from your aching left calf in long stretches of stop-and-go traffic, you can let yourself thrill to the process of finding the clutch point on a new, unfamiliar car, you can try to shift, clutchlessly, from third to fourth and get that deeply satisfying clunk-snick just because it feels good.
That’s it. That’s enough. Who cares if manuals are dying out or you can’t execute flawless downshifts on a track at just the perfect time. I don’t care at all. What I do care about is how my three currently running cars, all below 100 horsepower — OK, fine, all below 70 horsepower — each have wildly different feelings in their clutches and shifters and how, as a result, each gets driven in fundamentally different but engaging ways.
Plenty of other gear fetishists have their subsets that still cling to outdated tech for ineffable reasons. Look at hi-fi geeks with their vinyl records and tube amps and claims of “warmer” sounds that people outside the community find baffling.
Are Sony executives telling these people that they never hear customers asking for tube amps? No, they’re not, because that’s not the point, at all.
I’m not saying I want manual cars to be the analogue of the, um, analogue hi-fi industry, but I do think the idea that people who genuinely like driving manual transmissions need to accept anything about reality is misguided.
Of course, I’d love it if more new manual transmission cars were sold in America because I genuinely believe there are qualities to the experience of driving a manual — irrational, sensory, emotional qualities — that have value and are worth preserving.
If a carmaker decides to target that, fantastic. It’s not like carmakers don’t do all kinds of other crazy shit to appeal to irrational desires. Look at all of the fake sound setups or launch controls or insane horsepower amounts in any number of cars. It’s no different than that.
Loving manuals isn’t “cosplay” as one journo on the Twitter thread put it, and it shouldn’t be something anyone feels they have to do to be part of some absurd club. If you honestly enjoy it, then, well, that’s enough. And there’s plenty of people who do.
Having a bit of a learning curve to enjoy something often means that the enjoyment is enhanced, and that’s part of the appeal of the manual. It’s something that can be taught to friends or kids and there’s value in that as well. It’s not a thing that should keep people away; it a gift that can be passed down to draw more people in.
Let’s be honest, it’s not that hard to learn, anyway.
If manuals disappear from new cars sold here, so be it. I hope they don’t, but, really, those who like manuals will manage, and I’m confident that there will always be enough of us that some company, somewhere, will at least occasionally decide to make some stick shift cars to target this market.
Just remember that what you enjoy — for whatever reasons you enjoy it — shouldn’t be dictated by what’s selling or what isn’t. I don’t work for the car companies, which means I don’t have to be thrilled by whatever sells the most, so I don’t need to write things that cajole people into letting go of something they love because it’s not what’s popular now.
I like what I like, and I think you should like what you like. No matter how ridiculous or inefficient or demanding that is, no matter how few of them are going to sell, no matter how much of an arse-pain it is in awful traffic on the 405 on a Friday afternoon.
Just let me shift my own gears in my stupid slow cars. That I can come to terms with.