The Collectible Manual

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Electric cars constitute a small fraction of all new car sales but they are outselling non-electric cars by a margin of something like ten to one. This being so because almost no one sells new cars with manual transmissions anymore. Not even BMW – which once sold itself as purveyor of the Ultimate Driving Machines.

This assumed you wanted to actually drive them.

Once upon a time, BMW drivers did, which is why one could usually get a manual in almost every car BMW sold – including sedans and always in its sports cars. As of today, BMW sports cars like the Z4 come standard – and only – with automatic transmissions. A few ultra-high-performance (and ultra-high-cost) BMWs like the M3 sedan and M4 coupe are still available with manuals, but probably not for long.

Probably for two reasons.

The first is that manuals are aging out.

People who got their driver’s licenses before say 1985 or so are much more likely to know how to drive a stickshift car because back in the ’80s, roughly a fourth of all new cars still came with manual transmissions and probably half or more of the used economy-type cars that most young people got for their first car back then had a clutch. For many, it was a case of – if you wanted to drive, you had to learn to drive stick.

Like most who did, they came to like it – and when they had the means, would incline toward the purchase of a new car with a manual. But people who became new drivers in the ’80s are now in their 50s. Their kids – the Millennials – grew up in a mostly automatic world; most of them never learned how to drive stick and that means it is hard to sell these people a new car with a stick.

Buy why did this cohort grow up in a mostly automatic world?

For the same reason that BMW only sells a rare few models with manual transmissions today. The first being – no surprise – the necessity of designing cars that can pass muster with federal (and lately, state) rigmarole, chiefly emissions and mileage and also (lately) drive-by noise rigmarole.

It is harder to fine-tune  a manual-equipped car for the lowest possible emissions and the highest-possible MPGs because it is impossible to program a manual transmission. It is an uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) variable. It shifts when and how the driver wants it to shift, whereas an automatic can be programmed to shift precisely when it is optimum to shift for lowest possible possible emission, highest possible mileage and lowest possible noise.

This latter is why Porsche was told it cannot sell the manual-equipped version of its ultra-high-performance 911 GT3 coupe in California; the stick versions failed the state’s drive-by noise rigmarole. It is also why California became the first state – a long time ago – in which it became almost impossible to sell any car with a manual transmission, even when stickshift versions were being offered by the car companies in the other 49 states.

Now America is California – as far as regulatory rigmarole is concerned.

But the engineers made lemon aid out of these regulatory lemons. They programmed the automatics to shift faster and more accurately than most humans can and always more consistently than any human can – even a human race car driver. This is why the automatic versions of BMW’s M3 and M4 are quicker than the same cars with manuals; it is why almost every ultra-ultra-performance new-model-year supercar comes only with an automatic.

They perform better, by the numbers. Both federal rigmarole and 0-60.

But there is a die-hard cohort (all ages) that prefers to shift for themselves, that does not care that the automatic-equipped version is two-tenths of a second quicker through the traps than the stickshift version. They consider the stickshift version more fun to drive, which used to count for a lot among drivers.

Fun isn’t numbers-quantifiable. It either is, or it isn’t. Or it is less – or more. Slightly, by the numbers.

A lot, by feel.

Sure, it is fun to run an M3 or M4 through the quarter mile in 11.6 seconds at 125.6 MPH (a Prius takes about the same time to reach 60 MPH). But it is more fun – for some – to shift an M3 or M4 through the quarter-mile 0.3 seconds slower in the same car with a manual.

This Fun Factor also probably accounts at least somewhat for the enduring popularity of cars like the Mazda Miata, which is one of the very few new cars that still comes standard with a manual transmission and which is overwhelmingly bought with a stick, even though Mazda does offer an automatic as an option. It is not an especially quick car. But it is an extremely fun car.

But fun is getting harder to find – in a new car. Or even a new truck; they are almost all automatic-only, with the exception of holdouts like the Toyota Tacoma. Given the increasing pressure to comply with federal (and state) rigmarole, it is very likely there will soon be no new cars – or trucks – that offer a manual because it will no longer be possible to comply with the rigamarole without a finely programmed automatic. And of course, electric cars have no transmissions at all.

We stand at a crossroads not unlike the one that appeared in 1975, the first year that practically every new car on the market came with a catalytic converter. If you didn’t want one, you wanted a ’74 or or older car, which didn’t have them.

Today, these pre-’75 cars are considered more desirable as collector cars because they aren’t as choked by emissions controls. Their engines are more powerful and can be made more powerful, legally – because it is not illegal to remove catalytic converters that were never there to begin with. Horsepower plummeted in ’75, the first year for cats – and in many parts of the country – including California – these cars must retain their cats, even now, to be legal for use on public roads.

It is not unlikely that, 40 years from now, anything with a stick will be even more desirable to possess than anything without a cat. The main difference then vs. now is that the lag time between general recognition of what’s no longer available and the correlated uptick in the value of that which was available is less. People are hip, right now, to the pending extinction of manual-equipped cars and are are buying up the limited supply of used cars (and trucks) equipped with them.

