Requiem for a Clutch

July 31, 2014 5:06 pm

A sea change in automotive design is upon us. The systemic shift in engineering has led to the regrettable fact that most automobiles today come equipped with just two pedals; the clutch, that all-important third pedal, is missing. And, much to the dismay of driving enthusiasts, the automatic has overtaken the manual transmission becoming the default transmission in the automotive world.

This usurpation did not occur overnight; it has taken decades. But in recent years there has been a dramatic acceleration because, in a frantic attempt to meet government-mandated fuel economy and emission requirements, automakers have developed automatic transmissions which are increasingly more fuel frugal than their three-pedaled counterparts. Worse yet, the unexpected consequence now means that fewer and fewer motorists can really appreciate the skill involved in driving.

The manual transmission allows the engine’s speed to be synchronized with the speed of the drive wheels. The clutch pedal allows the driver to manually connect and disconnect the engine and the transmission. The act of shifting gears requires the engine and the transmission to be momentarily disconnected while the driver slides the transmission into the appropriate gear for the engine’s speed. The lower gears enable the engine to turn much more quickly than the drive wheels, a process that delivers copious amounts of torque, which is essentially the twisting power required to move an automobile from either a standing or a rolling start. Higher gears are often utilized to increase vehicle fuel efficiency by way of keeping engine rpm (revolutions per minute) lower than would be possible should the automobile in question have fewer gears.

In the not so distant past, when engines typically had a greater number of cylinders and larger displacements than those found on the road today, fewer gears were needed for the vehicle to perform optimally since greater amounts of torque were available at lower rpm speeds. Consequently, until the late 1970s, it was not unusual for manual transmissions to be equipped with three or four gears. But today, when fuel economy is considerably more important to many than was the case in the past, automotive engineers have shed as many cylinders as possible and trimmed displacement as much as possible without unduly sacrificing performance. They have also added more gears. As a result, unlike the larger engines of the recent past, most of today’s engines produce lower amounts of torque throughout the gear range and therefore require a greater number of gears to deliver as much torque as could their predecessors.

Driving can be a relaxing and satisfying endeavor but driving a car with a manual gearbox requires both patience and practice. Intuition and immediate graPicture 1tification do not apply when driving stick. And the old axiom that practice makes perfect has never been more true. With time the novice driver can transition from a series of jerks and stalls to smoothly rowing through the car’s gears, but balance is still required when behind the wheel of any car using a manual transmission.

Unlike driving an automatic, driving manual requires you to achieve a balance between the precision of moving your left and your right foot with synchronicity while also using your right hand to shift gears. Hand-eye coordination — not to mention foot-eye coordination — is requisite. And that is what driving is really about. Needless to say, the balance can only be achieved through focus, a level of which is well beyond that required for an automatic. Driving a manual means the driver must constantly listen to the engine’s pitch and tone to decide when to either downshift or upshift for the engine to perform. But with an automatic, all that is involved is steering. You just point the car in the direction you want to go and nothing more.

On a subjective level, driving a manual is quite simply more stimulating and much more rewarding than driving automatic. There is no substitute for the driver satisfaction that is generated when the balance and timing discussed earlier are synchronized perfectly by way of a seamless shift. Most automotive enthusiasts would, I am sure, agree.

It should be noted that it is not just the run of the mill grocery-getters that are abandoning the manual transmission. The automotive performance brands are doing the same. Porsche no longer offers its iconic 911 Turbo with a manual transmission; Ferrari and Lamborghini have also shuttered production of automobiles with three pedals. And while Mercedes Benz continues to build some of the most powerful engines ever bolted into street legal automobiles, none come with a manual transmission. Audi, BMW, and the astronomically expensive British boutique brand known as Aston Martin are among the few luxury sports car brands that still offer manual gearboxes — and therefore still require a driver who really knows how to drive.

On this side of the Atlantic, many of the reincarnated rear wheel drive muscle cars sold by the brands formerly known as the “Big Three” (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) still offer manual gearboxes as do some of their European inspired “hot hatches,” which are essentially front wheel drive hatchbacks with a high horsepower, four cylinder engine. But Japan’s small engine fitted, powerful sports cars which have been extremely popular with young driving enthusiasts and tuners for the past twenty years (like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the fabled Nissan Skyline GTR) have also been jettisoning the clutch pedal. Sadly, the few automobiles continuing to use a manual transmission are merely examples of the exception that proves the rule.

Today, in place of the traditional manual gearbox, sports car manufacturers have increasingly been producing sequential manual gearboxes which allow a driver to switch gears with “Formula One” like paddles located behind the car’s steering wheel. Flicking the paddle on the driver’s right switches the engine into a higher gear, while flicking the paddle on the left shifts it into a lower gear. But these sequential manual gearboxes do not have a clutch pedal that would require the driver to achieve the balance and connection with his automobile that was described earlier — that synchronicity which is required to drive an automobile equipped with a non-sequential manual gearbox or stick shift.

Furthermore, sequential manual gearboxes (paddle shifters or semi-automatic transmissions) can often be ignored completely. The driver can usually opt to leave a paddle shifter equipped automobile in fully automatic mode, thereby eliminating the already marginal effort required to flick up or down the gears of the vehicle. Sports car manufacturers claim that these paddle shifters can make faster gear changes than could even the most skilled driver in a stick shift car. And that is what is making the traditional manual transmission equipped sports car obsolete. While it may be true in terms of track times and performance figures, the balance, focus and skill required to drive a stick shift are also being made obsolete.

Yet momentum continues to build relentlessly for the automatic transmission. Much to the dismay of automobile aficionados, there may be a time in the future when knowing how to drive stick shift will be considered about as useful as knowing how to read and write in Latin. Hopefully that day will not come soon.

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