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Stick shifts are on the way out, even in stubborn Europe

By John Toth

The Bulletin

I am always proud to let people know that my first car was a stick-shift Volkswagen. I learned how to drive it from the guy who sold me the car.

Then I stalled out in rush-hour traffic, and the high school kid behind the wheel got really nervous as cars behind the 1968 Fastback VW started stacking up.

I bought the car for $500. It was a good piece of junk. I finally sold it for about the same. I got tired of the battery compartment under the backseat flooding each time it rained. I also got tired of shifting gears.

I could not find where the water was seeping in. I solved the problem by drilling a hole in the floorboard to let the water out, but it plugged up also, and the battery was still sitting in water.

There were other problems also, but I managed to overcome them, except for the battery compartment flooding. One problem, though, could not be helped. It had a stick- shift manual transmission, and I hated shifting gears in city traffic.

I thought it would be fun and sporty, but it turned out to be a hassle. So, I sold the car and got in line with 98% of those in the United States who drive cars with automatic transmission.

Why would anyone want to do all that gear shifting when a machine can do it for you? I asked this of my European friends and family, who swore by stick-shift cars - and still do. It’s what they are accustomed to, came the answer.

In Germany, though, it will be harder to carry on this tradition. Volkswagen has announced that it is phasing out manual transmission on all its models. It’s about time. Welcome to the present, European drivers.

The Americans got it right. Getting behind the wheel of a car, any size, and just punching the gas pedal is a lot better than shifting manually from first to fourth gear. VW, what took you so long?

Sure, there will be die-hards, who still want to do all that shifting, but they’ll have to special-order their cars as the automatic transmissions become standard features. That is a big change from the last time I rented a car in Europe.

I wanted an automatic, but they were more expensive, and none were available, anyway. I settled for a compact stick-shift. It had been 17 years since the last time I drove a stick-shift, so I needed to get the feel of things again - in rush hour, again.

Yes, I stalled out in traffic. Yes, there was a lot of cursing behind me. Yes, I got nervous. I felt like I was back again in my 1968 VW, trying to quickly restart the car and not stall out again, at least not during rush hour.

By the next day, I was fine. I drove along like I had been doing it for the last 17 years. It’s like riding a bike. Once you learn it, it stays with you for a lifetime - after a little brushing up.

I drove that little death trap of a car for two weeks around Europe. I was like the rest of them on the road, except for the buses. They all had automatic transmissions.

Europeans argue that automatic transmissions put more load on the engine and use a lot more fuel. That used to be true a long time ago. Now, car engines are so efficient that it doesn’t really matter anymore.

There is actually an advantage with driving an automatic with eight gears in city traffic. It shifts more efficiently than humans can with four gears. That saves fuel.

There is a disadvantage to automatic transmissions.

You can’t push the car down the road and pop the clutch to start the car if the starter breaks.

We did that a few times with a VW minibus when I was a kid at summer camp, enjoying nature and things like hiking for days without having access to a real toilet.

The kids and counselors pushed the VW while the camp director popped the clutch. There - it ran like new.

No need to get a new starter when there were all these kids around.


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