Save the Stick
When a press release from the folks at American Powertrain titled “Save the Stick” hit my inbox, it reminded me of one of my favorite “Last Page” columns Tom Shaw wrote for us, when he celebrated the four-speed (Nov. 2015). For those of you who missed it, here’s a sample—and a reminder of the talent we lost when Tom passed in 2016.
Up from the carpeted floorboards rises a tall, cold steel shaft. It’s strong and polished, and there’s not a fingerprint on it. The deep chrome shines brighter than anything else around it. It presides over the floors beneath it like a glassy skyscraper towers over the plain brick buildings far below. The company that built it was so proud of it that they spelled out their name on the side in the largest letters that would fit.
At the very top, where a skyscraper’s most valuable floor, the penthouse, would sit is a handle. The handle could have been made from a lesser metal, but it’s made from aluminum to keep weight down. It’s an odd shape because it’s designed to fit the closed hand that grips it.
Like so many things of excellence and renown, its exterior beauty conceals a deeper strength. There’s much more to it than what meets the eye. The shiny chrome shaft extends down beneath the floors into darkness, a place of intense heat and noise and torment incompatible with human life. Here, heat joins vapors not fit to inhale, sounds loud enough to wreck your hearing, parts moving with enough force to break bones, and the rocky surface of the road whizzing by inches below. This is the shifter’s home.
I grew up driving a stick shift. Had to. My parents didn’t own a car with an automatic transmission. To be honest, learning was a pain, especially in the hilly Bay Area town where I grew up. (So hilly, in fact, that parallel parking wasn’t included in our town’s driving test. Parking on a hill—and knowing which way to curb your wheels— was.)
Once learned, though, that skill was like a superpower. I could drive anything! For years all my cars had manual transmissions, and I constantly practiced my shifting techniques on the winding mountain roads around home, from double-clutching to heel-toe double-clutch downshifting and even learning how to shift my old VW without using the clutch (gingerly, very gingerly). I made sure all my kids knew how to drive a manual, too.
Over the years I have owned some daily drivers with automatics, but I have always returned to the manual—and loved it. No, it doesn’t make much sense in a crowded, congested place like Los Angeles. There’s no question that driving with an automatic transmission is easier, and that goes for everything from commuting to racing. But to be fully engaged with the machine, you really need to be in command of that vital function of when and how the engine sends power to the driving wheels.
Very few people, at least among non-car people, feel the same way. The percentage of new cars sold with manuals has fallen to the single digits. That’s why American Powertrain mounted the Save the Stick effort. If you’re not familiar with the company, it makes conversion kits to transplant modern manual transmissions and other driveline components into vintage muscle cars.
Save the Stick started as a social media hashtag to highlight “the slow death of the manual transmission in modern cars,” read the press release. Matt Graves, American Powertrain director of marketing, was quoted in the release saying, “It’s crazy how this just took off. The skeleton image with the hashtag [#savethestick] just conveys something to our customers. It really goes to the core of what they love about having a stick in a muscle car or classic. Our customers appreciate the fact that they can upgrade to a modern overdrive transmission, but still get the thrill of driving with a stick. There’s just more fun with a stick.”
We couldn’t agree more. So even if your car and your tastes run more to Muncies, Top Loaders, and A833s than Tremecs, we think this is a worthy effort to get behind. Visit americanpowertrain.com to order your Save the Stick shirt, hoodie, or other merch.
On a related topic, let me know what you think about this month’s story about modifying a vintage muscle car to perform daily driver chores. Is it time for us to work in some driver-oriented tech along with the restoration-focused stories we do?
“That skill was like a superpower”
“There’s just more fun with a stick”
n Feeling shifty? Buy the shirt.