Shifting Gears, End Of The Road

December 10, 2020

By Tom Poland


Driving a straight means real driving. Need to pass a slowpoke? Down shift to third and hit it. By 5th gear he’s in the rearview mirror. Driving a stick, whether four or six on the flour or three on the column, is fun. And the engine sings as you shift.

Driving through the mountains? If you ain’t down shifting, you ain’t driving. Wise use of the gears helps out the brakes too.

Still … a moment of silence, please.

The legendary stick shift is almost dead. Used to be a car with a stick cost less and got better mileage. Used to be. Only 1.3 percent of the cars built today come with a stick shift. In 1980, 34.6 percent of the cars manufactured in the US came with a manual transmission. Today’s automatic transmissions get better mileage than straight sticks. Most folks don’t think about changing gears anymore. Just grab the wheel, turn the key, and hit the road. Welcome to mindless driving.

I drove a BMW once. I liked to enter interstates cruising in third. I’d floor it and hit 110 in a flash. After several tickets too many I got rid of the Beemer, but it was fun to shift, and shifting made me think. Hand-foot coordination had to be perfect. A careless shift meant clashing gears. Sitting at a light on a steep hill meant rolling back and other drivers always hugged your bumper. Today, brake hold stops manual cars from rolling back. Just ease out the clutch and drive.

Times were a straight offered surprising benefits. Dead battery? Put your ride in third gear and let it roll down hill. Turn the key, pop the clutch, and your engine roars to life. Can’t do that with an automatic.

Today’s automatics are much more efficient but they’re boring. How many songs have people written about automatic transmissions? Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, and rocker Sammy Hagar have written about shifting gears. I can’t recall any songs about automatic transmissions.

Shifting gears? It’s a good thing, usually. I love my stick except for traffic jams. Stop-and-go traffic gives the knee a workout. “I Cant Drive 55” Sammy Hagar acknowledged the hassle of slow traffic. “And I can’t get my car out of second gear.”

Mom didn’t drive like the little old lady from Pasadena and she decried speeding drivers as shiftless. She wasn’t talking about automatic transmissions though. The next time you find your gear-shifting self in a traffic jam surrounded by authentic shiftless drivers, you have the edge. You can drive their car, but they can’t drive yours, but that will change. Straight sticks will go the way of CD players, handbrakes, and aerials, and you’ll be shiftless.

It’s too bad automakers are phasing out straight sticks. There goes yet another skill, one maybe more vital than we realize. Not having to change gears takes a lot of thinking out of driving and our brains need more challenges in this age of Alzheimer’s and dementia.


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