If you’d like to shift for yourself, better hurry. Or prepare to spend more, soon.

. . . 

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25 COMMENTS

  1. Fun fact: Jeep Wranglers are among the vehicles most commonly selected with a manual transmission. Go to any Jeep dealership lot and many of their Wranglers, even in higher end trims like Rubicon, are spec’d with a manual.

    Not so fun fact: Go to the Jeep website and try to order a Jeep Wrangler of any sort with the regular V6 and an automatic transmission. As of 2021, you can’t. You have to order the V6 with the “eTorque” mild hybrid system in it or settle for the turbo I4. The only way to get a normal V6 is to go with the manual transmission. The V6 is by far the most popular engine option in the Wrangler. The I4 is fairly anemic, even though its HP/torque ratings aren’t bad on paper. The eTorque might bump mpg up by 1mpg, but that adds up over large numbers of sales, even if the customer will never, ever be able to see a difference. Oh, and that eTorque V6 adds almost $2k to the price of the vehicle (plus the extra cost of the automatic transmission).

  2. I dont drive that much, nor do I have a very stressful drive when I do – the upside is I can really enjoy driving a manual. Honestly one of the best parts of driving…. it can turn any old POS car into an enjoyable experience….

  3. When I bought my 2013 Accord Coupe with a 6 speed, my dad asked me “Are you sure?”. I assured him I wanted the manual and have enjoyed driving it for the past eight years. I’m now 62 y/o and since the vehicle only has 35,000 miles on it, I’m not sure I’ll ever get rid of it.

  4. Several years ago I ditched the F 150 I had…Wanted another Ranger My wife had one before we got married. An 1988 STX 4×4 5sp Damm what a little truck we drove the wheels off it. I wanted another one.I had to drive over 300 miles from home to find a FX4 Ranger with a manual. The lot that had it said they could`t hardly give it away got a good deal on it…..Save the Manuals!

  5. Here’s something funny. You want to know what is one of the hardest to get and most desirable parts for the 1970s Ford Maverick? A Manual transmission pedal assembly. As I see other things in the old car universe it seems these days more cars get converted to manuals than from it. Back in the 1980s people would convert MTs to ATs but these days the reverse seems most popular.

    • Hi Brent,

      Among many life regrets: Back in the early 2000s, I bought – for next to nothing – the rolling (barely) remains of a ’78 Trans-Am for a parts car. I mainly wanted engine parts as this was an original W72 (T/A 6.6 400) car; specifically, the 6X heads – which have smaller combustion chambers than the heads I have on my ’76. These heads gave the ’78 “T/A” 400 a higher (8.2:1) CR and are considered quite desirable. Anyhow, I got the heads as well as a number of other bits and pieces, including the shaker scoop – which I still have as wall art. What I don’t have – damn it – is the four speed bellhousing, flywheel, clutch/Z pedal assembly or the Super T-10 transmission. I let them and the rest of the car go for… wait for the cringe… $400 to a buddy of mine who wanted what was left of the car.

  6. It also doesn’t help that rowing your own gears in heavy stop and go traffic is hardly fun. Congestion is just about everywhere in cities and suburbia (even some rural areas) due to our masters not adding much in the way of roadway capacity since the early 1970’s.

    • Hi Rich,

      There is truth in that; aber, modern hydraulic-assist clutches are pretty easy to use. I totally get the leg-press effect of driving, say, an old Trans-Am with a heavy pressure plate and an M-21, M-22 or Super T-10. But then again, the rest makes up for it!

      Of course, I am a kook.

      • I have only driven one “modern” manual in recent years (a 2001ish I think, Honda Civic). Maybe I should rent something new on vacation or something to see what a modern one is like. But its been a long time since I actually drove something with a manual of any age.

        I house sat for a friend, probably close to twenty years ago now, that came with a manual Isuzu Rodeo. He wanted me to drive it since it would be hard to start if it sat more than a few days. I ended up having so much fun with that little SUV. It ended being my daily driver as my mom’s car needed a new transmission so I loaned her whatever I had at the time.

  7. One has to be careful with some stick cars. I have a ’11 Cadillac CTS-V with the six speed Tremec. Low miles and pretty in black if you can stand the styling. My point about being careful has to do with driving one with clod shoes that catch on the pedals. I know that you all will call me a fairy and other epithets, but I bought some Simpson race booties for driving to obviate the tanglefoot between brake and clutch.
    It’s no BMW and the moron committees at GM garfed it up with geegaws, but the powertrain/suspension/brake guys got it right.
    It does not whine like a Muncie, but hey, this is a luxury car.

    • Erie, It’s not you. The problem with the ATS/CTS is the footwell size. They had to squeeze in the extra pedal. I found out this design issue myself after owing a ATS and found on a long drive the cramped legroom was not what I was used to after being in trucks forever, and I fatiqued earlier I guess from not having the ‘normal’ room. The Alpha chassis is narrow, still is. And I think why they lag in sales (camaro too), compared to the larger Mustang, Charger/Challenger. The last gen camaro was not on the alpha chassis and wider, and sold well relative.

