Stick Shift

January 17th, 2019

The Subaru is slowly dying.

This is not really a surprise, but it is disappointing. I knew the car was a beater when I bought it, but it’s been more trouble than I ever expected it would be. It would be easier for me if the car had regular, chronic problems, but its issues are idiosyncratic. At random intervals the car will stall out, or fail to start at all. The windshield wipers work whenever they feel like working, which is usually not when it’s raining or snowing. Every time I get into the Subaru is like betting at a casino. It’s always a crap shoot as to whether I am actually going to leave the driveway. I hate this car.

And yet…

It’s a stick shift.

I have a sentimental and irrational love of standard transmissions. Perhaps it is a function of my age. I don’t know. All I know is that I like to drive stick shifts.

This goes back a long, long time. Back in 1981, I was assigned to an Army unit in what was then West Germany. I needed a vehicle to get around, and I found, to my dismay, that there were almost no cars with an automatic transmission in all of Germany. Every car was a stick shift. My choices were either to walk to work, or to learn how to drive a stick. I reluctantly learned how to drive a stick. It was a struggle at first.

The first car that I bought in Germany was a used Ford Taunus. It was a European version of some kind of a Ford. I’m not sure what its equivalent in America was. It was a two-door and it was a four-speed. I paid $700 in cash for the vehicle, and that was all it was worth. It was useful for me in that it allowed me to burn out a clutch with no regrets. It prepared me for my next car.

In 1982 I bought a BMW 320i. That car was sweet. It truly was. I loved that car. I suppose that most men have a car of their dreams. That BMW was mine. It was a four-banger, but it was designed to run on the autobahn. That car could move. I remember driving through the Spessart mountains at 90 mph, when I was dating Karin. The BMW had no problem at all at that speed. I seldom drove faster then 90 mph. My reactions always seemed a bit too slow if I was cruising at a speed higher than that. Also, at speeds of 120 mph of more, the car tended to float, and that meant involuntary lane changes. I like to drive fast, but I also like to drive in control.

I had the BMW for twelve years. Karin and I drove that car throughout Germany. We also took it through Austria, and what was then Yugoslavia. We brought the car to the United States, and we went everywhere with it. There are very few parts of this country that we did not visit with that BMW.

Things change. The BMW aged. It’s transmission failed on us. I had the tranny rebuilt, and I tried to keep the car as long as I could. Then the transmission failed again. That was in 1994. At that point, I sold the car to a Mexican who lived near Mitchell Street in Milwaukee. I remember when he gave it a test drive, he told me,

“Man, this car, it shifts really hard.”

I told, “Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m selling it.”

Now, twenty-five years later, my two sons bitterly complain to me about my decision to sell the Beemer. Both of them tell me,

“You should have kept it! I could have rebuilt the tranny and put in a new engine!”

Honestly, that car would be worth a lot now, and one of the boys would have a truly cool ride. But life got in the way. Karin and I had three little kids and we needed a reliable car. The BMW was no longer reliable.

The next step was to buy a Nissan Sentra. That was a five-speed. The Sentra was a good car. We drove it long and hard. I finally sold it to my brother, Marc, who lived in Texas. He and his family needed a decent family car, and Karin and I needed to get a minivan. I drove it down to him on Labor Day weekend of 1997. That was the last time I saw him alive. He died the following February when he had a freak accident in his Mazda.

I had another beater at this time. It was a Mercury Lynx. It was also a stick shift, and it was not terribly reliable. I remember driving it during the winter to pick up Hans and one of his classmates at the Waldorf School of Milwaukee back in the mid 90’s. That afternoon there was a sudden blizzard. It was hideous. The streets were littered with abandoned vehicles. A ride that normally took thirty minutes lasted for six hours. Keep in mind that this was back in the days before cell phones, so Karin (and the mother of Hans’ classmate) had no idea what was going on with us.

At one point we were at the filling station on St. Paul Street in the Third Ward. The battery died and I had to get a jump from another vehicle. It was snowing like crazy and the wind was brutal. As I tried to jump the battery, I put the car into neutral with the parking brake on. I told Hans, who was maybe seven or eight years at the time, to keep his foot on the gas once the car was running. He did. He revved that car up all the way to the red line. The Lynx was just screaming. I told Hans to let off the gas pedal a bit.

He laughed.

Karin and I had minivans for long while after that. We had a Nissan for a while, and then a Honda Odyssey. Minivans do not come with standard transmissions. They just don’t. So, there was a period when I didn’t know what to do with my left foot or my right hand. It was boring.

Eventually, after endless miles, the Odyssey gave up its ghost, and we bought a Honda Fit. It was a snazzy little car, but it was also an automatic. Being the Sports edition, the car had little paddles on the steering wheel that kind of simulated the feel of driving a stick. It wasn’t a good simulation.

About eight years ago, our daughter got a used Honda Civic. It was a five speed. She did not know at the time how to drive a stick. I tried to teach her, but she eventually told me to go away so she learn on her own. The truth is that it is impossible to teach a person how to drive a stick. They have to feel the clutch and listen to the engine rpm’s. Sometimes they also have to smell the burnt clutch. It is one of those things that can only be learned by actually doing it.

We kept the Fit for ten years and two hundred thousand miles. We gave it up in 2017. We drive all of our cars into the dirt. Karin and I feel cheated if we can’t get at least 200K out of a vehicle. We should be on a commercial for Honda.

Seeing as we only buy a car once in a decade, shopping for a vehicle is a traumatic experience. I hate looking for a car. Mostly, I hate it when people lie to me, and that is what happens when we shop for a car. Fortunately, Stefan is car savvy, and he located a new Toyota Corolla for us.

It was a six-speed. Yes.

The Toyota is a nice ride. It handles well at over 100 mph. I won’t go into detail about how we know that.

However, I will relate the following story. This occurred in the spring of 2017.

I was giving rides to three Syrian refugees. I took them back and forth to their ESL classes on Mondays and Wednesdays.

One day I drove them around in the brand new Toyota Corolla that Karin and I bought. We finally got rid of the 2007 Honda Fit with the 259K miles on it. The new car had a six speed stick. It took me a few minutes to get used to driving it. Briefly, there was the pungent odor of burnt clutch. At least I didn’t stall it out, or roll back when I stopped on a hill.

The old Syrian sitting next to me liked the car. He kept smiling and making arm motions like he was shifting gears. I told him in my broken Arabic, “Zoujaty tuhib as-sarya al-jadida.” (“My wife likes the new car”.) He laughed a bit. I told him that it had a stick shift.

Nahoor smiled and said, “Steeck sheeft! Automatic?!”

“La ma automatic.” (“Not an automatic.”).

“Steeck Sheeft?”

“Na’am (Yes), Stick shift.”

“Guud. Steeck sheeft.”

We both smiled.






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