Cameron's theory of manual evolution

Major Waffle
Cameron Gibson is a worried man. He's worried that the glory days of the manual gearbox are behind us. He makes his feelings known on PetrolBlog.

PetrolBlog takes a rare and welcome diversion into the world of art and literature with Cameron Gibson drawing parallels with the manual gearbox. It's all about culture, innit? *sniff*.

He argues that we could be seeing the end of the manual gearbox, with manufacturers turning to twin-clutch transmissions and paddle shifts in the constant battle for performance and economy. Cameron suggests that a manual ’box can transform the most mediocre of drives into something quite special. What do you think? Have a read of Cameron's blog and leave a comment (if the system stops playing up). Alternatively, drop him a note on twitter @Retro_Vintage_.

Something worrying occurred to me as I went for a drive last week. The drive itself was nothing out of the ordinary; it was pleasant enough. Instead, it was the car I was driving and, more importantly, its transmission. It occurred to me that I may be driving the last breed of cars to come with a manual gearbox as standard.

Charles Darwin famously stated in his book The Origin of Species that those unable to adapt to their environment will eventually die out. The automotive landscape has changed dramatically throughout my lifetime and due to these changes our precious three-pedals-and-a-shifter may become motoring’s equivalent of the dodo or, in keeping with the English Scientist theme, the Baryonyx. To coin the cliché, the writing is definitely on the wall.

The manufacturers started delving into the art of using the theme ‘manual’ loosely when describing transmissions a decade ago. Born on the track to shave milliseconds off the time of the gear changing process, the twin-clutch paddle shifters were the preserve of high-end performance cars - the results of which were a mix of comical, dire and surprisingly okay. However, undeterred from these results, the engineers plugged away, hellbent on persuading us that these transmissions were the future.

Porsche PDK And now, they have matured from their previously jerky past self into a refined and accepted way of changing gear. So much so that the new Renaultsport Clio will not have a manual, so will the new M badged BMWs and even most Ferraris have not been ordered with a clutch pedal since paddle shifts became an option. The majority of Porsches ordered are fitted with a PDK transmission. I know the PDK system is very good at doing its job but I love manuals, and it’s a Porsche. Porsche and manuals should be together like an old married couple.

This worries me. As I said in the opening paragraph, I was out for a drive last week. It was in a Honda Jazz: five-speed long shift manual ‘box and a buzzy i-VTEC engine. Even so, the i-VTEC engine howling into the redline as I shifted into third, then forth, then into fifth. Throwing in the odd bit of heel-and-toe as I changed down for a corner then out again. I felt like Ayrton Senna in his NSX at Suzuka with his loafers on.

A manual transmission can give you joy, even on the dullest of commutes. They can also give you freedom to experiment and to improve your driving skill; making a crisp gearchange, nailing the perfect heel-and-toe and making a seamless double declutch. It can all get a bit obsessive. You can blame Colin McRae for this, the stuff he did with that pedal box was sheer mastery, thus leading to a small boy watching him saying something like… “I wish I could do that.” Manual gearboxes let you, even for fleeting moments, believe that you are Colin McRae. In Wales. On the final stage. In 1995.

Then there is the asthetic point of view. It can be extremely difficult to make a relatively humdrum object outstandingly beautiful or to be considered a work of art. Gearbox shifters especially, given the majority of them consist of some plastic, some engineered metal and some ‘leather’. But some are outstanding: the gate and shifter from an E-Type, or racing D-Type, or an Audi R8, or an old Porsche or the simplicity of an old Saab for example. They should all be on a plinth at the Gallery of Modern Art.

VW up! ASG gearboxHowever, even I have to concede that the manual gearbox does have its flaws. Being in traffic for a long time, the last thing you want is to have a foot on the clutch pedal for the duration of it, right? Then there is the question of fuel economy and CO2 emissions. On paper, at least, a twin-clutch job is more efficient and to manufactures that is a very important factor. Hence, I suppose, the adoption of twin-clutch and automated manual transmissions in most cars.

I don’t want to appear all Doomsday on the subject, but it does feel that the days of a fizzy little hatchback with a clutch pedal or a brutal sports car with a big V8 and an equally monsterous Borg Warner ‘box are over. They will be the preserve of motoring enthusiasts who enjoy driving. Mind you, this has happened in the art world too.

The art world has undergone a sizable amount of change in the past 30 years. New technologies have come to the fore. Now, almost anyone with a laptop and a little know-how can create some prints of high quality. However, print studios still retain the ‘old technologies’ and actively use them. Yes, using a laptop to create a print may be the simpler and more convenient way of doing things, however it cannot match the processes which have been practiced for centuries.

Suzuki gearstickEtching a design or work onto a metal or copper plate, then letting acid eat away at it, then finally using huge, unwieldy presses which Brunel himself would be familiar with… all to create a print. This process is expensive, time-consuming, it needs unbelievable amounts of perseverance, knowledge and the right touch to get the best results from it. Yet it is all the better for it.

It is the same story for manual transmissions and our way of driving. Darwin has long since been proven right on his theory of evolution; and transmissions like these won’t die but only if we and it adapt.