Monday, August 15, 2011

Manual Arts Training: Shifting Gears



Sorry for the recent lack of lack of bloggering, I blame the summer (and the government, ha!). Hopefully, I’ll get in to gear and catch up on a bunch of subjects that I have been thinking on for the past month. To get things started, I wanted to talk about my most recent foray into manual arts training: learning how to drive stick.

I am frankly embarrassed that it has taken me this long to really learn how to operated a manual transmission. As a car-dude, my head has hung in shame for far to long. So this summer, I made the decision to buy a new (used) car with a manual transmission to force the issue.

To my defense, before buying this car, I could drive stick, albeit miserably. When I was in high school, my cousin Dan took me out for a couple hours at a time with his million year old Audi and I would practice stalling the engine. The problem is that even after an hour or two of practice (less if you count waiting for the car cool down when it overheated), the whole thing doesn’t really sink in. It doesn’t become reflexive and that’s what I was going for.

So what is it like driving stick after a month? Totally different!

After a week, I learned to consistently start and stop without stalling or the car bucking like it was possessed by demons. After two weeks, I was shifting faster and (mostly) stopped shifting in to the wrong gears. And finally after three to four weeks, I am getting fancier and starting to get in the habit of doing things like double-clutching and braking with the engine. After a just month of driving stick all the mystery is gone and I don’t know how or why I hadn’t done this sooner.

Driving is a lot more fun and a lot more interesting. Also, I find myself trying to do less while driving, or I should say eating less while driving. Long gone are the mornings of eating the breakfast sandwich with one hand and holding the coffee in the other (which is probably better for the interior of the car as well!) I hated talking on the phone driving before, but now I don’t even consider it an even a bad option. Last year, I read and interview with the head of Fiat Design, Lorenzo Ramaciotti,in Autoweek where he basically said Americans were more interested in cupholders than driving. Well, what he actually said was:

"In Europe we joked many times on the relevance of cupholders for the U.S. But we were wrong, because the user profile is completely different. In Europe, we drive cars; thus I have never taken onboard a coffee mug in my life. In the States, you live in your cars, also because the commuting times and distances are longer; thus it is normal to take on board coffee and/or beverages."
Source: What Americans want, according to Fiat design boss Ramaciotti, By: Luca Ciferri, Automotive News on 12/06/2010 

After getting over a brief swell of national pride, I realized that he was absolutely right and the predominance of automatic cars in the U.S. is an extension of that logic. BTW, I've read that less than %7 of all new cars in the U.S. are manual and dropping.

After moving back to Boston and spending more time in commuter traffic in the last two months than in the entire time I lived in NYC, I am convinced that driving (or getting somewhere in a timely fashion) is probably the last thing on most driver’s minds. If everybody was driving a stick shift, there is no way this whole start-stop-start-stop thing would fly. Like doing anything by hand, driving stick is a far more nuanced and engaged experience. It forces you to make many more decisions than simply: go and stop. As a result, I find myself driving with a greater consideration of what I am doing and what is going on around me. Unfortunately, everyone else is still driving exactly the same.
I drive a lot. Driving in between Boston, Providence and Brooklyn, I put miles on my car like it’s my job (and it sort of is). I really don’t mind driving for long periods, especially because I generally drive against or outside of high traffic period. However, after learning to drive stick (and getting a new car) I actually look forward to it.


Above: Das Auto takes a pilgrimage to Walter Gropius's House in Lincoln, Mass.

2 comments:

Rhykenology said...

Well, you're right. It's almost the same as the difference between using power tools and hand tools. I'm English. I've had automatic cars and manual cars. In congested traffic, I infinitely prefer automatic and, as we're a small island, there's a lot of that. However, on small country roads, manual is much more fun. I think it's taken to new levels when we're talking about driving small Cotswold roads, which in no way equate to 'two-lane blacktop' - manual scores hands down every time.

I live about three miles away from Jeremy Clarkson, but that is totally irrel;evant..

nielscosman said...

Yup, heavy heavy traffic is definitely the time where I start searching for the slot to shift into "D". But all things considered, I haven't looked back once.

I seem to recall when Simon Cowell was on Top Gear he was poo-pooing his new Lamborgini for being completely pointless when around London. ha.