WHAT IS DEAD MAY NEVER DIE: DREDGING THE MANUAL FROM A DARK SEA OF OBSCURITY
Did Game of Thrones even happen? Seems like an age ago since HBO aired the series finale (as does last March, for different reasons). So forgive me for referencing that epic from a long time ago in a land across the Narrow Sea to discuss, um, an auto part.
In recent years, cars equipped with manual transmissions have fared about as well as the Starks, that ill-fated family from The North in George RR Martin’s Westeros. Winter is here, fellow MT enthusiasts (or, shall I say, House Stick? Maybe not. I should probably shift gears from this allusion faster than the Freys switch allegiances).
With new-car sales plummeting, automakers have had to cut costs and losses, and, to no one’s surprise, manual-transmission cars are facing the sword. Honda alone has shown the Moon Door to the Fit (with manual option), the Accord Manual, and the Civic Coupe (which includes the 6-speed Si). Meanwhile, Genesis will no longer offer its G70 with a manual transmission. Yes, I could make a Red Wedding reference here, but I’m too subtle for that.
That manuals are disappearing is not a new phenomenon, of course. Ford killed the manual-only Fiesta ST, Focus ST, and Focus RS (because the world is dark and full of terrors). MINI, Mercedes Benz, and Audi (Audi!) have stopped offering manual gearboxes altogether. And the two most-anticipated sports cars of the recent past--The Supra and C8 Corvette--aren’t equipped with a stick-shift.
Why are the manuals disappearing? The reason is simple enough: not enough people in the US are buying cars equipped with them. As in, almost nobody is buying them. That rear-wheel-drive G70 with a manual that journalists love? Fewer than 100 sold in the US over the past year. FEWER THAN 100. Even the 86 chassis, which is designed for and marketed to enthusiasts, isn’t immune: only 33% of its models sold were equipped with manuals, according to this May 2019 article which also reports a 1% take rate for the manual Corolla Hatchback (or “warm hatch,” as Paul and Todd call it). Automakers would be foolish not to follow the money, and if the money is on CVT-equipped CUVs and SUVs, well, that’s what the people get, which, to me anyway, is just sad.
And here we face a stark truth: with fewer manual-transmission cars on the market, fewer people experience driving manual-transmission cars, and without such experience, increasingly fewer Americans know how to “drive stick.” I’ve Googled the percentage of drivers in the US who know how to drive manual-equipped vehicles; though I can’t find the source article, the figure I’ve seen referenced is 18%. If this isn’t accurate now it’s bound to shrink over the years ahead. Dark wings, dark words, dear Reader.
I could end the article here, with laments and cold comfort (but the Mustang has a manual!), and truly, we might very well see the death of the manual in our lifetimes; but there is some hope.
Enter the Dothraki--I mean, the Bronco, with a stunning reveal and a Jeep-stampeding lineup that includes an optional seven-speed manual for more than just its base model. For once, we see a manual option championed not for the small, practical hatchbacks and affordable sportscars very few of us covet, but for an old-school offroad beast. Sure, most buyers will opt for the 10-speed auto, but I like Ford’s play here. The manual is perfect for the Bronco; it signals sincere enthusiasm for driving and connection to the (off) road. By all accounts, the Bronco will sell like crazy (heck, I am considering placing a deposit for one, and I live in the wilds of the San Francisco Bay Area). To sell more manuals, carmakers need to shift the paradigm (sorry), and the Bronco can lead the charge. Let’s get more manual-equipped adventure vehicles with enormous roof-tents out there. Let’s get small 4x4 pickups on and off the road with these transmissions.
Let’s also invite adventure-seeking drivers to experience the control, connection, and fun to be had by rowing the gears of a manual. How can carmakers compel people to spend ridiculous sums of money on a brand-new car they can’t drive? One way would be to offer an experience akin to performance-driving school. For a rig like the Bronco, that might be an offroad day that includes driving instruction. Through partnerships with driving schools, carmakers or dealers could offer subsidized lessons to anyone who buys a manual-transmission car. And dealers should train all their salespeople to drive a stick-shift. When I purchased my FR-S, the salesperson--who was helpful and professional in general--could not drive the car from the sales lot to the customer parking lot; she didn’t know how to.
As driving enthusiasts who appreciate manual-transmission cars, let’s create communities not only for ourselves but for people like that salesperson who may want or need to learn how to drive stick but don’t know where to start. Let’s be gate-shifters, not gate-keepers. I’m thinking of something like Cars & Coffee but more focused on the analog driving experience. I can’t think of good names for that group at the moment (Paradigm Shifters?), but I can say this: if you are interested in creating and taking part in such a community, let me know. And if there are folks in the Bay Area who want to learn how to drive a manual-transmission car, feel free to reach out. I might not be able to teach you directly but I would happily share my experience (in case that’s helpful).
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He currently works as the sous chef and sausage meister at Wursthall, to which he commutes via "the twisty way" each morning. Erik chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.