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David Bouchier: An Unwelcome Shift

stick shift car
Image by jaredfromspace at Pixabay

One of the inescapable traumas of life in the suburbs is the need, occasionally, to buy a new car. I say “occasionally” because experience has taught me that, whatever the advertisers try to tell us, cars last a long time if treated right. But the day must come eventually and, recently, we set out to visit some car dealerships, an activity that, in terms of fun, is right up there with root canals and High School productions of the Sound of Music.

Our needs were simple. We wanted a straightforward car, not a tank-size SUV, and we wanted a stick shift. This last was a major stumbling block. Both of us have been driving manual transmission cars for more than 50 years. It comes naturally, it’s more fun and it gives better control of the vehicle. But, apart from a few top of the line and bottom of the line models, the stick shift has vanished. As if to compensate for this simplification, everything else about cars has become fiendishly complicated.

There were plenty of cars on sale, lined up as far as the eye could see. Every dealer assured us that there was a shortage due to the shortage of microchips, so we should buy right now. On the contrary the problem seemed to be too many cars, with too many microchips.

Cars all look much the same now, and have added the same annoying “safety" features: blind spot warnings, front and rear cameras, proximity warnings, lane departure warnings, collision avoidance systems. Driving used to be a dangerous activity, involving a lot of skill and attention. That was what made it interesting. Now it is in danger of becoming entirely safe. The latest cars require so little skill or attention that you could very easily go to sleep. To keep you awake manufacturers have added a distracting in-your-face video screen that fills up with warnings, options and instructions and, if you’re not careful, maps. I have maps of my own, in the glove compartment, and would prefer to consult them when I am not driving.

Among the things missing from these new models, apart from a proper parking brake and a clutch, was a CD player. CDs, like left feet, are yesterday’s news. But we have hundreds of CDs and, without them, all we will have in the car is the wispy unreality of MP3, whatever it is and wherever it is. Another thing missing was a proper key. We now have something called “Keyless entry” which I had thought was the method of young car thieves carrying a brick.

The new car is fine. It starts, it stops, just like the old one. What else it does is so far a mystery. It comes with a manual the size of a club sandwich that will occupy us for months. I miss the exercise of moving my left foot and right hand occasionally, judging my own parking distance – correctly or not – changing the hi-beams, unfolding maps, and all those other archaic skills. But people, like cars, suffer from obsolescence, so it’s useless to complain.

We hope our old stick shift car will go to an alert senior citizen who will enjoy the nostalgia of driving it, and will have just enough brain cells left to figure out the three simple movements required to change gear.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.