First Words PRIME MAGAZINE — 17 May 2015
The manual stick shift is slipping into sunset

By Mark Gauert

When I was a senior in high school, my father dangled the keys to his candy-apple red Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce. The same car Dustin Hoffman got as a gift from his parents in The Graduate.

“You can have it,” he smiled, “If you can drive it.”

All my walking-to-school days were about to be over. All my friends – most importantly, girls – were going to want rides with the top down.

I looked up the word veloce. It meant fast.

Yes. My life was about to shift into the veloce lane.

But there was one small detail. Actually, five.

Because, while I had a license, I’d only learned to drive an automatic-transmission car. I had no idea how to drive a 5-speed, manual-shift sex bomb.

But how hard could that be? You just step on the clutch thing with your left foot, move the stick thing with your right hand and hit the gas with your other foot. Right?

I practiced – one, clutch; two, shift; three, step – in the passenger seat as my father eased the Alfa Romeo onto the gravel side of a two-lane blacktop, far from traffic.

It was near dark as I hopped into the driver’s seat and he came around to the passenger’s. I adjusted the rearview, put my hands on the wheel at 10 and 2 and switched on the headlights. I pushed my left foot down on the clutch, shifted the stick from neutral to first, and slowly stepped on the gas to my new life.

What happened next would have about a million views on YouTube by now, if YouTube had existed then. Fortunately, it did not.

I heard gears grind, I felt the sex bomb lurch, and I could see, out my perfectly adjusted rearview mirror, a geyser of gravel shooting up into the darkening sky. It fell back in a gravel hailstorm, popping and pinging all over the candy-apple red trunk.

I can’t repeat what my father said as gravel dust rolled in through the open convertible top of his brand-new car. But he was no longer smiling.

He drove us home in the dark. I never got to drive the Alfa Romeo again. My social life remained in first gear.

Years later, when I moved out on my own to South Florida, I traded in the automatic Mazda RX 7 my parents had given me as a graduation gift for a brand-new RX 7 … with a manual gearbox.

I was determined to learn how to drive that car. My car.

I fought with the clutch, stick and gas pedal for weeks on side streets in Hollywood, far from traffic. The car lurched, warning lights flashed, the engine sputtered and stalled.

But I kept at it – one, clutch; two, shift; three, step until I found the secret rhythm. Until I was smooth at it.

Until I was, at last, veloce.

It’s difficult to find a car with a stick shift these days. The new Alpha Romeo only comes as an automatic. Dan Neil, writing in The Wall Street Journal, laments, “only a small and aging segment of the driving population even knows how to drive a manual transmission.”

It makes me think about the things we learn through life, big and small. The skills we keep because they are useful; the others we refuse to give up because they were so hard won.

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