Today’s shiftless youngsters don’t get it
There are many ways for a 20th-century baby to feel his or her age:
—When some youngster says he has just discovered this cool rock group called The Beatles.
—When you realize that Watergate happened almost 50 years ago.
—When your knees crack and clatter every time you stand up.
—When you mention the unforgettable date of November 22, 1963 to an all-younger crowd and you draw blank stares.
—And when you rhapsodize about standard shift transmissions.
So it went for me recently, at a business dinner meeting. I didn’t do the math exactly, but you could have combined the ages of any two of my tablemates and come up with fewer years than I’ve logged.
One young man — he couldn’t have been more than 25 — was discussing cars. He went on and on about his new SUV. Great sound system. Great air bags. And a transmission that shifts into extra-low gear to handle rough roads.
All you need to do is push a button, the young man said. Easy as pie.
“Dear young friends,” I said. “Let me tell you about the old days, and gears that you actually shifted.”
“You mean with, like, a clutch?” said one dinner partner.
“Yes, with, like, a clutch,” I said.
When I was learning to drive, I said, automatic transmissions were just becoming common. One of my bought-during-college cars — a 1958 Nash Rambler — offered what today are routine choices. A setting that said P, one that said R, then N, D and L.
But whenever I would move from one of these to another, the car emitted a huge THUNK, as if to warn me that the entire transmission might be about to fall out onto the road.
One day, that’s exactly what happened.
When I weighed my bank balance ($300) against the cost of repairs ($700), it was time for another vehicle.
This one had a standard shift and, like, a clutch. I had never driven standard shift before. Somehow, I figured out the coordination between clutch and gas.
I practiced for an hour in a shopping center parking lot. No disasters. I declared myself ready for anything.
Of course, I wasn’t. The next morning, snow fell. Lots of snow. Cars had spun out and stalled all over the place.
I tried to mount a five-degree hill. Gravity made my car roll backward.
I tried again. Lots of slipping and sliding and grinding and hoping. Finally, the car lurched forward, just before I rolled into the truck behind me.
Would an automatic transmission have done as well? I didn’t know. But I certainly had my suspicions.
Besides, my standard shift car got much better gas mileage — did my young pals know that? They did not.
My standard shift car was safer because I could downshift as I neared a red light, rather than just stomping on the brake and maybe losing control. Did my young pals know that? They did not.
And because I had to use my left (clutching) foot all the time, and my right (shifting) hand all the time, I was more “into” the act of driving. “I defy you to fall asleep at the wheel when you’re driving standard shift,” I said. My young pals had never considered that.
But the clincher was my tale of San Francisco in the 1970s.
Hills there are very steep. If you come to a red light, and you’re aiming upward, it can be very tricky to move forward once the light turns green.
So there I was, I told my friends, having just rented a standard shift car at the airport. I found myself on Nob Hill.
Red light. Steep hill. My car wanting to obey gravity and roll backward.
I decided to run an experiment. Rather than sitting on the brake, I found the sweet spot and used the clutch and gas to hold steady where I was. When the light turned green, I accelerated slowly and evenly, and went on my merry way.
Take that, gravity.
Our world has changed in many, many ways since those long-ago days. One of the things that has changed forever is consumer attitudes toward standard shift.
Now, if you want four on the floor on a mass-produced family car, or a drive-shaft mounted gearshift, it will cost you more. In my day, it would have cost you less.
I had to confess to my dinner companions that I no longer drive standard shift. I’ve caved to convenience.
However, before I’m gone, I’m going to cope with the hills of San Francisco with a real clutch one more time, I vowed. Wouldn’t all of you like to try that?
“I wouldn’t do that,” said one young woman. “I’d just call an Uber.”
Yet one more way in which a 20th-century baby feels his age.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.