Manual transmissions are dying. I know you’ve heard this before, have heard it for years, but the death of the stick shift is imminent now that the auto industry is moving to EVs. Unless someone makes a gearbox that’s commercially viable in EVs, we will soon wave goodbye to new manual-transmission equipped cars. But the farewell would have to be a celebration as much as a mourning, and it should acknowledge that what we’re losing is our connection to the machine.
Ian Bogost’s eulogy to the manual transmission, published in the Atlantic, manages all that. I encourage you to go read it, because Bogost casts a wide net that traces the decline of the stick shift to the rise of computers and automation. First, we’ll lose the manual transmission. Then, we’ll lose the steering wheel. And, finally, we’ll lose the car and gain a rolling living room.
When EVs give way to autonomous vehicles — or, if — cars will be movable sterile spaces that ferry us around without much input. In that sense, automobiles will truly earn their name as self-moving things that don’t need us. And I think that’s what makes the impending death of manual transmissions so sad. As Bogost says, it decouples us from our driving machines.
That loss is familiar to enthusiasts who agonize over what will replace our own cars when the time comes. Bogost notes a steady drop in the availability of manual cars: in 2000, over 15 percent of cars sold by CarMax were manuals. By, 2020 that dropped to 2.4 percent. And now, only about 30 new cars can be bought with a manual transmission in the U.S.
The new manual car list has been shrinking for years. We’ve focused on it before, because, well, it sucks. It’s a loss of the exchange between us and one of our most beloved objects. How much time do you spend in your car? How much of that time feels harmonious? I’d say most of it if you drive a manual. Bogost seems to agree, saying:
The manual transmission, however marginal it has become during the smartphone age, remains a vestige of direct, mechanical control. When a driver changes speeds, their intention can be fruitfully realized in gratifying action, meshing literal gears. Even when your hand slips and the gears grind, the device still speaks in a way you can understand.
I wouldn’t buy a new car unless it had a manual transmission. Not because I’m gatekeeping (just a bit) or because new cars are terrible (not all,) but because whatever I buy will stay with me for a long time. And whatever car that ends up being (a Supra) will probably cost a lot more than it used to. Because there’s just no point buying something that’s uncomfortably expensive if I am indifferent to it, and yet plan it to keep for decades.
I’m a bit more optimistic about manuals than Bogost, because I’ve never owned a new car so the dearth of new manual models doesn’t hit as hard. If I ever had to replace my manual daily, I’ll probably just go on Craigslist and buy a five-speed shitbox that I could love and restore to some former glory. Slowly, growing together with it. We’ll row our gears until either one of us gives up the ghost. But I’m never giving up the manual, nor the connection it brings.