The Evils of the Automatic

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It’s easy to get suckered by the convenient. We’re all susceptible. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance.

This is the nature of the subtle evil that is the automatic transmission.

It has taken most of the effort out of driving. In particular, out of learning how to drive. Accordingly, most people never do learn. They know how to push the start button and pull a lever from Park to Drive, of course. But that is not what I mean

It has ruined the art of driving.

And it is an art.

Or, was.

Well, a skill at least.

Before the automatic came along in the ’40s, brought to us by GM through its Oldsmobile division, driving a car required more talent than being able to open and close a door, sit down – and push on two pedals.

There was a third pedal – the clutch pedal. When it was out, the engine was directly connected to the transmission, which was directly transmitting the engine’s power to the driven wheels via the driveshaft. If the driver did not push the clutch pedal in as the car rolled to a stop, the car would buck and finally, stall out – because the engine could not turn the pavement (or the Earth to which it was attached).

To resume forward motion, the driver had to gradually let out the clutch while simultaneously easing into the gas pedal – allowing just enough enough slippage to avoid (once again) stalling out the car. It took a bit of practice to master this delicate balance – to be able to do it smoothly. It was a right of passage, something almost every aspiring teenage driver had to learn.

Clutching was just the beginning. There was also shifting.

Before the advent of synchronizers in the transmission, one had to time one’s shifts just so – matching engine speed to road speed. It was necessary to choreograph this delicate ballet yourself. If you failed to do so, the result was a a hideous grinding of the gears and general embarrassment, especially if you were a man and had a woman along for the ride.

Now combine the two, clutch – and shift.

A driver had to learn how to engage and disengage the clutch – smoothly. Those who rode the clutch kept it partially engaged, allowing excess slippage and quickly burned up the clutch. Those who engaged it too soon or too abruptly made the car buck like a bronco – annoying passengers and (eventually) breaking something else.

The driver also had to know when (and how) to shift the transmission into the appropriate gear for road speed and load. He had to know when to upshift – and when to downshift – in order to avoid either over-speeding or lugging the engine – either of which could result in a hurt engine.

It was about being in tune with the mechanical goings-on as well as skill. The driver had to pay attention. How else to know what gear you happened to be in? When it was time to shift?

Which gear to shift into?

No one else was going to do it for you. And if you didn’t do it, there would be consequences. Immediate, real – tangible. The car would bog. Or stall out, roll back – and into the car behind you.

In a manual-equipped car, it’s harder to be vacuous, a meatsack behind the wheel. You’re compelled to participate. You have no real choice but to observe the progression of traffic signals, in order to anticipate what’s likely to happen next.

The change from red to green, the ebb and flow of traffic.

The wheels (in your head) turn. It’s necessary to focus on your environment, what’s going on around you. To be ready – and to know what to do. If you need to slow down quickly it will be necessary to do more than stomp on just the brake pedal.

Not that you couldn’t also have a conversation with your passenger at the same time. Certainly. But it was secondary to the task at hand. In the Age of the Clutch, it was less common for people to space out at red lights or in traffic, as is common today. Some did – but not for long. The situation would not indulge it.

This made for better drivers because they were necessarily more attentive and involved drivers – as well as more skilled drivers.

Automatics have greatly eroded all of that, given us Meatsack Culture.

They are like high fructose corn syrup, fluoride and other soporifics. They induce and encourage inattentiveness and passivity. Staring off into space. Wondering about what’s for dinner. Playing with the GPS. Sending texts.

The automatic-equipped modern car pretty much drives itself. Very little is expected of the Dunsel behind the wheel – and not surprisingly – not much is given. As automatic-equipped cars became dominant and manual cars a relative rarity – and people could “learn to drive” and get a driver’s license without ever touching a clutch – real skill behind the wheel ebbed, for the simple reason that it was no longer required or even expected.

The bar had been lowered.

Driving is serious business. It’s not for everyone. The introduction of the automatic served as a kind of affirmative action for driving, enabling those who couldn’t make the grade to get behind the wheel.

Which is why there are so many terrible drivers out there.

