The Evils of the Automatic, by Eric Peters

Automatic transmissions turn driving into a soporific. From Eric Peters at

It’s easy to get suckered by the convenient. We’re all susceptible. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance.

This is the nature of the subtle evil that is the automatic transmission.

It has taken most of the effort out of driving. In particular, out of learning how to drive. Accordingly, most people never do learn. They know how to push the start button and pull a lever from Park to Drive, of course. But that is not what I mean

It has ruined the art of driving.

And it is an art.

Or, was.

Well, a skill at least.

Before the automatic came along in the ’40s, brought to us by GM through its Oldsmobile division, driving a car required more talent than being able to open and close a door, sit down – and push on two pedals.

There was a third pedal – the clutch pedal. When it was out, the engine was directly connected to the transmission, which was directly transmitting the engine’s power to the driven wheels via the driveshaft. If the driver did not push the clutch pedal in as the car rolled to a stop, the car would buck and finally, stall out – because the engine could not turn the pavement (or the Earth to which it was attached).

To resume forward motion, the driver had to gradually let out the clutch while simultaneously easing into the gas pedal – allowing just enough enough slippage to avoid (once again) stalling out the car. It took a bit of practice to master this delicate balance – to be able to do it smoothly. It was a right of passage, something almost every aspiring teenage driver had to learn.

Clutching was just the beginning. There was also shifting.

Before the advent of synchronizers in the transmission, one had to time one’s shifts just so – matching engine speed to road speed. It was necessary to choreograph this delicate ballet yourself. If you failed to do so, the result was a a hideous grinding of the gears and general embarrassment, especially if you were a man and had a woman along for the ride.

To continue reading: The Evils of the Automatic


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