The Transmission In Transition

For the past 50 years or so the manual transmission has been subject of false reports of its demise. In 1965, Playboy magazine published an article by now legendary automotive journalist Ken Purdy under the headline “Bye-Bye Stick Shift”. I assume the article was about the demise of the manual stick gearbox, it was in a copy of Playboy so it’s hard to remember because boobs. If you ask me to recall I can only tell you “something something a purist’s plaything, something something there’s boobs on the next page something something pretty ladies”.

According to Ken Purdy at this time, automatics were being demonstrated that they make race cars go faster, and it seemed to be his reasoning why the stick would be cast aside. But why would he say that?

Well, I’m making an educated guess here, but if you have ever driven a fifties or sixties manual car you’ll understand how bad they were. Super heavy clutches often without hydraulic assistance, long clunky throws and a complete lack of responsiveness. There were some performance options but cars were getting bigger and engines getting heavier and more powerful. It was the time of the muscle car and the time of drag racing in America. Automatic gearboxes were coming of age, but General Motors had created the gearbox of choice for the serious drag racer – the Powerglide. So successful and well made that still to this day the Powerglide is popular in drag racing and other motorsports focussed on massive power.

Making cars go faster of course is not why automatics became 90% of the transmissions sold in consumer cars at the time of me sitting here typing. Automatics simply made driving easier and uncomplicated. 

The vast majority of car drivers simply are not enthusiasts. To that majority a car is, as is often observed, simply an appliance. Something they have to own make life easier, not something to own for pleasure. In the past and if you were on a strict budget you could get better gas mileage out of a manual transmission, so it was still in a decent percentage of cars. However as computer chips became more inherent in every aspect of the car… that time has been gone for quite a while.

So, here we are and it’s 2016. Many mainstream cars don’t even have an option for a manual stick, and now more cars that appeal to the enthusiats are starting to drop the stick as an option to give you paddles alongside an automatic transmission instead.

As we’ve covered, the percentage of enthusiast drivers out there versus people that want an appliance is very small. The important thing to understand here though is the percentage of enthusiasts that buy cars brand new is even smaller.

New car buying enthusiasts are a small percentage of a small percentage, and the reality of business is to make money. If selling manual cars is not making money, then manual cars have little reason to be made. There is no profit in making a car to the spec of people that simply aren’t purchasing them new. The reason the paddles are going on cars is because it’s a selling point to people that want to feel like they have race car technology in their car, or the enthusiasts that aren’t hung up on the stick shift. Three types of people can be served in one hit at a minimal cost.

People complain that this car or that car no longer has an option for a stick shift, but the reality is they are not buying the car. The only way to save the manual at this point is for all enthusiasts to go out and actually buy a manual stick car to show the market is still there.

That’s not going to happen though. We have been bitten by our own savviness. Buying a brand new car to drive enthusiastically is not a great idea unless you have plenty of cash, even then you can’t modify it until it’s out of warranty unless you go specific and expensive routes. Most importantly, you can pick a lot of car up relatively inexpensively after the first owner has taken the hit of the big initial depreciation curve; or even later when the car has tanked in value due to age.

Car makers don’t make money from a cars second or third owner though, their job is not to serve them. Of course reputation can have a huge halo effect and convert people to new car owners off the back of it – that’s why companies work so hard on long term reliability.

What we do have now though is companies aiming directly at enthusiasts with halo cars. A halo car being a figurehead (or figureheads) for the brand, a car that may not even profit in the small numbers it sells, but captures the public imagination and gets the brand headlines in the automotive press and hopefully the mainstream media. The Miata/MX-5 for Mazda, the WRX for Subaru are good examples of more affordable halo cars, then you have things like the Dodge Viper, the Challenger and Charger Hellcat for Dodge and people with money, then all the way through and up to the Porsche GT3’s or Aston Martins bat crap crazy million dollar track cars.

Halo cars will always be important, and that’s why the manual still has life left in it. The GT86 and the MX-5 will no doubt be made with manual options for the time being as they are non crazy expensive true enthusiast halo cars, but at some point they will have to succumb as we sooner or later reach the first generation that is entirely uninterested in them.

Realistically speaking, over the next decade the pool of stick shift will get less and less and their rarity on the used market will drive the price up high for enthusiasts to the point we’ll all switch to flappy paddles, and hopefully the quality on every car will be at least acceptable by then.

Ultimately the stick shift will indeed become “a purist’s plaything”.

The really weird thing about that is it was predicted in a 40 year old copy of Playboy.

Ask me to believe that copy of Playboy was kept for the articles though… that’s a step beyond a step to far.

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