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Why Are Men So Obsessed with Driving Stick?

Men who can drive stick think they’re the top dogs of the road, but really, they’re just the top dogs of grinding our gears

When I was a teenager, one of my best friends drove a black Volkswagen Jetta with a manual transmission. He tried teaching me when to press the clutch late one night, but I panicked and stalled. That’s all it took for me to pledge allegiance to automatic cars, and I haven’t touched a gear stick since.

The automatic cars I’ve owned over the years have always delivered me from point A to point B, and they’ve been largely reliable (except for my used Honda CR-V, which would spontaneously shut down, sometimes in the middle of the L.A. freeway). Yet, I’ll occasionally run into a guy who, for some reason, is insulted by my inability to drive stick. He’s what I call a Manual Car Man, a dude who prides himself on seamlessly shifting gears and thinks less of anyone who can’t.

Before I infuriate everyone, let me be clear: There are incredible people who prefer manual cars for respectable reasons. For instance, the folks on r/StickShift tell me they enjoy driving stick because it’s more engaging, cheaper and (allegedly) allows for greater control. I can appreciate them and their preferences. (However, there was one Manual Car Man in the group who said they prefer manual cars “because everything else trash, homie.”)

But instead of simply enjoying his passion and leaving me alone, the stereotypical Manual Car Man gets off on a deep sense of superiority. “The love of driving manual is extremely tied to the idea of a ‘pure’ driving experience,” says Kristen Lee, deputy editor of The Drive. “Cars without manual [transmissions] — and indeed, people who do not or cannot drive manual — are looked down upon by these manual-driving people, because they’re seen as lazy or illegitimate in their automotive enthusiasm.”

What adds to this sense of dominance among Manual Car Men is the fact that manual cars are well on their way out the door. Not only are automatic transmissions objectively faster than humans (and therefore manual transmissions), but multi-speed transmissions in general are facing obsolescence. “This is all going away soon,” says Patrick George, editorial director of The Drive. “Why? Electric cars. They don’t need transmissions with gears at all.” Plus, demand for manual cars has plummeted in recent years, in large part because automatics are superior when it comes to overall performance. 

This leaves the Manual Car Man feeling both non-conformist — he’s saying “talk to the hand” to a wave of modern technology — and cocky in a pseudo-generational sense. It would be like if a Boomer guy tried to snub a millennial dude for not knowing how to use a rotary phone, despite the millennial having full knowledge of how to use an iPhone. “It’s a silly thing to be snobbish about, kind of like being proud that you can use an abacus,” says Lee.

These feelings of supremacy can lead to instances of sexism, which women have long faced when it comes to driving (despite being incredible drivers). Lee, for instance, has been presumed to be an automatic-only driver on multiple occasions, even though she’s deeply experienced in the manual department. She’s also had her stick skills questioned.

On the other hand, the ways in which the Manual Car Man describes his love for manual cars are predominantly masculine, almost comically so. He revels in the control. He’s fond of using his hands. He and his car become one, a wheeled humanoid made for speeding past rivals, gathering resources and picking up chicks. All the while, he displays a steady mastery over his long, solid wand. 

But more than the ingrained sexism, saying a person can only be truly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about cars if they’re able to drive manual is ableist. “Not everyone can physically drive stick, whether that be due to temporary pain, chronic pain or disabilities,” says Alanis King, associate editor of transportation at Business Insider (and author of the above tweet about Car Men).

What’s more, the Manual Car Man relies entirely on an American-centric viewpoint for his sense of greatness. “In places like Asia and South America, manual cars are the norm,” Lee explains, so people in those countries don’t perceive driving stick as something to brag about. The same goes for Europe and South Africa. In other words, while driving stick is a skill that’s becoming increasingly ​​scarce in America, in the grand scheme of things, it’s fairly common.

That said, again, this may soon change, and what the Manual Car Man may not anticipate is, just as manual cars go extinct, so will he. “When internal combustion engines die, it’ll be a skill for classic car drivers and pretty much nobody else,” says George.

But, in the meantime, I beseech the Manual Car Man to make an (oil) change. Sir, it seems your passion has turned to hatred. Remember why you learned to drive stick in the first place. “You know the joy that comes with it,” King says. “Approaching redline and upshifting. Downshifting and feeling the engine braking.”

I know nothing beats the feeling, but that doesn’t mean we automatic drivers are any less than you. We all share the same roads, after all.

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