Not that long ago, our family fleet consisted of three vehicles, all with manual transmissions: Laurie’s 5-speed Toyota Camry, my 3-speed Ford pickup and my weekend toy, a 4-speed Chevy, built in 1930.
Over time, things changed. Now, Laurie’s car has an automatic transmission and so does my truck. The only “stick” is my current weekend toy, a 1980 Ford van with a four-speed on the floor.
For once, the Cullens are trendy. A recent USA TODAY article began this way: “The stick shift is choking. The popularity of cars and trucks with manual transmissions is falling sharply as fewer Americans learn how to drive them and automakers avoid making them … so while the stick shift isn’t dead yet, its future is grim.”
Few young recruits know about clutches and shifting, so you won’t even find manual transmissions in the military. The stick-shift Jeep was replaced by the automatic transmission Humvee years ago. Even heavy Army trucks have automatic transmissions now.
The market for stick-shift cars and trucks is at a point “where it’s not a necessity or even much of an option,” said Mike Fiske, senior analyst at IHS Markit, who studies automotive powertrain issues.
Stick shifts represented 6.8 percent of U.S. vehicles sales in 2012, but only 3.5 percent in 2018. By 2023, experts predict, it will be down to 2.6 percent. This model year, Audi stopped exporting manual-transmission vehicles to the U.S.
Call me old-fashioned – I’m used to it – but I still enjoy shifting gears. It takes me back to my childhood, so to speak.
My first car was a high-school graduation gift in 1972. The whale-like 1960 Buick Invicta had tail fins, an automatic transmission and an engine that didn’t drink gasoline, it absolutely guzzled it.
In 1974, I bought – sight-unseen – a little 1965 Ford Falcon station wagon, with a three-speed manual shift on the column. Fuel cost a whopping 60 cents a gallon, and I needed something more economical to commute to college in Champaign-Urbana each day.
My Dad was a nervous wreck whenever he wasn’t behind the wheel himself, so he had a friend, Lee Charles Nelson, teach me how to “drive a stick.” After killing the engine a few times and grinding gears a few times, I was good to go. I drove the Falcon to campus every day for three years.
There’s something earthy and basic about a manual transmission. You’re downshifting as you slow down, upshifting as you speed up, powering your way out of snow, coordinating feet and hands to run a big machine smoothly.
The stick shift is on its way out, but it’s still fun to fire up my old van, push the clutch pedal down, shift into first, let up on the clutch, ease onto the gas and head on down the road.
For a mighty long time, that was the American Way.
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at email@example.com