As the motorcar enters the post-manual-transmission epoch, I predict something bizarre happening: the re-emergence of the manual transmission. I'm not taking the piss. It's going to happen.
This strange confluence of events will hereby create a neo-manualism to run in parallel with matters post-manual. When cars and the language of literary theory collide the terminology goes haywire. It causes a fracas.
Allow me to explain.
At the Cayman GT4 launch last week there was a general sense of wonderment at the arrival of a new sports car with a lever between the seats, from the very same people who two years ago told us that the GT3 no longer needed a stick because customers had voted with their paddles and said Nein. It is easy to draw daft, non-scientific conclusions from the fact that the GT4 sold out within hours of its unveiling – among them would be the fact that there is a big demand for this type of driving device. The counter argument is just as simple: the paddles-only GT3 also sold out within weeks. Maybe Porsches just sell-out quickly?
No, seriously – the GT4 is a massively important test-case for the future viability of the manual transmission. It sows the seed of a new generation of drivers' cars that speak a language of interaction and not lap-times. This I think will be the new performance niche for the dominant brands, and it makes perfect sense on two important levels. It allows them to move the conversation away from ever decreasing lap times at the Nurburgring – something that needs to happen as soon as humanly possible. And it introduces the concept of low-volume 'specials' as viable money-making opportunities.
In the neo-manual phase, the stick will become the chronograph to the digital watch of the early 1980s – not as technically good on an Excel spreadsheet, but way more desirable. And capable of supporting a premium price.
Or maybe a comparison with vinyl albums is better? The LP was unceremoniously dumped in the early '80s for that modern marvel and sonic disaster that was the compact cassette tape (unless you could afford a Nakamichi Dragon) which was itself dumped for the Compact Disc; the format that has now been usurped by the digital audio file. The irony being that sonically, the original vinyl record when played though good quality equipment still offers the best sound and easily the most enjoyable interactive experience. Sales of vinyl were up twenty percent in the UK last year.
Older technology commanding a premium through charm. That sounds like the template for some fantastic automobilia.
The argument against persisting with both manual and paddle-based options for modern fast cars is often presented as a philosophical one ('people no longer like manuals') but this is complete balls. Everything comes down to cash. To make a manual work it has to communicate with all the control units and this costs time and money, and if the sales dudes tell you that the predictive computer suggests just ten percent of buyers will choose such a tranny, the decision is made for you.
But what if those sale dudes were asked to investigate if a run of, say, 200 Ferrari F12s fitted with an open-gated stirring stick between the seats, at a $50k premium over the normal car would sell? Five years ago, they'd have drawn a blank. In 2015, they'd flog them all in minutes. This signifies a very welcome shift in customer behavior, although whether that's a demonstration of a move back to three pedals or a blind addiction to anything 'limited edition' remains to be seen.
Cynicism aside, this is good news and needs both encouragement and celebration. And also a small note of caution, because there is an outside chance that many of the people who buy into the neo-manualism will do so on hipster grounds, and that will inevitably end the way of the fixie-bicycle.
Anyone who's watched someone who dresses like a child and chooses to buy and ride a single-geared bike in town on grounds of it being cool, but without the necessary skills to do so safely, will know what I mean. I tried riding a fixie recently and nearly lost a leg. Just imagine J. Bieber trying to execute a neat second-to-first heel 'n toe change on his new 488 Stradale with manual gearchange, and the ensuing mess. Morons will be exposed. But I rather like that.
Suddenly those endless PR splurges about allowing customers to enjoy driving these ever-faster machines and needing paddle-shifters to do so are beginning to sound more convincing.
Practical measures will govern the era of neo-manualism though – as already mentioned they will mostly surround financials. But emissions will play a part too. As will torque ratings. But if the big guns and the others can make money from these projects, they will begin to emerge. And my heart will sing for the saving of the core connection between human and machine.
There is a place for paddles and cleverness and raw speed, but there is also a place for pure enjoyment. The only downside is the premium we will have to pay for it.
Illustration By Sam Woolley