Get It in Gear

by Christopher Paul on January 17, 2013

First, let me say, holy shit! Dan Moren’s article on driving cars with manual transmissions is, by leaps and bounds, far greater than any article I’ve read off The Magazine since it was first published – and I’ve enjoyed every article so far (the article on shaving is another favorite). This confirms not only is The Magazine great, but my love of driving stick is shared by more people like me. I can’t tell you how excited I am after reading Get It in Gear.

What excited me the most about reading it was how well Moren captured why I love driving a manual transmission. For the longest time, I thought it was about the control of the car – I felt I could adjust my driving with the subtleties with my foot for on the clutch and arm on the shifter. All true, no doubt. But there is something else that I couldn’t really explain other than it was “the feel” of the car. But Dan does a great job for me:

Listening to your car may not seem like something that comes naturally. But nerds are better at it than most: Not only are we usually surrounded by machines, but in many cases we’re already attuned to them.

Driving a stick shift is much the same. There’s a rhythm to it, but you appreciate the music only after long experience… The more you drive stick, the more you get a feel for when the car wants you to shift: the pitch of the engine, the feel of acceleration when you step on the gas, and the exact point when the gears engage when you release the clutch.

See, a stick-shift car isn’t an appliance. It’s not a toaster or a washing machine, where you push a button and it chugs along at its job. You have to take the time to get to know your car, to develop a relationship with it. Every manual car you drive asks and offers different things, and you have to adapt to unfamiliar vehicles; they don’t change themselves to fit your needs.

Again, all true for me, too. The pressure of the clutch, sound of the engine, the pitch and force of the car as it moves forward, the response from the gas pedal, and in a moment of superbly mastered timing, the thrust of the arm as it moves from one gear to another all moving in synchronous harmony as if I was directing an orchestra. There is a musical rhythm to it.

You might have noticed how he mentions nerds are better at listening to their cars than most. That might be true but it’s not exclusive, for sure. However, I agree that they tend to do things “differently.”

So, maybe it’s not for everyone. But we nerds like lost causes. We learn Elvish, write FORTRAN on an iPhone, roast our own coffee, and shave with a straight razor not because those tasks are easy or make us fit in with the crowd. Nor, in many cases, do we even do such things because they’re empirically better.

We’re driven — if you’ll permit the expression — by a fundamental curiosity, and a basic need to challenge ourselves. To master what is hard.

Sometimes the hard thing is worth doing simply because it’s hard. It’s a philosophy behind great accomplishments from Hilary’s ascent of Everest to Kennedy’s promise of going to the moon. The hard things we do define us: They stretch our brains and our limits, and they give us the courage and confidence to do the even harder things.

That last part about mastering what is hard is something I’ve enjoyed all my life. If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do today.

And after reading this, all I want to do is hop on the nearest, fastest train to my grandmother’s house and fire up my car, a 1990 BMW 325i Convertible (E30 for the BWM fans out there), strap on some driving gloves, and roll out for the winding country roads of my hometown.

Lastly, I’d like to thank Dan Moren for writing this. Not only has it excited me about my car and getting back to it as soon as possible, he’s excited me to find the next hard thing to master because that’s what people like him and I do.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me for a moment… It’s time to master something hard.

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