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Clutchless Driving

I love cars.  More importantly, I love sport cars.  I used to own a couple of Mustang GTs.  They were great for their straight line performance.  But then a friend of mine got a Mazda Miata and my appreciation for cars with a complete performance package grew.  The car handled like a dream and was so nimble and light you really didn’t mind that its engine wasn’t quite as strong as a hamster on one of those hamster wheels.  I eventually got my own Miata.  I remember sitting at a stoplight when a huge pickup truck with a thirty inch lift kit pulled up beside me.  When the light turned green, the monster truck took off like a shot.  It’s wheels were smoking.  Obviously dude didn’t have much respect for Miatas.  But the road we were on was only straight for about a half mile.  After that, the road turned into a series of tight curves, one right after the other.  The Miata and I knew this fight had just begun.

When the monster truck got to the first turn it looked like it would tip over.  The driver was all over the road trying to keep the truck upright.  But he couldn’t defy the laws of physics.  Before we got out of the third curve the Miata and I had passed the truck.  The truck driver conceded and slowed down to something more reasonable.  Hopefully, he learned a little respect for Miatas.

But eventually I had to grow up.  My priorities shifted.  I learned that a sports car wasn’t really worth the extra insurance and maintenance cost.  And a sports car was an open invitation for extra scrutiny by law enforcement.  You think driving while black is a hassle?  Try driving a sports car while black.  The most sobering condition I have to face is that I am a parent now.  These days, I’m more likely to buy transportation that hauls asses than one that hauls ass.  So when I visit the car lot, I’m there to look at a minivan more so than a pony car.  But trust me, the sportier forms of transportation are always catching my eye.

A minivan wouldn’t be so bad if I could find one with a manual transmission and an honest to goodness clutch pedal.  The closest thing I can find is a Mazda5.  It’s a six passenger hauler with an available manual transmission.  It’s shaped like a minivan but not quite as big.  But it’s available with an honest to goodness manual transmission with the third pedal.  And that’s really an oddity.

These days, with the advent of the latest clutch pedal-less transmission technology, the advantages of having a manual gearbox have evaporated.  In fact, in some automotive competitions, the traditional manual transmission has become a disadvantage.  Computer technology has made those steering paddle gearboxes so efficient that they can shift gears in a fraction of the time it would take a human.  With such state of the art equipment, the time it takes to shift gears is measured in nanoseconds.  The best human powered shift is measured in tenths of a second.  And in some forms of racing, the difference between the two can be a race lost.

So it’s no surprise to see the ultimate, cutting edge sport car manufacturers move their products away from the human clutch to the computer controlled clutch, and away from the stick shift to the steering wheel mounted paddle shift.  Indeed, the latest iteration of transportation from the automobile Mecca in Maranello, Italy, the legendary Ferrari, is not available with a clutch pedal.  The stunning new Ferrari 458 Italia comes with the latest in F1 racing technology.  It employs a new, naturally aspirated 4.5-liter direct-injected V-8 producing 570 hp at 9000 rpm and 398 lb-ft of torque at 6000 rpm.  Ferrari estimates zero to sixty times of less than 3.4 seconds and its top speed is a claimed 202 mph.  And all this happens without a clutch pedal, not even as an option for their deepest financial pocket customers.

F1 racing has proven the advantages of this type of transmission technology.  The best heal-and-toe shifting maneuvers can’t compete with these fancy shifting doodads.  But while such a focus on winning is understandable on a closed circuit racing track where the only thing that matters is time, I dream of driving a sports car for the enjoyment of being more attached to and engaged with the automotive machine.  The clutch-less gearbox isn’t conducive for engaging the drink in the cup holder or activating the traditional cell phone.  The clutch and stick shift requires the driver to focus more attentively on the experience of driving.

Eventually, the third pedal will virtually disappear from automobile offerings.  It’s only a matter of time before most mass market automobiles manufacturers will pull the three pedals, manual transmission from their offerings to the public.  And that’ll be a sad day indeed for some driving enthusiast.

Eventually, computer technology will improve to the point where cars will be able to drive themselves more efficiently and effectively than human drivers.  While this will no doubt improve the times of F1 racing cars, it will do nothing to improve the driving experience.  The only things that’ll matter are the numbers that show how efficiently these automobiles go around their track.  The state of the automobile technology will make the human driver, and therefore the driving experience, something to be done only as a hobby.  It’ll become like horseback riding.  Once it was the main means of transportation other than walking.  Now, for most people, it’s something that happens only as recreation.

I learned a long time ago that an engaging driving experience is more than just about the numbers or who’s the fastest or who can turn the corner the quickest or which car is the flashiest.  Enthusiastic driving is about enjoying the driving experience for what it was all by itself and not because I can be just a few nanoseconds faster than the next guy.  I found out driving that Miata all those many years ago that you don’t have to be the absolute fastest, just the funnest.

I promise my next vehicle will be a stick shift with three pedals.  Call me nostalgic if you must but I really do miss rowing the gearbox with my right arm while giving my left leg a workout.  I just might make an investment in one of those Mazda5s.  And when I do, I have no doubt there will be times I’ll hate the fact that I bought a car that won’t let me hold my coffee in one hand as I pull away from a stop.  And at that point, I might even wish I had one of those clutch-less Ferrari cars.

Thursday, January 28, 2010 - Posted by | Life, Thoughts

1 Comment »

  1. I never really learned how to drive a clutch myself. my parents said their drivers ed cars were all manuals so you had to learn how in order to get your license. I drove the work truck on occasion when I sided houses….I have a tnedency to jackrabbit when going from a stop, and if I’m on a hill, well look out behind me!!!

    The ferrari sounds nice, but I’d still prefer a nice Bentley…heavier vehicles (2 1/2 tons!!) that can do what a ferrari does (195 mph), and any accident you get into, the other car is likely to have the injuries!

    Comment by Mike Lovell | Friday, January 29, 2010 | Reply

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