Speed Secrets: Pickles, Gearshifts, & Human Obsolescence - The Demise of the Manual Gear Change

By Ross Bentley

October 15, 2019

What do pickles and shifting a car's transmission have in common? I'll leave it to this week's contributor, Ingrid Steffensen (author of the great book, Fast Girl) to explain, but I'll tell you right now it probably has nothing to do with what you're thinking. - Ross


You may think pickles have nothing to do with driving, but hang in with me here for just a few short sentences. My grandmother was German, and every year she canned and pickled fruits and vegetables for the winter. My grandma’s pickles! Total pickle nirvana, I kid you not. Her daughter, my mother, was taught how to make pickles, but because she came to the U.S. and could buy them so easily, she never exercised the skill. As a consequence, her daughter—that’s me—never learned how to make pickles. So, in three generations, a useful (and delicious) skill has been completely forgotten.


Now let’s shift—as it were—to driving. I learned to drive in the eighties. My dad wasn’t particularly interested in cars, except as useful transportation devices, and he had an inbred frugal streak at a time when it still cost extra to have an automatic transmission. So when I was sixteen, my family had two cars, both with manual clutches —a VW Beetle and a Plymouth Horizon (gearheads: insert shudder here). I had no alternative but to learn to drive stick from the get-go. I’m not particularly mechanically inclined, but a few tense sessions in the middle school parking lot, and I got it. So, if a sixteen-year-old girl with no previous experience can learn it, anyone can.


But that’s not my point. When I came to the racetrack, that’s the one skill I already had in my toolbox, and the car I had when I first went out on the racetrack was a manual Mini Cooper S. Those first few sessions at Watkins Glen, my instructor had me put it in third, and told me not even to worry about shifting. Good thing! There was so much else to think about, I was glad not to have to shift on top of that. But of course, eventually, I added shifting to the mix. Not too long after that, I learned how to heel-toe downshift: neato! In time, I even trained myself to do left-foot braking.


Now I have my Lotus Elise, which of course was never even available as an automatic. Perish the thought! And one of the things I enjoy most about piloting my Elise around the track is the rowing. I just like the physical act. And if that sounds a little—ummm—suggestive, then you’re reading me right. I find the act of shifting, both up and down, to be extremely gratifying. I love slotting it in and easing into a new power band as I push her faster. I love heel-toeing and giving it that little burp that matches the revs and lets me pull her out of a corner with grace and finesse. I think a well-executed downshift is almost as good as sex [attention, husband: note the almost].


So am I totally out of touch to lament what looks like the inevitable demise of the stick shift? Are we gearheads who like to shift a dying breed? And, even more alarming: is driving itself going to become a lost art, on a par with home canning?


Not long ago, I read a lengthy article in The New Yorker about the driverless car [find it here]. One of the points of the piece was that acceptance versus resistance to allowing the auto-pilot to take over may be generational. Kids my daughter’s age are already used to letting computers do all sorts of things for them, and if the scary statistics are correct, they aren’t paying much attention to the act of driving, anyway. As Burkhard Bilger, the author of the article, points out:


More than half of all eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds admit to texting while driving, and more than eighty per cent drive while on the phone. Hands-free driving should seem like second nature to them: they’ve been doing it all along.


Yikes! It may turn out that the driverless car will be the best thing that ever happened to individual motor transportation, and that it will save countless lives. Only the future will tell.


Return to the present, and I have my own daughter who is now sixteen herself. Will she learn to drive stick? Absolutely. We won’t allow her to go for her driver’s license until she knows how. But will it ever actually be useful to her, or would it be like teaching her how to make pickles?


Like the pickles, it could be generational. Some of the guys at the track—who are just the teensiest bit older than I am—lament the loss of double-clutching. Because it had no relevance to me or my cars, I never learned to double-clutch. I may force my daughter to learn how to shift a manual clutch, but I suspect that she will be among the last to know how: another skill vital to one generation—known but unexercised by the next—forgotten by the one after that.


It may be that shifting, and even driving itself, will soon be obsolete, and that human beings may soon be ancillary to the entire process. I have one hope for the future, though, if I may return to the pickles one more time. Mr. B and I made a journey into the very heart of young urban Hipsterville recently: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There we had a marvelous brunch of pulled pork sammies and poblano chile frittata in a restaurant filled to the brim with tattoos, beards, flannel shirts, and knit stocking caps. I swear if I had made a TV show out of this place, I’d be accused of rampant stereotyping—no one would believe it. But what accompanied our delicious dishes? Pickles, of course, made in-house. It turns out that a new generation has rediscovered the joys of the homemade pickle—artisanal pickling is all the rage among the hipster set. Will the same thing happen to shifting and possibly even driving itself? I could be cool with being a hipster driving nerd.