What Kind of Man Can’t Drive Stick?
This kind. But I am willing to learn.
I didn’t know how to drive a stick. In the general population, this wasn’t a big deal. Only about seven percent of cars sold in the U.S. have a manual transmission. There’s an ostensibly funny Internet thing that goes around about a “millennial anti-theft system,” showing a photo of a car with a stick shift. No one knows how, and almost no one cares. But when it comes to driving, I'm not in the general population. I am a car writer.
For half a decade, my life had been an unwatched afterschool special: The Car Writer Who Didn’t Know How To Drive Manual. Not knowing how to operate a stick in this gig was like being an English teacher who doesn’t know how to read, or a chef without taste buds. The guy who tooled me around England for five days in a Subaru BRZ, which I simply couldn’t drive, knew my terrible secret. So did the guy who watched, astonished, as I pathetically lurched a manual Mini hardtop around a golf course in Portugal. He had to. I never wrote a review of a car I couldn’t drive, so in that sense my conscience was clear. But in every other sense, it was very, very cloudy with a chance of meatballs.
Five years ago, I got an email from the editor of the now-defunct Yahoo! Autos. He’d read a book I’d written about yoga and thought it was funny, and wanted to send me on a junket. To Croatia. To drive a Bentley. So I did, and I wrote it up, and I got money, and then I got another assignment, and another. The cars were so new and shiny. The trips were so frequent. And the pay was good enough. So I kept going. But I had a secret shame. I didn’t know how to drive, not really.
Driving an automatic transmission is hard enough for me. My entire life, it’s been a genuine challenge for me to tell my right from my left. I’m very clumsy, almost incompetent, to the point where I might actually have brain damage. Toddlers have better spatial awareness and coordination than I do. If I concentrate very hard, I’m an OK driver in an automatic. Millions of people share my situation. That’s why there’s such a rush to create self-driving cars.
Still, I wanted to know. I needed to know. After I got my first car assignment in 2011, my friend Nigel tried to give me a lesson in his stick shift Honda Fit. After I stalled it around his workplace parking lot for a half hour, he shook his head, said, “you’re hopeless,” and let me go. But finally, after I’d managed to weasel my way into a weekly column for a publication called The Drive, for Senna’s sake, I figured it was time to properly learn how to drive a stick. No longer would I be a fraud in automotive journalism, the world’s oldest profession. I signed up for a class at a local racing school.
My instructor for the day was Scott Dollahite, who races for Lotus in the Pirelli World Challenge. This wasn’t Nigel on his lunch break. I’d learn how to drive stick from one of the top drivers in the world. Scott sat me in a dust-colored busted-looking “Mazda p.o.s,” as he called it. He asked me why I, an obviously middle-aged man, was learning how to drive a stick now, on life’s tender downslope. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “because I’m an automotive journalist and a fraud,” so instead I said, “I want to be able to escape the zombie apocalypse and also I might get cast on The Amazing Race someday.”
The Protégé looked and smelled like 5,000 commutes. The stick shift wagged like the tongue on an overheated dog. “If you can drive this,” Dollahite told me, “You can drive anything.”
I couldn’t drive it. But soon, I could. Scott’s instructions were clear and patient. Step 1: Engage the clutch. Step 2: Put it into gear. Step 3: Give it a little RPM. Step 4: Find the catch point where the car starts to roll. Move forward. Slowly release the clutch.
No one had ever told me that before. I did what he said. The car moved. It stalled out here and there over the course of a quarter hour but mostly, it didn’t. And then it began to steam, out of no fault of my own. Apparently, the Mazda was ending its life, like a Bernie Sanders supporter realizing that the jig is up.
“Oh, that’s not good,” Scott said.
We parked the Mazda, which was roasting. Scott had his mechanic pop the hood to cool down the innards.
“If all else fails, we’ll go to a different vehicle,” he said.
All else failed. The different vehicle was Scott’s personal car, a 2015 Porsche Cayman GTS. Unlike the Mazda, this car had air-conditioning. And it was a modern masterpiece of engineering. Also, as Scott said, “it’s under warranty.”
The Mazda had shifted gears reluctantly, like an exhausted pack mule. But suddenly, in the Cayman, I was whipping through the gears like Superboy learning how to use his powers. There was some over-revving, but mostly I shifted smooth. The clutch wasn’t going to let me make a mistake. The irony was that, because of this ridiculous job, I’ve actually logged a lot of track time, so it helped me that I was learning on a racetrack. The corkscrews and the apexes didn’t intimidate. I knew when to brake. Only now, there was an extra pedal involved.
“You’re doing really well,” Scott said, almost surprised, or maybe he was being paid to say that.
Second to third to fourth.
I was doing it!
I was driving a stick!
I could fly! I could fly! I could fly!
We ended our lesson with a 10-minute drive through an adjacent neighborhood, mostly in second gear. Only twice did I stall out at Stop signs, much better than any past performances. I’d acquired a basic life skill that really would have mattered 40 years ago.
“Congratulations,” said my race-car driver instructor. “Now you can survive the zombie apocalypse.”
He returned to the business of preparing his Lotus race car for a podium-mounting performance, something he’d been raised to do, as opposed to me, who’d been raised to throw up my hands in panic at a four-way intersection. In two hours, I’d conquered 30 years of poor instruction, fear, and personal ignorance. At last, my non-dreams had been fulfilled. The fraud had ended. I was a true automotive journalist.
As I drove an automatic SUV in the unforgiving afternoon traffic, I thought, “Wait! What about Reverse?”