MY FRIEND’S SON looked over in puzzlement as we drove through town during rush hour on our way north to ski country.
“Why do you shift so much? My Dad doesn’t do that.”
“Well, that’s because this is a standard. He drives an automatic, which shifts for you.” Because your Dad apparently doesn’t really know how to drive, I diplomatically refrained from appending.
That, after all, was a fundamental dichotomy of my youth: those who drove standards and those who drove automatics. Anyone who worked on a farm driving tractors or pickups learned to drive a manual early on. But most everyone knew how. Even the functional family sedans of the day tended to be three on the tree.
And in Maine, a standard had special advantages. You could rock it out of a snow-clogged driveway. Or get to higher gear for less torque and more traction on slippery roads. And, of course, standards got better mileage, which mattered back in energy crisis of the mid-1970s, when gas rocketed to upwards of 55 cents a gallon.
But most of all, standards were fun. You were actually in control of the car. With some practice, you could shift without the clutch, which marked a certain mastery of driving.
Automatics were what your grandparents drove. I put people who couldn’t drive a standard in the category with those who couldn’t paddle stern in a canoe or didn’t know how to tie a bowline, that most useful of knots.
When a couple of college friends and I started off on a rite-of-passage cross-country journey, three of us were amazed that the fourth in our camping quartet couldn’t drive the old clunker manual van we’d brought for the trip. That failing was the cause of no small amount of ribbing; at the time, it seemed tantamount to not being able to change a tire or check the oil yourself.
No more. You can’t call it a lost art, exactly, but standard knowledge is an ability in steep decline, and has been for some time. With the exception of high-end sports cars, the vast majority of vehicles sold in this country are automatics; even most pickups have gone that route. Last year, fewer than 4 percent of the new vehicles were standards; that ticked up to 6.5 percent in the first quarter of this year.
A manual transmission, meanwhile, has become a trade-in liability. That reality sunk in recently when I parted company with my 1998 mini-SUV. The dealer scoffed when I told him what I thought the venerable vehicle was worth.
“It’s a stick,” he said. “Nobody drives ’em anymore.”
That nobody, I’m sad to say, now includes me. Mind you, I was perfectly content with my 14-year-old vehicle, but not so my wife with her seven-year-old Prius. Thus in a car-swap coup driven by logic as ruthless as it was unassailable — she needed a car better suited for winter commuting, but we still needed a gas miser for summer driving — she traded in my old ride when we bought her new one.
And so, after decades of driving a standard, I’m currently, um, directing a Prius. I say directing because what one does in a Prius doesn’t seem much like driving. I’ve gone from a fun little standard with a floor stick to a glamorized golf cart with a tiny, dash-mounted lever for drive and reverse — and a button that puts you in park.
You just don’t feel that engaged with the vehicle. The Prius is there doing what it wants, shifting when it likes, mixing engine and electric power as it sees fit. Choosing the proper gear is above your pay grade, it seems to be saying, so just relax, hit the radio preset for NPR, and leave the driving decisions to me.
Yet having an automatic has cleared up one mystery for me. I’d always vaguely wondered why so many other drivers spent so much of their commutes shaving or applying makeup or whittling duck decoys or putting on puppet shows or conducting imaginary symphonies. Or, of course, yakking on their cellphones.
Now I know. They are bored stiff and looking for diversion. After all, if you’re not really driving your car, you need some way to pass the time.
Let’s just call it … an automatic reflex.