If you weren’t convinced of a potential death knell for the manual transmission, Ferrari’s abandonment rang out with such operatic force that Canio, the clown in “Pagliacci,” might have stabbed the manual faithful instead of his wife as he cries his final line: “La commedia è finita!” or “The comedy is finished!”
Teary-eyed enthusiasts can still console themselves with a Corvette Stingray or Porsche 911, a BMW M3 or Subaru BRZ. But when Italy’s premier sports-car builder tells stick lovers to stick it, you can see where this is headed. In 1980, one in three new cars in America had a manual transmission. Today it’s fewer than one in 10. In the Porsche 911—the 911!—the PDK automatic outsells the manual 4 to 1. Increasingly younger drivers not only can’t drive a stick, they have no desire to learn, and there are fewer cars or mentors to teach them. So before these endangered beasts end up grazing on the lawns of Pebble Beach, we knew we had to drive one of the last stick-shift Ferraris.
As it turns out, finding a late-model Ferrari with a manual transmission is about as easy as tracking down Bigfoot. Even Jim Glickenhaus, he of the one-off Ferrari P4/5 by Pininfarina, told us, “I don’t know anyone with a modern three-pedal Ferrari.”
All new technology moves in a trickle, then a torrent, and this one washed away manuals years sooner than Ferrari’s leading lights had imagined. Roberto Fedeli, Ferrari’s technical director, has said that when the company began developing its first dual-clutch gearbox in 2004-2005, up to 20 percent of customers were still choosing a stick. That number had plummeted from the 1990s, when about 75 percent of 355 buyers chose a stick over the original, single-clutch semi-automatic gearbox.
Driving a Ferrari in Italy is one of the most red-blooded things you could ever hope to do. People literally cheer at your passing, and the faster you go, the more the fun-loving Italians enjoy it. — July ’94
As the company proceeded to design the Ferrari California, three transmissions vied for supremacy: a six-speed manual; the 355’s fast-acting, single-clutch semi-automatic unit; and a smooth-driving dual-clutch gearbox, then considered incompatible with large-horsepower engines.
Ferrari still assumed that a small but viable niche of California buyers would choose its stick shift, and that this technology would still be an option across the entire Ferrari lineup. “We thought the market still demanded a manual,” Fedeli says.
In 2008, the company built roughly a dozen manual-transmission Californias to homologate the car for various markets. It shipped them to dealers as demo models. But a funny thing happened: Nobody bought them. Well, almost nobody. Only two customers ordered these Californias, Fedeli says; one in America, one in Japan. Every other buyer chose the newly engineered, dual-clutch seven-speed box.
The landslide election for the dual-clutch box took Ferrari by surprise, but not for long. Plans to make a manual transmission available for the rest of the Ferrari model line were almost immediately scuttled.
Rod and staff: There’s spiritual comfort in Ferrari’s classic metal-gated shifter, but it’s been washed away by the F1 flood.
From now on, it would be the dual-clutch semi-automatic gearbox or nothing.
Ferrari’s last two cars with stick shifts rolled off the assembly line in 2011. Both were Ferrari 599s for Hong Kong buyers, likely ordered with an eye toward future collectibility.
Seeking one of the last stick-shift Ferraris in North America, we turned to the Ferrari Market Letter, which has published advertisements for used Ferraris for 40 years. “Truly a needle in a haystack,” editor Jim Weed said to us. He found just four verified listings for cars with manuals that had been built from 2007 to 2009. They were either mid-engine F430 V-8s or front-engine, 599 GTB Fiorano V-12s.
“I would sell every car I own and drive a piece of shit to keep this one. But I think in five or 10 years, new manual cars will all be gone.” —Brian Walley, owner
Then Weed helped lead us to a 2009 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano with that elusive third pedal. Originally purchased by actor/car collector Nicolas Cage, the 599 is now in the hands of Brian Walley, a commerical property owner from Vancouver, British Columbia.
This led us to Bellingham, Washington, and a rendezvous with Walley’s Fabergé-rare Ferrari. If this car weren’t already a rara avis, the addition of the Handling Gran Turismo Evoluzione (HGTE) package—a $30,095 option that features a stiffer suspension with a lower ride height plus stickier Pirelli P Zero tires—makes it the Italian equivalent of a Hemi ’Cuda convertible, not to mention a car with a price of $357,000.
We roar toward the Cascade Range with Walley taking the first stint at the wheel. The gregarious former athlete spent 10 years in the movie business, including a stint as Howie Long’s stunt double in “3000 Miles to Graceland.” His wife, Tawnee, is a former flight attendant and model who now plays with Brian in a classic rock band. The couple also own a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, with a stick of course. Walley enjoys the Porsche, too, but the 599 is his baby.
