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All Hail the Mighty Stick Shift

Automatic is easier, but that doesn’t make it better

Father teaching daughter how to drive stick shift
Shutterstock Offset

“But what does the clutch actually do?” my 16-year-old son, Luke, asked as we sat parked at an abandoned airstrip in outer Brooklyn, going through a cockpit check before he turned the ignition and began his first driving lesson.

“Well, it’s kind of … you see, um …” I started. “Well, think about it like this …” I interwove my fingers. “Imagine my right fingers are the gears and my left fingers are the engine. The clutch … um … hold on …”

The fact that I couldn’t really explain the clutch was emblematic of something I’d come to think of as “the standard predicament.” A few weeks earlier, my mechanic had coldcocked me with a $4,000 estimate to fix my 20-year-old standard transmission Honda. I whined. I wavered. I didn’t tell my partner how much it’d cost. But in the end, I paid. Because, damn it, I had to teach my kid to drive stick.

But did I? It’s a question a lot of dads my age are asking themselves, especially the ones who learned on stick. Sure, we all lurched around parking lots while a parent gripped the armrest in mortal terror. But do we really need that extra anxiety with our own children?

It’d certainly be easier to opt out. Like so many parenting tasks that our actual parents did for/to us, teaching a kid to drive today has a turnkey solution that easily cuts Dad out of the equation. A few hundred bucks of drivers ed tuition, a surly professional instructor equipped with a set of double pedals, and boom: Mission accomplished. You could even argue that stick shifts are becoming even more irrelevant than ever. If you’ve ever driven an electric car, you know that the driving skills required of the battery-powered vehicles of the future are similar to those needed to operate a bumper car.

Except it didn’t sit well with me to abandon stick. To my mind, there’s always been something inherently lazy about driving automatic—part and parcel of the great power-assisted American lassitude that’s slowly sapping the juice of competency out of all of us. Greg Creed, a former Taco Bell CEO, and author of the book R.E.D. Marketing, claimed that when Americans abandoned the stick shift for automatic, they started getting heavier and heavier, because it suddenly became easier to eat a meal while driving.

More people, especially younger people, are coming over to the stick side. Driving stick makes a guy feel more … OK, I’m just gonna come out and say it — European. Ever try to rent an automatic in Europe? Sucker. You’ll pay double the price for half the car. 

And so that’s how I found myself one afternoon with my son at the abandoned Floyd Bennett airfield in outer Brooklyn. My friend Spencer Dickinson, who’d learned on an airfield in Rhode Island, suggested a “wide open space” for the first few stick-shift lessons.

Luke cautiously turned the key. Slowly he depressed the gas, over-revving while coming up too fast on the clutch. WOMP! the car lurched forward and stalled out.

“What did I do wrong?” 

“Nothing,” I said. “You just have to feel it.”

That’s when I had the memory that steeled my resolve; a memory that reminded me how mastering stick shift wasn’t just about cars. 

I was a teenager, naked and shy at midnight on the living room floor about to lose my virginity to a loving and thoughtful woman. She was much more experienced than me. She could sense how nervous I was — nervous that I would blow it and make the whole thing too fast and humiliating. Nervous that I would over-rev and stall out.

“It’s just like driving stick,” she told me as she took me in her arms. “You just have to feel when to give it gas and when to give it clutch.”

What does the clutch actually do? It gives a man a tactile, intimate lesson in how to control their own power.

For that reason alone, it’s worth figuring out.

Follow Article Topics: Family-&-Fatherhood