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.
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?
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.
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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