“I would sell every car I own and drive a piece of shit to keep this one,” Walley says, turning wistful. “I think in five or 10 years, new manual cars will all be gone.”
North by Northwest adventure: Owners Brian and Tawnee Walley shared their Ferrari 599 with the author, who spurred 612 V-12 horses the old-fashioned way.
Ferrari’s Fedeli acknowledges the nostalgic appeal of fast cars with manuals, but argues passionately for his company’s innovation. He can tick off those arguments in about 30 milliseconds, the time it takes the Ferrari 458 Speciale’s dual-clutch gearbox to shift gears. Modern semi-automatics shift quicker than you can manage with a manual, actually prove more reliable than a manual, and are more fuel-efficient. The driver can keep two hands on the wheel, never blow a shift, and concentrate on braking points and cornering lines. Oh, and no endless, thigh-burning clutch workouts in snarled traffic.
Like other stick-shift die-hards, Walley has heard and dismissed every pitch for the modern pleasures of paddle shifting. Automatics are better from a technical standpoint, he allows, but not from the standpoint of driver enthusiasm. “I know it’s faster, the whole ‘bwaap-bwaap-bwaap,’ ” he says, as his hands mimic the castanet-quick engagement of an F1-style box. “But I’m not out here racing. The automatics take away a lot of that human input.”
Now it’s my turn for input. I take the wheel of the Ferrari 599 and jiggle the shift rod with its silver cue ball—my direct link to a 6.0-liter V-12 with 612 hp and 448 lb-ft of torque. The shifter lever must be 8 inches long, with about half poking through the shifter plate and the rest plunging to meet a connecting linkage to the rear transaxle.
Compared to the butter-slick shift action of a Honda or Porsche manual, the Ferrari’s action is stiffly mechanical. It takes a practiced hand to produce a quick clackety-clack through the iconic shift gates. Fortunately, the 599’s pedals are intimately positioned for throttle blips during downshifts, the clutch isn’t too heavy, and the combination of a light flywheel and permissive engine programming lets engine revs drop fluidly between shifts.
The V-12 burbles contentedly at 80 mph. But the Ferrari 599’s relaxed-fit personality transforms every time I pop the clutch and watch the integrated shift lights trace 8400-rpm fireworks along the carbon-fiber rim of the steering wheel. Say goodbye to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, and hello to old-timey fun.
Suggest to Brian Walley that this fun is obsolete, and manuals unwanted, and he scoffs. Walley and other owners believe that Ferrari and its dealers orchestrated a lack of interest in manuals by choking supply and discouraging sales prospects until they gave up and took the car they could get.
Brown McClatchy Maloney, a radio station owner in Washington and a director of newspaper publisher McClatchy Company, calls it “Ferrari fatigue.” As the owner of one of North America’s last manual-equipped Ferrari F430s (built in June 2009), Maloney spent three years trying to pry one from the factory. Yet he doesn’t blame Ferrari. “I understand it’s a business, even though I’m an enthusiast,” Maloney says. “Ferrari saw the future.”
Quietly, Ferrari insiders acknowledge the role of dealers whose lifeblood is flipping lightly used Ferraris among a small clientele—and whose nightmare would be a white-elephant Ferrari with a manual transmission and no buyer in sight. Maloney says dealers tried anything to dissuade him: “Why do you want a stick? You can’t even get one; you’ll never resell it,” he recalls.
We train the 599’s sights on the Cascades, only to have snow turn us back. Instead we race west to Blanchard, Washington, where Chuckanut Drive snakes along the ocean for 21 miles. Between the Chuckanut Mountains and Samish Bay, it hits me: This may be the last time I’ll ever waltz a stick-shift Ferrari.
Here it all comes together: The shifter snicks through its gates, the smell of hot oil and metal rising from the drivetrain’s depths. Hard on brakes, blip throttle, down to second, roll back onto throttle. The V-12 swells to teeth-gnashing heights, then a hushed diminuendo as I hammer the brakes and start the cycle over again.
Sure, we could all conduct that opera with a pair of paddles and barely lift a finger—just like any amateur can use Auto-Tune and “sing” like someone with talent. The results might be a reasonable simulacrum of the real thing, or even mathematically superior. But anyone who’s driven a manual sports car recognizes the difference. The satisfaction of trying and sometimes failing, but then finding that one perfect moment of synchronicity and satisfaction. You’ve done it. You and the machine are one.
Don’t let Ferrari, or anyone, tell you it’s all bullshit.