Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Farewell to the harrowing stick-shift lessons

Josh Shaffer teaches his 62-year-old editor to drive a stick shift

Watch News & Observer columnist Josh Shaffer gently guide senior editor Dan Barkin, 62, through the trials and tribulations of driving a manual transmission car.
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Watch News & Observer columnist Josh Shaffer gently guide senior editor Dan Barkin, 62, through the trials and tribulations of driving a manual transmission car.

The first car I ever drove was a 1978 Toyota Corolla, which came equipped with the most exquisite features a teenager could want: four tires, a steering wheel and an engine that started when you turned the key.

My father bought it for $800 and let me drive it on the condition I sand down the rust spots, pay for a paint job and learn to operate its clutch.

So for the next several months, my Toyota lurched and sputtered down the driveway like a biplane shot full of holes, interrupting the country quiet with the crunch of grinding gears and the ka-chunk of stalled motors. There was also some screaming.

But I emerged a confident driver, able to shift gears, switch radio stations and light a cigarette at the same time. (Don’t tell my dad about the cigarette part.) By the time I started driver’s ed in the 10th grade, piloting our school’s ancient boatlike Chrysler with its automatic transmission, I had only one question for the instructor:

“What do I do with my left leg?”

But this long-established ritual is fading, sparing generations to come the painful introduction to two-legged driving. A Nov. 9 story in the Wall Street Journal reveals that cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. with manual transmission dropped to 7 percent in 2014, down from 35 percent in 1980.

“The decline is expected to accelerate,” the Journal noted, “as high-performance sports cars, once holdouts, increasingly shift to hybrid automatics.”

This article came to my attention via Dan Barkin, senior editor for The News & Observer who hired me in 2004. He saluted the demise of the stick-shift, being unable to drive one at age 62, and having grown thoroughly tired of people’s surprise over this shortcoming.

“If you don’t know how to fix plumbing,” he told me, “nobody says, ‘You don’t know how to fix plumbing?’ ”

He grew up in suburban Boston and learned to drive the family’s Dodge Dart, as automatic as they come. In nearly five decades of driving, he never had the desire see the surge in rpm, feel the G-force tug around a tight bend or shift into high gear at the opening riff from “Whole Lotta Love.”

“I liken it to people who like doing their computing work at the C prompt,” Barkin said. “I guess you could do it, but Bill Gates invented Windows so you wouldn’t have to. Where’s the glory?”

So I offered to instruct my boss in this dying art, which to me offers the same archaic enjoyment as a rowboat or an electric typewriter. Barkin bravely agreed, tired of getting razzed by the stick-shift capable, and so we drove photographer Travis Long’s 2005 Honda Element to a mostly empty parking lot on the Dorothea Dix campus and buckled up.

“I’ve never learned to do it,” he said. “I’ve never wanted to do it. But I’m game.”

For me, learning to navigate first gear is two-thirds of the battle. That interplay between clutch and gas requires nothing short of ballet.

But most people my age first experience clutch lessons with their own teenage sons. This was a slightly different student. I imagined my boss as Mr. Magoo, having cut his automotive teeth in a jalopy with an ooga horn, yelling “Road hog!” out the back window. But Barkin aced his first try so convincingly that I thought he’d been feigning ignorance for attention.

Then he stalled the Honda on his second try. And his third. And his fourth.

Beads of forehead sweat appeared. On everyone involved. I urged calm, but Barkin took control of his own lesson, and before I knew it we were looping the parking lot in first gear. Except for a large pile of bricks, which we passed close enough to touch, nothing pushed the pulse beyond normal.

On to second gear!

Hey, that pile of bricks came around really fast this time! One loop. Two loops. Maybe slow down a bit? Watch the bricks! Shift! Neutral! Brake! Breathe.

Ready for the road?

But Barkin unbuckled and exited the car, muttering. He’d come to conquer the manual transmission, and after two gears, he’d tasted enough victory.

“If I had to drive this truck to the terrorist center to alert Jack Bauer about an impending plot,” Barkin said, “I could do it.”

And with that, I’d done my part for the labor-intensive relics of my youth. The stick shift may disappear, but I’m keeping my analog watch. And my abacus. And my pride.

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