Extreme closeup of manual stick shift showing the gear pattern

Going Automatic: The Increasing Decline of Manual Transmissions in the U.S.

It would have been early August, and I’m guessing somewhere around 1991. My family was on a camping trip in Richmond NH, and my father and I broke away to a dirt backroad where he would let me practice driving. I wouldn’t be eligible for my license for another two-and-a-half years, but our family had always encouraged comfort with mother vehicles. My father came from a long line of truck drivers and mechanics. This meant there were always magazines on the back of the toilet which kept me up-to-speed on current auto news. It also means that I’d been behind a steering wheel since I was tall enough to see out of the windshield (even if sitting on a lap) and had been moving vehicles, as needed, since my feet could reach the pedals. Incidentally, my daughter (nearly 13) has been raised the same way.

Like most everyone in my family, I had learned how to drive on a manual gearbox. For me, it was second nature, but I can remember my father pointing out that fewer and fewer young drivers were being trained in the same way. I can even remember my Uncle pointing out that, “someday you’ll find yourself at a party or bar, the only one who’s okay to drive, and you need to be able to drive any kind of car that can get you all home safely”. As an editorial note, both points proved true. While there were countless stick-shifts on the road, fewer and fewer people my age knew how to drive them; and yes, I did have to “save the day” on more than one occasion.

And when it comes to other people learning to drive stick, I can only imagine it looked something like this:

 

Flash forward the better part of three decades, and the majority of daily drivers are automatic. Over the last ten years we’ve seen a jarring drop-off in manual transmissions, prompted by the better EPA ratings offered by the alternative. Granted, there are arguments in favor of the change. First, an automatic transmission shifts faster, channeling more energy to the driveshaft. Second, the growing prevalence of high-performance (400+hp) engines can have too much torque for traditional manual gearboxes. Even the ones that work find themselves criticized as “clunky”, especially when compared to the smooth shifting of European double-clutch transmissions.

Having reached a point where nine and ten-speed automatic transmissions are becoming more commonplace outside of luxury offerings, the writing’s on the wall: days are numbered for the manual transmission, outside of select niche vehicles. That said, it becomes a little more palatable if improved fuel-economy is delivered without compromising power ratings. But, for many of us, one can’t help but think back to simpler times when the ability to drive stick was some sort of badge of honor or even the norm.