Automatics are not per se evil. But they have had evil effect. Maybe it amounts to the same thing, ultimately.

 . . .

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Good luck even trying to find a manual transmission vehicle to learn on. There are no driving schools in the area that will teach you on a stick shift, and the rental companies do not offer anything except automatic. You either have to find someone willing to let you learn on theirs, or purchase your own.

  2. In the process of getting my 1982 VW Diesel Vanagon Westfalia back on the road, and I often shift it clutchless, easy-peasy! Eric’s right…knowing to drive a stick was the rite of passage. My first car was a ’71 Ford Pinto…first year, exploding gas tank and all. Damn reliable car with an under-powered Mitsubishi 4 cylinder in it. Cold winters in Ohio were fun…you’d crank it and one cylinder would catch with a KUNG-KUNG-KUNG-KUNG, and eventually the other 3 would join the show. Today’s cars are so smooth, easy, and bloodless.

  3. The REAL test of proficiency with a manual transmission is shifting gears without grinding without using the clutch. This can be especially useful if you have a broken clutch cable or other clutch control problem. All of my vehicles are equipped with manual transmissions. I can perform clutchless shifts on all of them…

  4. The main reason people now use the phone and gps while driving are the vastly reduced speed limits on all roads. Going too slow in modern cars leads to boredom and the irresistible urge to play on the phone or gps. Raise the speed limits to sane numbers and the phone playing will go away.

    • to5, goddam cellphones and the clueless. 75 mph on the highways of Texas and those who can are doing over that.

      A typical scenario: 20 year old female, cellphone stuck to the left side of her face doing 75…..until you try to pass her .

      So absorbed she automatically matches your speed. 80 and you’re stuck beside her in that goddam truck the insurance dicks force on gutless, clueless fleet operators.
      Then she’s all over 2 lanes and the shoulder, but never removes the phone then lets go of the wheel to shoot you the bird.

      I’ve experienced this with not only a “baby on board ” sign but with the alive for the moment, baby or 2

      Those signs seem to have made a comeback…..unfortunately.

      I live with this stupidity and incompetence every day.

      I can’t just drive safely, I have to drive as if every vehicle out there is going to try to be a martyr via my truck. And those going around you when you’re pulling a grade or wind or both, slow down and ride your rear drivers side. I can only guess this is an unconscious need to tempt fate. I may have just gotten to speed after a stop where I checked tires. That don’t mean one of those 24.5s, 42 inches tall isn’t about to blow, come off the wheel and be right in their face. It’s not a pretty sight.
      You finally use those big horns

    • Hi Diversity,

      Yup! In some ways – this being one – Europeans are less cattle-like than the majority of Americans. So, there is hope. I always tell myself it’s darkest before the dawn. It keeps me from giving up!

  5. I miss driving a stick shift but my knee doesn’t. I first learned to drive a stick on my brothers ’73 Pinto right after I got my drivers license in late ’72. My first full time car was a hand-me down ’62 Chevy II with a 3 on the column which I drove through most of my college years. I over time drove cars with 4-speed manuals, and finally 5-speeds, until I got rid of my last stick shift in 2013. By then at the age of 57, my left knee was worn out by the hideous stop-start of Atlanta area traffic, so now I am driving an automatic. You are right that driving a manual builds driving skill and awareness. I was a very smooth shifter and never stalled out on hills, once I initally learned. My clutches lasted a long time based on my good shifting habits. I am glad I missed the 6-speed era though. that would be too much shifting for my taste and my knee.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Yup! I agree that automatics have advantages – and don’t frown in the direction of automatic-equipped cars. But I do think people ought to learn to drive in a car with a manual transmission. It develops life-long superior skills as a driver, even if you never drive another car with a manual again.

      • Thank goodness I was never rear-ended in that ‘73 Pinto while learning to drive a stick. We all found out a few years later that due to their gas tanks they were moving molotov cocktails. Of course my brother drove it a lot more than me.

        • I read an article quoting stats from back then. That wasn’t the most deadly car during that period although it was certainly picked on.

          NBC sure tried to smear GM with the exploding side mounted gas tanks. There’s another case of the press lying and nothing happened to the deceivers.

