August 04, 2021

Van Nostrand: ‘Drive defensively and carry a big stick’

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received is losing its strength.

I was told, “The two things you should always have confidence in yourself is the ability to speak to a crowd and drive a manual transmission. You never know when you will have to do either.”

According to Edmunds, a vehicle-related website, the number of vehicles these days with an option for a manual transmission is decreasing. Last year’s models only had 41 of 327 with a stick shift. That is 13%. Nine years earlier, that number was 37%.

Reasons are not complex. Fewer people are asking for one and improvements to automatic transmissions are becoming better. Those in the auto industry say stick shifts are easy and affordable to build. Some car enthusiasts claim a manual transmission gives a car a unique performance and feel. It’s easy to guess those cars are the luxury sports models.

My exposure to stick shifts was early on as my father’s delivery truck during his working years was a stick shift. My great-grandfather’s car, which was eventually inherited by my older brother, was also a stick shift but not in the traditional sense. It was known as a three-on-the-tree, a nickname used to describe the shift that was on the steering wheel column, not the floor. That design of manual transmission probably ended in 1977. (Who also remembers the switch to turn on bright headlights as a button on the floor near the pedals?)

Although my father helped me learn how to drive, the family car was an automatic transmission. My best friend, who is one of those car enthusiasts, was the one who taught me how to drive a stick shift since his car was one. That evening won’t be forgotten. It was routine to cruise town with friends on Friday and Saturday nights. The Colorado town I grew up in was a perfect cruise town as Main Street was long and straight. Turn around spots were a shopping center and “downtown” depending upon your choice of streets.

My friend had an early 1980s Renault Fuego, a sporty looking French made two-door, with a five-speed manual. The goal one evening was for me to learn how to drive a stick. It’s easy to hear how to drive a manual. I always understood it as timing is everything; when and how to apply enough gas, push in the clutch and shift to the next gear.

But doing it is not as easy, at first.

There was the expected, jerky motion of the car as I was getting used to shifting while knowing how much pressure to put on the gas and when to hit the clutch. The intensity for me was at a stop light. As feared, when the light turned green, I “killed” the car. I still had not perfected the timing of the pedals. The other intensity was the line of cars behind me also waiting to get through the intersection. My friend laughed, as he knew it was going to happen because of my lack of experience. I was a combination of embarrassed, fearful, frustrated and I too, wanted to laugh. But comedy was the last emotion on my list.

Fortunately, over time my stick-driving skills greatly improved. I equate it now to riding a bicycle. Once you learn how, it’s hard to forget. Sure, cars and transmissions have changed since the late 1980s. My friend told me the larger the engine in a vehicle that has a manual transmission, the harder it is to kill it. After driving other cars with a stick, including an early 1990s Corvette, I think I knew what he meant.

There are few things to remember, experienced or not, driving a sick. I think the driver should know where he is at. Let me explain. Corning is a great town to learn how to drive a stick as the hills in town add a level of concentration while driving. When going up hill, and at a stop sign, it’s likely the car may slightly roll in reverse the moment you have released the clutch and put the car in gear. Just make sure there isn’t a front bumper behind you should you roll backward.

I have had the experience of owning manual transmission cars. The first vehicle I purchased as an adult out of college was a Ford Ranger pickup with a stick shift. It would not be until many years later, and after children, I purchased another stick-shift car. It was a Ford Escort from M&M Motors. It was a great commuter car.

As my children reached the age of driving, we didn’t have a stick-shift car to teach them that skill. That’s the one thing I regret as a parent. I have not heard of a school’s driver’s education program that includes a manual-transmission car. With the state allowing parents to teach driver’s education, I hope those parents who have a stick will consider making that car part of the course.

And the kids can prepare a speech to tell their friends and peers the importance of knowing how to drive a manual transmission.


An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.