I Bought A Car I Didn't Know How To Drive With 1500 Miles To Figure It Out Or Die

All Photos Credit: Louis Keene
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I bought a stick shift car halfway across the country without knowing how to drive it. The road trip back is how I would learn. That, or they’d find me dead on the side of I-10 in a teal 1990s BMW compact, stalled for eternity. One of those.

My previous car was crashed into while parked on three separate occasions in 2017. The third time, I awoke one morning from uneasy dreams to the sound of the gardener’s pickup truck curb-stomping my Subaru Impreza. (The working theory, by the way, is that he couldn’t drive stick.) That insurance totaled the burgundy hatchback was mostly a relief, as it had evidently assumed the type of karmic liability that could only be excised at a chop shop. I took a last picture with my first car dead on the bed of a tow truck.

My need for its replacement was less than urgent—despite being an L.A. resident, I ride transit most days—so I could get picky. Of course, the Craigslist rabbit hole is rather deep, and the search was arduous and all-consuming. I wanted efficiency and élan, another hatch but something lighter, a standout but not a sore thumb. It had to be cheap, and it needed a manual transmission. (Also it couldn’t be black.) (Or red.)

Insisting on a manual isn’t something I have to defend on Jalopnik, but my grandma—who, like apparently everyone else, can drive one—thought it was pretty dumb.

Still, there were several good reasons to learn stick: the romance of driving by ear, Meghan Markle can do it, and I thought it would keep me from texting. It was aspirational, I told grandma, not just driven by boredom or a superiority complex, but even I had to admit that was splitting gears.

A few months into the search for a car I could both afford and show off, I found a polite-looking turquoise BMW 318ti on Austin Craigslist.

A three-door, four-cylinder five-speed once called “the Basic BMW” by the New York Times, the 318ti has getting-away-from-the-cops speed (assuming the cops are on bicycles), no side airbags (good thing I won’t be texting!) and, like me, a fond memory of the nineties (the decade when both windows worked). In other words, the makings of a minor classic.

I had an Austin friend give the ti a test drive and once-over, and Venmo-ed him the cash to buy it. A week later I flew out to coax it home or die trying. (This is not an advice column.)

To be fair, I’d had three prior experiences with what was once known as the “standard” transmission. It’s just that they were abject failures. The third time, a test drive of the Fiesta ST earlier this year, contained the question “Are you sure you know how to drive stick?” expressed like “Are you sure you floss every day?”

The correct course of action in these situations is say YES and power ahead, until you get close enough to tears that you decide, halfway through the test drive, to see how riding shotgun feels.

There would be no shotgun test drives in Texas. Austin is flat, with wide, long roads that hold few surprises at 9 p.m. when I brought my Venmo pal along for the maiden voyage in my purchase. The air was cool and quiet as I eased off the clutch and the car heaved into first gear. We were moving! First down the block, the tachometer needle bouncing as we lurched into second, then more smoothly into third gear, then down another block—stalling at the stop sign—then around the corner and onto Cesar Chavez Street, where I could give the BMW some gas.

This was, all things considered, pretty easy. I’d lost the ability to signal lane changes without even noticing it, but I was in a BMW, so I think everyone just expected this.

Wanting to get in some more reps before setting out, I took the car for a solo cruise later that night, leaving my phone behind as a heat check. But any swagger left over from the previous jaunt had vanished. Each stop sign brought new trauma. I could feel the thudding, overtaxed transmission glaring into my soul with every stall. Driving in a straight line down a street without so much incline as a speed bump, I was getting worse at each block. And then I ran out of blocks.

Frozen in place at a dead end and already shook by a dismal outing, I realized after some wiggling that I had...no idea how to put the car in reverse. Pulling the shift knob all the way to the left, then up, got me first gear. I tried it twice! This wasn’t even humiliating. There was just something wrong with the car. A truly Zoolander-ass issue: a car unable to go backwards.

Deeply humiliated and, yes, fully aware that the car was not the problem, I finally jerked the handbrake and got out of the car to breathe. Under a single streetlight its twenty-year-old turquoise coat looked resplendent. If I ditched this here, I thought, the neighbors wouldn’t even be mad. A minor classic, a monument to outsized ambition, an inability to go back its fatal flaw—who wouldn’t want a cautionary tale blocking their driveway?

There was no epiphany, but there was no Google search or best-friend bailout, either. I just got back in the car and started it. Released the brake. Dipped the clutch. Yanked the shifter toward my knee and found reverse! Rolled the car back ten feet and—clunk—stalled. Then I stalled again. The third time I was on my way.

And that was basically it. Other than a couple gas station incidents (hard to get into gear with the parking brake engaged), the rest of the trip—six hours to Marfa, Texas, nine hours to Phoenix, another six to Los Angeles—went peacefully for the next 1,450 miles. I-10 was a breeze, if a pretty dry one for the latter half.

It was only on the third day of driving, less than a podcast episode away from the final destination, that my tachometer died just as I was hitting the worst metropolitan rush hour in the United States. Better the tach than me, I guess.

The correct thing to do in these situations is power ahead. Already sore after a third consecutive day of driving, my left leg howled as I waltzed between gears. But how could I complain? Rowing my little runabout in the Friday afternoon tide, buoyed by the full-throated growl of my twenty-year-old motor, I was playing it by ear. It wasn’t even that hard.

I wore a grin—aspirational? superior?—the rest of the way back.

Louis Keene is an optimist based out of LA with his new California-edition dream car. His writing has been featured at VICE Sports, The New York Times, Real GM, and a few other places.