Primitive technology

“Okay,” he said, “try it.”

So I tried it. I pushed the clutch pedal to the floor, started his car, pushed the gearstick left and upwards, and let out the clutch to see what’d happen.

And of course, the engine went into first gear with no power behind it whatsoever, and immediately stalled. A little orange light appeared among the instruments, asking me very politely not to do that again.

“Cool,” I remarked, grinning like an idiot with a new toy. Then settled down and mentally prepared myself for the first proper test run.

Clutch in, turn the key, clutch out and accelerate. The engine raced with the merest suggestion of movement from my right foot, causing me to panic, over-correct and pretty much completely lift off the pedal. The car stalled again, bucking sickeningly to and fro this time, before settling gently back into the dip in the ground of the empty car park we’d found for this experiment.

I looked at him with an expression that must’ve been 50% intrigue and 50% shameless horror. “Holy @#$%, that’s twitchy!”

He laughed and replied “Yep. Try revving it in neutral for a bit to get a feel for it.” So I tried that for a bit, and marveled at the insane sensitiveness of that accelerator pedal. Barely perceptible movements of my right foot were enough to churn the little engine up past 3000RPM. I tried to keep it at a steady 1500 or so, but really couldn’t. It was like it was reading electrical signals straight from my nerves, ignoring my foot; it just seemed too sensitive to be practical.

With a new-found fear of manuals in my mind, I went for first gear again; this time I managed to rev it senseless twice before violently stalling, and realised I’d actually moved the car forward a good two or three metres. It was one small step for a Getz, one giant leap for a Tim – but I doubt Neil Armstrong was privately thinking “well, this is pretty crap” when he first stepped on the moon.

We chatted for a couple of minutes, throwing together what we knew about gearboxes – not a great deal, at that point – to try to come up with a way to help me understand what this thing was doing. It was like a car, but not quite; the controls were different somehow, less sophisticated. It was like – this will sound pathetic – going from using Windows to being trapped at a Linux command line. I knew pretty well what it did, I just didn’t know the commands and there was a lot less documentation at hand.

At one point, he mentioned hill starts, and parking on hills. The auto driver in me glanced at the gear stick, and intelligently remarked “oh hey, there’s no parking gear.”

“Heh, yep. You have to think about what gear you want to leave it in, first to stop it rolling back or reverse to stop it rolling forward.” Introspective pause. “You have to park these manually, too.”

A million things flashed through my mind. That Top Gear segment about how incomprehensible the controls in early automocars were, with levers and switches everywhere. The fact that computers are designed to automate repetitive, tedious tasks that machines are capable of performing better than we are. The fact that there’s waaaay more to the old “manual or auto?” question than just getting better fuel economy because your muscles can learn to manage the engine better than a tired old auto box can.

I caught a glimpse of just how primitive a modern car with a manual gearbox actually is, and the answer to that question thudded home as strongly as the little Getz shook every time I stalled it.

I looked at him and deadpanned “you know, this is why autos were made.”

“I know. But you do need to know how to do this. Someday, someone’ll need you to drive a car for them, and it’ll be a manual. And you won’t be able to do it, and someone’ll die.”

He owns the only manual transmission in our circle of friends. “That’ll be you, you realise.”

Having laid out the interest both of us had vested in him teaching me how to move a manual about, we went home and played computer games all night. We also found this, which explains pretty much the best way to learn how to use and get used to using a manual car, and this, which contains every technical detail of a manual transmission we found ourselves curious about.

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