          Anti-gun fools would tell any old lie to keep the public from reading the FBI crime stats.

          I carry a couple feet of 3/4″ rebar as a tire bumper.

          I was reading the federal crime stats this year. Under blunt force weapons they noted 3/4″ rebar was especially deadly. No mention was made of 5/8″sucker rod with the coupling still on one end, what I carry to beat out rocks caught between dual tires.

  6. I recall an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show (which started the trope of the “career girl” back in ’69 or ’70, I believe) where there’s a snowstorm, an important story, and Mary wants to take the only vehicle that would likely make it there…an all-terrain surplus army truck that Lou Grant uses on his property, from what I can gather. Mary offers to drive it, and in making the “H” pattern of the garden-variety 3 or 4 speed, she claims to be able to drive a “stick”. Lou dismisses her ability, saying, “it’s not a ‘H’, Mary…it’s got a “W” in the middle, and a “T” on the side (indicating this truck has a 2 speed differential)…it’s a TRUCK, Mary!”

    Give me a ’48 Dodge Power Wagon (what the WC214 Army Truck, or “Beep” [Big Jeep] is based on) with a 4-speed with a “Grandma” low gear and a 2-speed rear end…with that torquey 251 CID flathead six, a machine that will climb telephone poles!

  7. Last night on the way home from work I was behind a commercial truck on the offramp. Light goes green, we sit. Light goes yellow, I see a brand new Beetle (temporary tags) jump through the intersection. The commercial truck and I make it through on the yellow. Commercial truck turns off and now I’m behind the Beetle. Up the hill to the 4 way stop intersection they’re between 5 and 10 over the PSL, but not consistently. I’m thinking they’re on their phone or whatever. Then we get to the 4 way stop on the hill and… it stalled. Twice. Made me smile and I immediately cut the driver a ton of slack.

    That’s one thing I really miss, driving a manual transmission. The flappy-paddle shifter on the old A3 were a poor substitute. No way to feather the clutch on a hill (and no need of course), no way to skip gears, and really fast shifts aren’t a useful as we’re led to believe anyway. The only time I think an automatic is really a necessity is when off road, just because it’s pretty hard to move the clutch smoothly when bouncing out of your seat.

    • I went from a New Venture Gear 4500 connected to a 6.5 Turbo Diesel to an automatic. The quality of life diminished as fast as the automatic shifts.

      I could use under-drive, put it in 4WD and low range, get out and load veggies or whatever while it walked along driverless.

      When I was a kid our old Ford-Ferguson tractor had gear drive lift arms. If the tractor started spinning in the sand it would get stuck because the lift arms wouldn’t work fast enough.

      Being alone plowing came to a stop. I got the idea of idling up the 55 Chevy pickup, putting it in granny low, getting out with the tires spinning and chained to the tractor, run back, jump on the tractor and give it hell. Once unstuck I’d jump off, get in the pickup and stop it, back up,throw the chain in the bed and move it back to the turn row.

      I worked for a farmer right after getting married. I was cultivating cotton and the dirt was coming up to the perfect speed to match the tractor.

      I got to the end of the row and turned into ground I couldn’t see and had the tractor sink to the axles in mud caused by an underground water line that had ruptured.

      I knew the owner had another tractor a mile away so I retrieved it and used my old method of getting the tractor unstuck.

      The owner gets back and sees the mess and says How the hell did you get that tractor unstuck? He was miffed.

      • 8. my uncle’s old F250 had a 390 with that old style manual with the granny gear. We had bored the postholes with his tractor and the auger on the PTO the day before, and loaded the bed with cedar fenceposts.

        All we had to do was put the truck in 1st, and let it go, while we jumped up in the bed and dropped off a post by each hole. If it had been just a little slower, then one of us could have done the job. That’s the ticket for unloading posts on a long fenceline.

  8. Making a crashbox out of a Saginaw M15 3 speed….or pro-shifting a Chrysler A-833 or Ford toploader: I truly yearn. I really do.

    And Bag-O-Meat! That wonderful Bag-O-Meat!

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