Stick Shift Lessons

I learned to drive a stick on a Corvair much like this one

Less than 3% of cars sold today have a manual transmission. Yet there is something particularly gratifying in knowing how to drive one, especially if you are female. It gives one a little feeling of superiority around the none-manually inclined. It also gives us female types legitimacy among the macho automotive bros who routinely dismiss women as unskilled and unknowledgeable about cars. I found this out years ago when, as an advertising creative person given the opportunity to test drive new cars at the GM Proving Grounds, I found myself driving Maseratis, Porsches, and Corvettes with my automatic-transmission-only male coworkers in the passenger seat. 

But to women of my generation, driving a stick wasn’t all that unusual. When I took driver’s ed during the summer of 1964, the cars on the course had only recently been replaced by automatics. If I wanted to drive the family car – a 1960 3-on-the-floor Corvair – I had to learn to drive a manual.

First stick-of-my-own was a 1970 Beetle

Although my mother never learned to drive, I had an older brother willing to teach me. A Detroit Police officer, married with a family of his own, he generously stopped by the house a couple times a week to convey the mysteries of the stick shift to my inquiring mind and uncoordinated body parts. He would drive us to a local high school parking lot, and around and around we would go as I mastered getting my hands and feet to work together. The teenage boys there to shoot hoops would watch and chuckle as I grinded my way through the gears. We eventually moved onto the streets, and when my brother thought I was ready, onto the parking lot. He also accompanied me to my driver’s test. It always helps to have a Detroit cop with you when you are trying to impress the testing officer. I passed, and for the next 50 years drove a series of stick shift cars, primarily of the German persuasion.

One of my favorite sticks was a 1980-something VW Scirocco

Kristin Shaw of The Drive recently asked her readers about their first manual transmission experience. She received over 200 responses, which suggests – for good or for bad – driving a stick leaves a mark on one’s psyche. Many of the commenters learned to drive a stick on the fly, when the primary driver became incapacitated in some way. For some, it was a one-time experience; others took the stick by the hand and never looked back.

The 6-speed Audi SR4 Cabriolet was a blast to drive

Although I now have a Golf R with a dual clutch [that’s all that was available in 2015], my husband has a 2016 with a manual and I have two classic cars with stick shifts. This allows me to keep my shifting skills and muscle memory intact, although I have to remember how many gears each car has and exactly where they are. I have to say, I do have a sense of satisfaction when I get behind the wheel of a car with three pedals. There is nothing like the feel-of-a-car you can only get when driving a stick.

Published by Chris Lezotte

Chris Lezotte PhD is an independent scholar whose research focuses on the relationship between women and cars.

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