Becoming automatic

Life In Ludlow

Ned Luce
Posted 9/4/19

Have you put your life on “automatic” with maybe a “sport shifter?” OK, this column is automotive-oriented so buckle up. Any facts presented here are my uneducated opinion and …

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Becoming automatic

Life In Ludlow


Have you put your life on “automatic” with maybe a “sport shifter?” OK, this column is automotive-oriented so buckle up. Any facts presented here are my uneducated opinion and are subject to greater research for accuracy but not really worth your or my time.

Cars have undergone significant transformations over the past 75 years, the most dramatic possibly being the shift from manual transmissions to automatic transmissions. Over the years the automatics have been a less fuel-efficient and more costly option on cars. In addition they would be slower going from 0 mph to 60 mph, the typical gold standard for car performance. One of my classmates in a far, far away time had a “souped up” 1955 Chevy that he drove both to school and the drag strip. (This is the part where Sheriff Joe Nole and Trooper Ali Gruszewski should stop reading.) I just took my family’s 1959 Dodge with the “push button transmission” and tried to emulate a manual transmission by pushing the buttons from first to second to drive with my friend Bill May sitting in the passenger seat. He was urging me to get that two-ton behemoth to 60 mph in under ten seconds late at night on Atterbury Boulevard in Hudson, Ohio.

Bill passed away several years ago, probably the result of the stress we put on his heart. Frankly, I don’t think the car survived as long as Bill did. My friend Don developed the ability to drive with one arm around his girlfriend while shifting gears, (“three on the tree”), by putting his left arm through the steering wheel to change gears on his folks’ 1960 Ford Station Wagon. BJ drove five sorority sisters from mid-Indiana to St. Petersburg, Florida in her 1966 Ford Falcon for spring break. I mean she drove all the way since the rest of the pampered girls did not know how to drive a manual transmission.

I am advised that in Europe the majority of cars are still sold with manual transmissions probably because of the reduced purchase price of the car. Not so here in the good old USA. The vast majority of cars sold here in the U.S. are now fitted with automatic transmissions. Even my friend Neal McQuarrie turned in his magnificent Porsche 911 with a manual transmission and now putters about in his automated Alfa Romeo. People who think they know more about this subject than you or I will now say it is just more proof of the lazy Americans. I don’t know and, yawn, I don’t care.

I do know that I personally enjoy the more tactile feel of the manual transmission. Since 1970 seven of the cars that lived in my garages had manual transmissions. Big deal you say, and you are correct, at least up until recently. Throughout history Porsches mostly came with manual transmissions but now you may find it more of a chore to find one without their version of the automatic, the PDK. (Porsche Doppel Kupplungs, don’t ask again.) Now the PDK, although more expensive than the manual, brings higher performance with unexpected enhanced fuel economy. Lest you think I will diverge into some rant about saving the environment, rest assured I will not.

About 30 years ago BJ and I owned a beautiful deep red 1980 Porsche 911. Whenever and wherever I parked I would slip it into first gear to keep it from rolling away. You now say what a smart fellow I am, right? One Saturday BJ and I were out for the day and our daughter, Megan, was going to drive the car to her job as a life-guard at the local pool. When she started it the car sprang forward like a scalded cat into a thirty-year-old chest freezer in the garage. Do not worry, the car sustained only a broken fog light. Unfortunately the freezer was totaled. I have convinced my six-year-old grandson that this event was not the fault of his mother, it was a “jumping freezer.”

Current manual transmissions feature the “Make Sure Megan Depresses the Clutch Feature.” The car cannot be started unless the clutch pedal is fully depressed thus guaranteeing the transmission will not engage until you are ready! How did those guys in Stuttgart know about Megan? Just one of the many things I do not know, but if you have plowed through this you now know something you never thought you would, or even cared about.

OK. You can now return to politics or roundabouts or whatever. Probably not as much fun.   

Love a curmudgeon and have a great week!

(Ned Luce is a retired IBM executive who drives the speed limit despite the built-for-speed hardware under the hood of his car.)


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