Motor City Blogman: My Kingdom For An Old-School Stick Shift And Handbrake

bmw-1-series-m-coupe-gearshift-and-handbrake-levers

Elsewhere in this automotive world, Elon Musk is telling Bloomberg he wants the Tesla Model S to have Google’s autopilot technology – that’s his preferred name for autonomous cars. Cadillac issued a press release a few days ago touting the advancements it’s making with SuperCruise, the company’s autonomous technology promised for this decade.

Volvo and tier one supplier Continental AG see autopilot technology as the way to zero road fatalities somewhere in the tangible future. When that future is fully realized, the last cars we’ll actually drive for ourselves, says analyst Jim Hall, will be sports cars – sort of like racehorses and recreational horses in a post-buggy whip era. Too bad you can’t make glue out of a discarded Toyota Camry.

And yet, a few of us hold onto old objects that have more tactile feel than a keystroke. Ferrari manettinos and Porsche PDKs may shift more quickly and precisely than any three-pedalers, but what kind of sports car doesn’t require two arms and two legs to operate? How can one take full advantage of a rear-wheel-drive sports car without a good old-fashioned handbrake? What kind of transmission and what kind of emergency brake will the last of the driver-operated cars have?

I recently traveled to Turin, Italy, to get a detailed look at the Alfa Romeo 4C. I didn’t get to drive it, but I did sit in one and crank it up. Its ultra-modern carbon-fiber-and-leather interior has one controversial component, Alfa exterior design chief Alessandro Maccolini explained. The buzz at the production 4C’s Geneva launch was over the 4C’s mechanical handbrake.

I was floored. What enthusiast worth his or her motor oil would get into a sleek, mid-engine two-seater and wish for an electronic parking brake?

Apparently, the critics at Geneva thought Alfa had thrown away precious weight savings with the handbrake -- for a car that comes in at less than 2000 pounds dry. But the handbrake turns out to weigh less than the electronic alternative, Maccolini explained. The 4C’s drivetrain otherwise is what you’d expect for the second decade of the new century. Its turbocharged four feeds the rear wheels through a wet dual-clutch transmission. The driver can either use the paddles to shift its six forward speeds or rely on the tranny’s computer to handle them.

About a week later, back in Michigan, I had a new Porsche Boxster for the weekend. It was the standard model, no “S,” and it wasn’t loaded down with options. The seatbelt straps didn’t match the saddle-colored instrument panel cove/dashboard/inside door handle accents. The Boxster’s 265-hp, 2.7-liter flat six was mated to a six-speed manual gearbox. It was the old fashioned kind – unlike the new 911’s seven-speed manual, it doesn’t even throttle-match downshifts for you.

How welcome was that? Like a fixie rider on a new, 27-speed mountain bike, I tend to tap the Porsche PDK upshift/downshift buttons too much. This stick-shift Boxster elicits smooth and well-reasoned upshifts and downshifts, and the pedals are close enough for heel-and-toeing without mechanical aid. I felt like a kid, again, albeit one who could shift smoothly.

The Porsche’s handbrake? It’s not a handbrake. It’s a rectangular electronic lever placed on the lower left part of the dash near the driver’s left knee, as if to evoke the pull-release on my parents’ old 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88, the car that required the combo of aging tires and rear-wheel drive to make the most of snowy Wisconsin winters. Push the Porsche’s lever/button to set the parking brake; pull it to release. Or maybe it was the other way around. Doesn’t matter – it’s no handbrake.

I can’t imagine fully autonomous, or autopilot, cars with three pedals and a handbrake. If Hall’s theory proves correct, new cars purchased for the fun of actually driving them should have fewer automated controls. You don’t need a navigation system to intentionally get lost on a twisty mountain road, and who wants to listen to Pandora and text-message the office while banging off upshifts and downshifts to a raspy exhaust note soundtrack?

The question, then, is whether these old-school controls will continue their slow, steady march toward extinction as Cadillac perfects SuperCruise and Silicon Valley continues its secretive quest for Googledrive. Will the next Mazda Miata still have an old fashioned manual gearbox and a handbrake? Will Alfa Romeo’s version? How about the next Mini?

Enthusiasts will find my outlook for the future of drivers’ cars bleak. I too, wish it was different. The fact is, we’re already well on our way.

nknorka
Thank God for the Miata. I have a feeling that my grandchildren will have to ride motorcycles if they want to experience being one with the machine. That is, if motorcycle are not outlawed.
todd.lassa
@nknorka I don't ride cycles, but may have to take them up if the autonomous car trend moves fast.

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