My first car was a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air ragtop. I was 17 and it was one of the most beautiful vehicles I had ever seen. I treasured that car and six decades later it occasionally pops up in my dreams.
But it had two shortcomings: The engine was topped with a measly two-barrel carburetor (remember those?) and, more important, it was burdened with an automatic transmission. At the time no self-respecting high-school male wanted to drive an automatic—that was for parents and grandparents. I wanted a stick shift that would make me look cool. Plus, I could burn rubber in a manual, even with a two-barrel carburetor.
The baddest car in town was George Cameron’s black 1957 fuel-injected Chevy. This was a car only God himself could have placed on earth. In my boyhood home of Rushville, Ind., George spent weekend evenings cruising Main Street at a slow creep with no need to race the engine or squeal the tires. Everyone already knew this was the fastest car in the county. His Chevy sported a three-on-the-column stick shift.
Sadly, the end of the manual transmission is near, and the unfortunate truth is few people will miss it. Most young adults don’t know how to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission, and they aren’t interested in learning. Many modern automatics offer better fuel efficiency and quicker acceleration than their manual counterparts. Porsche now delivers 75% of its 718 and 911 sports cars with automatic transmissions. The new C8 Corvette is only available with one. When the stick shift loses Porsche and Corvette buyers, you know it’s quickly heading for the rearview mirror.
But there is more bad news. In the future, cars won’t only be automatics; it appears they’ll increasingly be automated, electric vehicles. The satisfying throbbing of the exhaust and the pleasure of driving will also become victims of progress. Traveling in a personal vehicle will be as exciting as riding in an elevator with windows.
Despite impressive improvements in vehicle technology, my devotion for manually shifting gears, listening to the rumble of the exhaust, and maintaining a tight grip on the steering wheel through a sharp curve remains undiminished. Gripping the shifter knob allows a driver to become part of the vehicle rather than someone who is little more than a passenger. Manually accelerating through the gears and downshifting into a curve are two of motoring’s most satisfying experiences.
The sound, feel and thrill of driving are to be relished, not relegated to the trash heap and memories along with carburetors, fender skirts, steel wheels and hubcaps. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway in a sports car with a manual transmission and you too will become a believer.