His car has three pedals and operating them requires a careful maneuvering process. With his left foot, Ben Gaylord ’13 gradually releases the clutch, while with his right, he slowly presses down on the accelerator. He waits for the feel of first gear clicking into place before he releases the clutch entirely and accelerates into first.
“The way I like to think about it is like a chemical reaction: if you don’t have enough activation energy, the car will stall,” Gaylord said.
Gaylord drives a manual transmission, and he describes this first step on the pedal as a particularly delicate shift. When first learning how to drive, he said, it was tough. One must learn how to command the clutch, brake, accelerator and gear-shift often all at once.
In an automatic gear-shift, the gears change on their own if there is a change in speed, but with a manual transmission each gear change must be done by hand and foot as one must press in the clutch while shifting up or down a gear. All, of course, while driving.
“It’s a lot to think about at once.” Gaylord said. “It introduces a lot to do while you’re driving.”
At this point, however, finding his car’s sweet spot is purely muscle memory, and he barely gives the process a second thought before he drives away.
Gaylord is one of the few students at the upper-school campus to drive a car with manual transmission.
Gaylord attributes this relative unpopularity to an emphasis on driving purely for necessity.
“Nowadays, people mostly drive just for the purpose of getting to their destination,” Gaylord said. “Driving for the sake of driving is dying out. If your only motive is to get where you’re going, driving automatic is just more practical because it’s easier and you’re expending less energy and focus on your driving.”
Carrie Davidson ’13, another stick-shift driver, has similar opinions about the apparent aversion to stick-shift.
“Honestly, I think it’s just because it’s harder,” Davidson said. “People are kind of lazy, and if you don’t have to go through these extra steps why bother? In Los Angeles it’s a pain to be in stop-and-go traffic, especially on a hill, and to have be driving a manual car.”
Bradley Schlesinger ’13, who drives an automatic transmission, said that despite wanting to learn he isn’t sure of its practicality.
“It’s cost-benefit analysis,” Shlesinger said. “How many times am I going to drive a stick shift?”
Gaylord admits that Los Angeles might prove a hard city to navigate for people wanting to learn stick-shift, as the stop-and-go traffic characteristic of the city requires constant changing of gears.
“In LA, where there’s constant traffic, it makes more sense to drive automatic,” Gaylord says.
Charlie Nelson ’13 recalls his first lessons of learning to drive stick with a chagrined smile.
“I did it once. wasn’t too good,” Nelson said.
He laughs as he remembers driving down Sunset before completely stalling at a light on Beverly Glen.
“I was stuck at that light for a long time,” Nelson said, remembering that there was a long line of angry drivers behind him.
Gracen Evall ’13, however, is eager to learn for the “value of knowledge.” More importantly, she deems it necessary for her future career in reality-television.
“To fulfill my dreams of being on the Amazing Race, I would need to learn to drive a stick-shift,” Evall said.
Aside from this, Evall recognizes the benefits of driving stick for traveling purposes. In Europe and many other parts of the world, manual transmission dominates as the main means of automobile transportation, so knowing how to drive stick-shift is an invaluable skill for Evall.
In Europe, about 85 percent of cars are sold with stick-shifts while in America, about 95 percent are sold with automatics, according to cartalk.com.
Davidson and Gaylord both cite this as obvious benefits to driving stick-shift.
“My dad has this idea that all his children need to drive stick-shift,” Davidson said. “He says it makes you a more capable human being.”
Davidson and Gaylord both also enjoy the power afforded by driving a manual transmission.
“You are in control of everything your car does,” Gaylord said. “It feels really good to have that control.”
USA Today cites this among the many reasons for the recent boom in manual transmission sales.
“Many people consider manuals more fun to drive than automatics,” James R. Healy wrote in USA Today. “Even those who don’t often see them as a way to wring the most pep possible from the small-engine, low-power cars that are getting more attention because they use less fuel and cost less to buy.”
Despite the preference for automatics among teens and Los Angeles natives, Americans have recently shown “a growing crush on manual transmissions,” according to Healy.
Manual cars are cheaper, more fuel-efficient, and with newly improved technology are more user-friendly than they have been ever before. Most importantly, they are far more fun to drive.
“Automatics are boring,” Gaylord said. “With a manual transmission, driving is a more active experience.”
“It’s really fun to have control of the car,” Davidson agreed. “With an automatic, you have a certain amount of control but with a manual I can control my speed and how the car handles much more precisely.”
Now, driving an automatic has become a strange experience for Gaylord. His foot twitches and his right hand reaches for the gear-shift when he is driving out of habit, Gaylord said. Davidson describes the experience like having “phantom pain.”
“When I first started having to control the clutch with my left foot, it was a really strange feeling because I had learned to drive in an automatic car,” Davidson said. “Now, however, whenever I drive an automatic I have this urge to use my left foot and it feels really weird not to.”