  8. How about really cheap new cars? A lot of new econo cars still come with stick shifts that are considered “bottom dwellers”.

  9. Well, two of my trucks are stick, so I am well invested.

    For me, I think there is less of a “fun factor” and more a utility/cost factor. It has saved my ass numerous times to be able to roll-start a vehicle. That alone makes the manual indispensable. Sure, there are small li-ion jump boxes today for this purpose, but you couldn’t lose with a push-start.

    Secondly, of course, the cost of repair is so much less than an automatic. Also, a failing automatic can do some weird and dangerous things. My old Ford Explorer testified to that. Suddenly losing drive going up a hill, for example. That type of thing can be a bit alarming.

    • The solenoid that extends the starter pinion on my ’90 geo tracker called it quits a few years ago. Letting it roll down hill and bump starting it saved me from having it towed. I was able to clean up the almost 30 year old starter and replace just the solenoid for cheap. The old rustmagnet eats a quart every 500 miles but I love it.

      The lack of a “standard” transmission option is yet another nail in the coffin for modern disposable cars.

      • It is a good idea to park at the top of a hill if you have them. Here to bump start I would have to go down the hill to Lake Michigan and into the breakwater boulders. On occasion it is impractical.

  10. ‘Manuals are aging out.’ — EP

    How appropriate that Eric adopts criminal ‘justice’ terminology for vehicles that are increasingly implicated on charges of aiding and abetting environmental crimes — or at least engaging in the amorphous hooliganism of propelling their occupants hither and thither with big goofy smiles on their faces, which strikes our puritanical SJW masters as a form of wicked, self-indulgent hedonism.

    Strange that their ire is not directed at the recreational vehicle industry, now enjoying its biggest boom in history. Those who elect to travel heavy with all their toys and gear get rather poor gas mileage (and often leave black burn marks beside the highway around here, when they catch fire lugging uphill). But so far, lavishly outfitted nomads are not an object of official opprobrium.

    ‘Now America is California,’ balefully warns Eric Peters. Not fully, not yet. But with Cackling Kamala teed up to succeed the flickering ‘Biden’ hologram, it soon will be. Even as we speak, two unelected individuals, the soi disant ‘first lady’ and ‘second gentleman’ are touring the nation, acting as sales reps for Big Pharma. How charming. How profitable.

    He only has the moves of a knight
    But he wants the absolute freedom of a queen
    Too bad the only money he’s got is coming in
    Colored American green

    Don’t talk back, some ruler says, or everything
    You need will go away
    Every answer you think you’ve ever said is just a guess
    And the king of clocks just slowly locks up every day

    — Jefferson Starship, Devil’s Den

    • Jim,

      You so often weave such a fine tapestry of prose. You should consider your own blog.

      Also, a friend of mine once said that you can learn much of what you need to know about life from rock-n-roll. 😉

      • But you have to dig for it, or already be aware of it. Like the Beatles “Revolution”, or Ten Years after “I’d love to change the world”.

      • Kind words, BaDnOn. Thank you.

        We’re the guests of Eric Peters in this forum, a formidable essayist and inspiration to others.

        With the propaganda line of Big Gov pitched to the lowest common denominator — thus, unapologetically crude and simplistic — our task is to vigorously punch back with whatever rhetorical resources we can muster, in words that don’t take the audience for simps and morons.

        And to enjoy some rich black humor along the way, in the slanting orange sunset of this fading empire.

        The river flows
        It flows to the sea
        Wherever that river goes
        That’s where I want to be

        Flow river flow
        Let your waters wash down
        Take me from this road
        To some other town

        — The Byrds, Ballad of Easy Rider

    • Re: RV’s
      Don’t give them any ideas. Rv’s are the last affordable shelters available in america. Once rv’s are banned your only option is a huge rent/mortgage every month or the walmart tent in your local hooverville.
      If you can purchase some rural property an old rv makes a great cabin.

  11. For about 20 years, my daily driver has been a Miata/MX5. In my late 40s, my agility was declining. Falling into the drivers seat of a Miata gave it back to me. I owned an automatic version for about a year and a half before I disposed of the not so much fun to drive vehicle. It was a 6 speed, and it did have paddle shifters, which is the only reason I even tried it out. But something was missing.
    A major advantage to the manual besides the pleasure is the durability. There is far less to go wrong, and if it does, its far cheaper to fix. If you have managed to break it beyond repair, you’ve probably broken other things as well.
    In ’75 another thing happened with the insertion of Cats. In addition to a loss of power, MPG also crashed. I can remember the company I worked for taking a 75 Chevy pickup to a worksite about 80 or 90 miles away, and we had to carry an extra 5 gallon fuel can to get home without stopping.
    The one failing of the MX5 is that if you break 6′ tall, it may not be the car for you. I don’t, so it is.

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