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The Value of Three-Pedal Proficiency

A practical skill you’re not born with that’s worth developing

Here’s something you don’t come upon very often these days: In front of me at a traffic light was a Subaru Impreza in a repetitive dance of bucking and stalling. I observed this bizarre ritual through a complete green-light cycle before casually maneuvering my car around the struggling Japanese hatchback.

As I came past, I observed a young driver behind the wheel of the weathered automobile. I stopped, rolled down my passenger-side window and congratulated the teenage girl on her efforts to learn the art of the manual transmission. I told her to keep it up, she’ll surely master it soon.

Some 25 years earlier, I went through the same ritual. It’s an experience I remember well.

My father owned a 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit (Golf) GTI. He’d drive me down to the local cemetery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for manual-gearbox training sessions. The cemetery, you ask? Well, the traffic was light, and my dad always told me that we were in the right place in case I made a big mistake. Fair point. Plus, the topography of this particular field of paved roads and headstones allowed a fair share of hill-start challenges. It wasn’t easy. The Rabbit did its fair share of, well, jackrabbiting. But I quickly got the hang of things, graduating to proper road driving with three pedals once I obtained my driver’s permit at age 15.

VW Rabbit GTI 1

My 16th birthday brought along the wonderful pleasure of driving sans chaperone. The Rabbit GTI had since trickled down to my older brother, but I had access to my dad’s replacement automobile, a 1991 Mazda Protegé LX with a twin-cam, 16-valve 125-hp I-4. It was a notable Japanese sedan with a tidy chassis that rotated nicely on trailing throttle. The latter characteristic is one I haven’t forgotten due to a certain ditch and barbed-wire fence I visited on a snowy Christmas Day in 1992. Live and learn.

My manual-transmission skills came in handy when I was working at the local full-service car wash during high school. Our process involved hopping into a car just before it rolled through the automatic dryers, which allowed us to start cleaning the inside of the windows. Customers lingered just outside the end of the building, where we’d drive cars to for the post-wash handoff. If I observed one or two coworkers failing to pull certain automobiles ahead to waiting customers, I’d hop in, dip the clutch, select first, and sort the confusing delay. Before long, those same coworkers started calling my name. When I heard it, I knew that there was a vehicle fitted with a third pedal that needed maneuvering. That particular car wash is still open, and I’d love to know the percentage of manual vehicles that make their way down the line today compared to the early 1990s. I also wonder how many employees know how to drive a manual-equipped car.

Then we come to my 2003 Mini Cooper S and an expat from Texas. Yes, the Lone Star State is a different country. This lovely, sweet girl had just moved to Michigan, and a mutual friend asked me to show her around Grand Rapids. A few months into the relationship, I picked her and a friend up in my Mini. I felt like a circus performer. Both girls couldn’t get their head around what I was doing with my feet and right hand. And, yes, I’m talking about the six-speed manual gearbox on the British hot hatch.

Many questions were asked. When do you know to shift? How did you learn how to do that? Why would you want to do that? Isn’t it bad for the car? They both informed me that they had never ridden in, let alone seen, a car without an automatic transmission.

I’m sure a similar occurrence is far more common today. I love manual gearboxes and hope to continue to own them for many years to come. Don’t get me wrong, I 100 percent respect and enjoy slick, paddle-shift transmissions. Spending significant time in the latest turbocharged Porsche sports-car models—the 911 and Cayman/Boxster—tells me that they are truly better cars with the PDK dual-clutch gearbox.

Personally, I’d still buy the cheaper manual car, but I may be just about finished critiquing those who plunk down the extra $3,200 for the PDK. But is this because the PDK is fundamentally better, or do companies simply not invest as much time and effort into the development of the manual gearbox due to the limited market? Let’s leave that discussion for another time, but it’s something to think about.

No matter what, you can be damn sure my kids will be offered the chance to learn the lovely dance of feet and hands that’s part of the manual gearbox experience. If they choose not to partake, I won’t force it. I’d be disappointed but I won’t be a pushy dad. Let’s just hope the teenager I observed in the Impreza sticks it out and the option of a manual transmission doesn’t go away anytime soon.

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