Stick-shifting in Europe is not one of my strong points

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

I read the other day that only three percent of all cars sold in the United States have manual transmissions.

Which means that 97 percent of us believe that it is better to have a machine shift the gears for us, event though it uses a little more fuel.

In comparison, 80 percent of all cars sold in Europe have a manual transmission, yet another contrast between the two continents.

They like shifting gears and working the clutch and the gas, but it has to be done just right for the car not to stall out. It’s like riding a bicycle. Once you learn it, you’ll never forget it. But, you can get rusty over the years if you don’t do it

The last time I was in Europe I rented for two weeks the smallest Fiat I could find – because I am cheap. When I went to pick it up, it was so small that I asked the attendant if he could help me find the rest of it.

Automatic transmissions are designed to choose the best gear for any situation, but they tend to err on the side of caution, shifting to too high of a gear and wasting engine power.

It had a manual transmission. Renting an automatic was going to be $10 more a day. I had driven a stick-shift 17 years earlier, and to save $140, I was willing to do it again.

By the time I got in the car, it was afternoon rush hour, and there were cars everywhere, much like in any big city in the U.S. The only difference was that I was following a map because for some reason my GPS was not working even though I bought the European map addition, and my skill level when it came to shifting gears was taking its toll after 17 years of inactivity.

In addition, I just had spent about 15 hours on planes and could not sleep. So I was not the most alert driver in the bunch.

Stall-out No. 1: In the middle of a major highway following a traffic jam as I was trying to speed up again. I forgot to put the transmission back into first gear and stalled out in third. Then I remembered it, while restarting the car and listening to all the horns and yelling around me. European drivers are not very patient.

Stall-out No. 2: In a bus lane, with a big, packed city bus behind me. The driver assumed that I would take off when the light turned green. Instead I stalled out, and he had to bring the bus to a quick stop to avoid hitting me.

The bus driver and riders were not happy campers, but I survived. There were other stalls, but these were the most dramatic. And, eventually, I got used to it again, and the gear-shifting became routine.

Why go through all these hassles just to save a little fuel when there is a better way? I was really glad to get back in my own car two weeks later and feel those gears shifting by themselves. I deserved it. This stick-shift thing is not for me.

It also wasn’t for Alfred Horner Munro of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who invented the automatic transmission in 1921. It took awhile for it to catch on, and I guess for it to be refined for mass manufacture.

They called it the Hydramatic (also known as Hydra-Matic). It was an automatic transmission developed by both General Motors’ Cadillac and Oldsmobile divisions. Introduced in 1939 for the 1940 model year vehicles, the Hydramatic was the first fully automatic mass-produced transmission developed for passenger automobile use.

And ever since then, those who don’t want to shift gears, don’t have to - like me.


• The earliest form of a manual transmission is thought to have been invented by Joe Clulow and Émile Levassor in the late 19th century. This type of transmission offered multiple gear ratios and, in most cases, reverse.
• A manual transmission requires the driver to shift the gears themselves.
Most cars have four or five forward speeds, as well as reverse. In order to master the process, you need to know the following: The clutch pedal is located at the far left and is used when moving up or down from one gear to another.
• Overall, manual transmission engines are less complex, weigh less, and have more gears than automatics.