If you’re reading this expecting a political piece about the automotive industry then look elsewhere. I want to talk to you in short, about just one thing for the next 777 words, driving. Apologies in advance, corners may be mentioned.
2017, in fairness, has been a year of not entirely positive events. It’s been rough not just on the UK economy with regards to the effects of Brexit but on UK society with the terrorist attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge respectively. As such, everyone in their own way has had to find some way of keeping themselves sane.
Some have looked to iTunes or Spotify, finding joy in discovering new bands with upbeat songs. Others have gone on a cultural exploration and let us all know about it via Instagram and others still, have used the same platforms to pass some positive energy around by talking about their careers — nothing wrong with this, and it gives others who may be a bit stuck some comfort that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Me? I’ve always found comfort in three pedals, a steering wheel and gear lever just by my left hand. Driving isn’t just a tool or necessity to me, it’s what keeps me above board and positive when the world appears to be on the verge of falling apart. To give an example, in July when my right foot was run over by a rather large Wickes lorry, one of the first things I thought apart from, ‘Thank God I’m alive’ was, ‘Thank goodness it wasn’t my clutch foot’. The act of driving again was the first milestone I had in mind after walking.
Driving has always been a symbol of independence, of being able to forge a path without needing timetables. With cars you can jump in at the spur of a moment and go and have a small adventure, whether it’s going to Pendennis Point in the middle of the night or getting up at two o’clock in the morning to visit the second highest point in Cornwall.
Not only this, but the actions involved in driving have their own caveman-like pleasure to them. As the world moves ever closer to a future full of electric and, more worryingly, autonomous cars one part of driving will be forced to make way: the manual gearbox.
For those of you unaware of the process of such mechanical composition, a manual gearbox is the most organic interaction possible with a car. To change from one gear to another you depress the clutch, move the gearstick out of one gear into another whilst simultaneously lifting the throttle briefly before releasing the clutch after you’ve selected the gear you desire.
Apologies if this sounds overtly complex as each gear change takes place in a couple of seconds, but this brief action of motoring is what provides the most joy. The beauty of the manual gearbox is that the time of gear change is not determined by a computer but by the driver. On a twisting B-Road you can choose to leave the car in a certain gear and let the revs rise just that little bit higher, let that engine sing a little bit more just for the fun of it. In contrast, you can choose to leave the car in a high gear in town to save fuel.
It’s this variability of styles in a manual gearbox that makes it so joyful to use, whether its changing into a lower gear to increase momentum into a dry corner or short-shifting into a higher one to reduce wheel spin out of a wet one. This is something you don’t get in automatic and won’t get when the roads go silent in electric cars.
Yet you might well say, ‘But you can do both of those with a semi-automatic gearbox’. Yes but another joy of a manual is that there is so much more skill to do it well. The revs, particularly when changing down, have to be just right. The throttle movement and steering input have to be just right. Every element has to be executed perfectly and because of this when you execute a corner consummately the sensation is far more joyous than if you had done the same thing whilst flicking a paddle.
Now I know I’m only 21, with only three years’ driving experience, and that the above may give off a strong sense of premature nostalgia, but the reason I write this is because I know that in less than twenty years vehicles that are equipped with manual gearboxes and petrol engines will become objects that are maintained rather than produced, looked after rather than renewed.
As such it is important for people to cherish these days of heel and toe, short shifts and 4000rpm before the crackle and bang is replaced by the hum and the buzz.