Which is “better,” an automatic or a manual transmission? It depends on what you’re doing. I’ve found automatics better in moderately serious off-road driving and in stop-and-go traffic. Almost always, a well-driven manual beats an automatic in racing, whether official or not. The current, computer-assisted semi-manuals in some racecars make me wonder why we don’t just substitute race drivers with computers or inebriated orangutans. And those who use steering column- or steering-wheel-mounted paddles to shift an automatic are cupcakes. Get a stick or stick with an automatic. I equally have no use for semi-manual transmissions.
You see, if you can’t at least drive a manual transmission-equipped car, you’d better have some other healthy credentials (like being able to rebuild an automatic) if you want to earn the title Real Car Guy. At least from me. To be called a Real Car Guy, you should be able to execute a heel-and-toe downshift, ideally with a double de-clutch. Extra credit if it’s on a vehicle with straight-cut gears, such as many racecars or most big rigs. Double extra credit if you can do it without touching the clutch. Disable the nanny switch that prevents starting the car in gear and I need never touch the clutch pedal.
I’m not the only one who thinks likes this. If you want to be Michelin test driver, you must execute four or five perfect heel-and-toe downshifts while braking as hard as possible from 90 mph.
These are not especially difficult skills to learn. I taught myself on a ’59 Ford F-100. On a good day, I could get it into the straight-cut first gear without a hint of a grind. I did the heel-and-toe Richard Petty style, with my heel on the brake pedal and toe on the gas. (That’s NOT the correct method, but I didn’t know any better and have small feet.)
(Fledgling car guys: All road-going manuals have synchromesh gears. A pair of cones rub together to help the gears match speeds for a smooth shift. Racecars and big rigs lack this nicety so you must match the speed of the outgoing gear with the upcoming selection.
If you can’t drive a stick or perform the in-car pedal dances, don’t fret. Many great racecar drivers would hardly be able to drive, say, a ’71 Ferrari Daytona with its five-speed gated shifter. In today’s racecars, electronics do almost all the shifting for them. Back in the day, a young Kenny Schrader, before he became a NASCAR Cup Series star, admitted to me that he could barely drive a manual. His tow truck had an automatic and his sprint car and midget didn’t HAVE transmissions. Or clutches or flywheels. Kenny was never a great road racer.
Most of those driving manual-equipped cars misuse the transmission. They downshift to slow down. Wrong. One downshifts in order to be in the right gear to accelerate out of the next corner.
To those who drive road-going cars with semi-manual transmissions or, worse, steering wheel mounted paddle shifters for automatic transmissions: Get an automatic or get a manual. Don’t pretend.