A few months ago, I followed a discussion on the Internet. Clarification: I followed a discussion on Facebook, which is like the Internet crossed with a gossipy prison camp. It was one of those back-and-forth sessions where someone makes a good point, someone else makes an equally good point, and then a third person chimes in with the fact that Obama is vaccinating your health care blah blah and OH LOOK PICTURES OF KITTENS. Annoying, but the topic kept my attention.
They were talking about manual gearboxes.
This has been on my mind lately. We drive a lot of new cars around here, and clutch pedals grow rarer every day. We also meet a lot of engineers. Most don't believe manuals are relevant—they say the modern car must deliver speed and efficiency, and manuals are no longer the last word in either. The conversation usually ends with a line like, "Don't argue, or I will use my cold engineering heart to build a SolidWorks project that will make your mother cry like a shoeless hobo."
Engineers are odd people. But I digress.
Even in the real world, you can't really talk about this. Reasonable discourse is rare, partly because the love of a manual gearbox is irrational and thus hard to explain.
The aviation writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once noted that grown-ups never understand anything and that it's tiresome for children to constantly have to explain things to them. I may be missing the point, but my wife calls me a tiresome child at least twice a day, and the gearbox thing needs clearing up.
The Luddite retort is the most common, and also the most grating. You know: Person A says Car X should offer three pedals. Person B immediately condenses that position to ha-ha you hate new things shut up and hand-crank your Model T already.
Disclosure: I own five cars. Three wear carburetors and were built when the earth was still cooling. But this discussion isn't about old or new. Old cars usually thrill because they're weird, raw, a little dangerous. New ones work because you don't want every drive to be a gasoline-soaked bar fight, even if you think you do. Driver involvement—that gut-tingling glee you get when a car talks to you—is timeless. The only rule is, the more you feel connected to the machine, the better.
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Back to Facebook. One of the parties involved was a respected analyst and former military pilot. He claimed save-the-manual-gearbox talk echoes the "real airplanes have mixture and pitch controls" (i.e., manual carbs and props) aviation debate of the last century.
"If modern performance automobiles are analogues to modern high-performance fighter aircraft," he said, "where speed and agility are critical measures, there will be no place for the manual gearbox in serious performance cars in the future. However, if performance cars are akin to Lightnings, Corsairs and the like, then there is a natural place for manuals. As performance art."
Logical, eloquent, and common rhetoric with carmakers. But no.
It comes down to purpose. Sports cars are designed to make people happy. Fighter planes are designed to make people dead. The latter are built to do a job, and the efficiency with which they accomplish that job is unrelated to operator entertainment. With street cars, numbers don't paint the full picture. Every trip up a mountain or run to the store isn't a full-tilt qualifier. The satisfying, tactile ha! of a manual downshift can't be measured. And if you think speed through automation always equals a good time, ask an airline captain how thrilling it is to drone around on 550-mph autopilot.
Is there a place for the machine to do things for you? Of course. Improve the experience without removing the driver from it, we'll beat a path to your door. (Magnetorheological shocks, torque-vectoring differentials, the list is endless.) But that kind of focus is rare. For the typical engineer, entertainment is byproduct, not primary goal.
This wasn't a drawback for years, when cars were simpler and more involving by nature. But we crossed a tipping point a while back. Speed limits aren't going up. Roads aren't getting wider or less congested. And chiefly, dull fast cars are now common. In the era of the 5.8-second Camry and hot hatches that make a 911 Turbo feel like a numb Buick, we don't need to worry about the stopwatch. We need to worry about sensation.
Question: Say you had to choose between two new sports cars at the same price. One has a dual-clutch automatic, numb steering, and an engine that sounds like a vacuum cleaner. The other is a live wire with a clutch pedal but two seconds slower to 60 mph. Do you pick speed or the cocktail that most tightens your pants? Which option represents why you love cars? Do you want to ride to 60 in three seconds or drive there in five?
Control may be an illusion, as the old line goes, but it's also the reason I first hopped behind the wheel. Too many things these days are kept under lock and key. Keep me awake. Give me escapism, romance, something to be good at. If the car's doing all the work, we may as well be on the couch.
Sam Smith is R&T's executive editor. He's really more of a dog person, but who hates kittens?