Are Stick Shifts Dead?

Interview December 2007

Hybrid electric cars, emission controls and traffic are all to blame.  But why Jay Leno thinks something else is at fault.

Can’t find ‘em grind ‘em
Where would we be without stick shifts? 

For the enthusiast, there may be nothing more satisfying than dropping the clutch for a thrilling launch, all four limbs motoring about in synchronicity as you counter steer the burn out — clutch — shift — then hit the gas on your way to triple digits. 

For the habitual A-to-B driver, there may be nothing more frustrating than trying to let the clutch out slowly, maintaining engine revs by RPMs not pedal placement, as your bobble-head passenger wonders how many years just got burned off their clutch disc.  God forbid you ever encounter a hill.

AutoPacific, an automotive research and consulting firm, says the 90% of the U.S. car market is comprised of automatics.  Ninety percent.  Nine zero.  If I brought that number home on a school paper, it would end up on the fridge.   Does anyone see what’s happening?  The man is phasing out stick shifts.  The only people who order manual transmissions are immigrants with D-paper living the American debt dream and a few obsessed car guys.  

Sure, we could blame ourselves and say that global warming is making us push manufacturers to higher CAFE standards and tighter emissions controls.  And what better way to achieve that then through automatic transmissions that gives engineers the ultimate engine management controls?  If we are talking about hybrids, an electric motor has 100% of the torque from a dead stop.  Engineers don’t even need a gearbox.  And speaking of gearbox, who wants to shift one constantly during rush hour?  Ask a BMW dealer in Southern California to test drive a manual and they’ll tell you “I can order one for ya, it’ll take about eight weeks.” Well then, aren’t we living in a geographical oddity.

We interview Jay Leno, maybe “The” obsessed car guy, and ask him with all of these factors pushing us to just select “D”, are stick shifts dead?

Leno: I think what’s happening is you have a whole generation of kids who grew up without them.  I talked to someone who bought an SLR McLaren and I used to have an SLR McLaren.  We started talking and I asked, well, do you like it? 

He said, “Well yeah I love it, it’s an automatic.  I don’t drive a stick”.  

And that’s the reason I don’t like mine.  Today I was just driving my ’64 Honda 600 which has got 57 horsepower and a 4-speed.  You’ve really got to make the gearbox work but that’s the fun.  It almost seems to me in an era when cars are becoming so fast that to get any sensation out of them at all, you have to be physically involved.

Leno:  The reason I bought the Porsche Carerra GT was primarily because Porsche spent a great deal of time and effort developing the six-inch ceramic clutch.  Just putting all the time and effort into a new type of clutch and gearbox to lower the center of gravity.  I was so impressed with them not going the easy route of paddle shifters.

You know the funny thing is, I talked to guys who have the 430 Ferrari and they go,

“Oh, it’s got the F1 gearbox just like the F1.” 

And I say, do you like it? 

And they go “well it’s not as much fun as a stick but you know this is what the F1 technology guys use and this is what they use at the race track.” 

But you’re not at the racetrack. 

“Well, uh yeah.”

The most fun with cars is in the 60-100 mile per hour range.  Nobody’s running 188 or 207 on the street and if you are you should be in jail.  But most guys are running 60 to 100.  And to me, the fun of executing a perfect downshift or up-shift is very gratifying.  Especially when you use old pre-war boxes like the old Bentley’s I’ve got.

MCM:  You started out by talking about the young people, the younger generation.  Is it they just aren’t being taught how to drive a stick? 

Leno:  I’m 57 years old so I grew up in a time when the car wouldn’t start.  So my dad and I would open up the hood and I’d go, what’s that?  He’d say “those are the points.  Let me show how to clean them, let me show you how to set them.”   There was a more physical involvement with the car.  Plus in the era when I grew up, automatic transmissions were an expensive option.  So your dad got like the Ford LTD and your mom got the Falcon with the stick.  That’s the way it was back in the day but now everybody buys automatics.

I think there will always be a certain market for it.  I remember back in the 80’s, Taurus came out with the Taurus SHO and that came with a five speed and I think that less then 3% of people actually opted for the stick.

MCM:  Do you think that we’ll be paying for a stick shift as an option and automatics will become the standard?

Leno:  Oh sure, on the Ferrari Scuderia, they don’t even have a stick shift.  There is no stick shift available.  Yeah, I think the stick will become an option.   You know I drove one of those E-gear Lamborghinis.


We pause for a moment as Jay takes a call on his cell phone to wish somebody a Merry Christmas.


Leno:  Back to the E-gear, I drove one of those and I hated it.   To turn around you gotta stop, put your foot on the brake, wait for it to beep twice, press the R button, back up, stop, take your foot, you know…  I like the old days of rocking it back and forth.  As you’re rollin’ your kinda slipping it in reverse and all in one motion you back up.

 How many gears before we stop adding?

Leno:  You always want to have your car in the power band but at some point it becomes a marketing tool.  You know Mercedes has got the seven-speed transmission and then Lexus comes out with the eight, and people go ooh eight, give me the eight.

MCM:  Do you think it will go past six speeds in a manual?

Leno:  Six is about right.  I’ve got a little Rocket, an English car.  It’s got 12 speeds, basically six high and six low.   It pretty much what the public dictates but six seems about right.

MCM:  The other half of Motor Car Market is stick shift and rear-wheel drive.  What are your thoughts on rear-wheel drive?

Leno:  Rear wheel drive is coming back.  It’s hard to sell a high end car with front wheel drive.  People just don’t seem to like it.  It’s for packaging in econo-boxes.  Cadillac has gone back to rear-wheel drive.  I prefer it myself because I like to slide a car a little bit.  That’s half the fun, sliding it around. 


We couldn’t agree more.  Thank you Jay.

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