It was a Porsche 911 Carrera, a car with virtually everything. But something was missing.
There was no stick.
That's "stick," as in the lever of a five-speed or six-speed manual transmission -- "stick," as in clutch and shift to change gears.
There was no clutch, either. No stick, no clutch in a Porsche, the quintessential sports car.
Instead, the car had an optional, $3,200 "Tiptronic" gearbox, which can be used to change gears automatically or semi-manually at what amounts to the flip of a switch.
"It's the way things are going," said Ara Euredjian, a salesman at Tischer Autopark in Montgomery County who has been selling Porsches for 17 years.
He might've put that in the past perfect tense. It's the way things have gone.
Traditional manual transmission cars and trucks virtually have disappeared from the U.S. marketplace -- victims of easier-to-drive, easier-to-maintain, more reliable, fuel-efficient automatics and a growing consumer concept of the car as appliance instead of romantic object.
Even the Army is phasing out manual transmissions from its military vehicles.
The numbers tell the story. New cars equipped with automatic transmissions accounted for 89.4 percent of all cars built in the United States last year, up from 88.7 percent of cars built with automatics in 1997.
Manual transmission cars were 10.6 percent of last year's U.S. auto production, compared with 11.3 percent in 1997, according to figures from Ward's Automotive Reports.
Trucks once made up a safe segment for manual gearboxes. Understandably. Trucks were used mostly in commerce and construction; and the thinking was that they needed nothing fancy, such as automatic transmissions.
But trucks -- that is, light trucks including pickups, sport-utility models and minivans -- now account for 48 percent of all new passenger vehicles sold in the United States. And most of the people buying them don't want to shift gears.
According to Ward's, 87.2 percent of the light trucks built in this country last year were equipped with automatic transmissions, up from 83.8 percent in 1997.
It is the inevitable result of a device, a fully automatic transmission, first mass-marketed by Oldsmobile in 1939, according to auto industry analysts, salespeople, suppliers and executives.
Oldsmobile's automatic begat semiautomatics. A year after Oldsmobile introduced its new transmission, Chrysler Corp. introduced its semiautomatic Fluid Drive transmission, which it sold until 1953, a system technically similar to today's Tiptronic. Car owners began enjoying the ease of driving without using the clutch or consciously changing gears. The 1980s and 1990s brought more improvements, such as "smart" or "thinking" automatics -- computer-operated transmissions that quickly and precisely control power flowing from the engine to the drive wheels, thereby helping to improve fuel economy.
There is another purpose to the Tiptronic-type transmissions, which are sold under various names mostly by high-line car manufacturers. For nearly two decades, automakers and their suppliers have been in a rush to cut costs, eliminating unneeded components, simplifying vehicle development and manufacturing processes, and scrapping redundancies wherever they occur.
It is cheaper, automakers say, to design and develop one type of transmission than it is to work on two, an automatic and a manual. The dual-mode transmissions, should consumers accept them in large enough numbers, could become the standard means of turning engine power into drive power, thus eliminating the need to carry what now amounts to two separate component inventories.
Other factors, especially road congestion, have helped push America to the brink of becoming a shiftless society.
"We're getting a whole new group of customers, mostly commuters," Porsche salesman Euredjian said. "They get stuck in a lot of Beltway traffic. It's hard to keep shifting when everything is stop-and-go. That's why they buy automatics."
Many readers of The Washington Post agreed in an informal e-mail survey.
For example, Arlington resident Paul deWitt drives an Acura 3.2 TL sedan equipped with an automatic transmission that also has the clutchless manual option.
DeWitt said he finds the dual transmission "useful in stop-and-go traffic," where clutching and shifting can become tiresome and inconvenient. Putting the transmission in "manual" mode -- achieved on dual-mode models by pressing a button, or moving the automatic lever to the "manual" side of the gearbox -- allows him to maintain better control of his Acura in curves and other situations where engine braking can be helpful, deWitt said.
"The market has changed," said Reginald Harris, marketing director of SLP Engineering, a specialty sports car assembler in Troy, Mich.
His company caters to "hard-core, sports-car nuts, people who want a stick shift and loud exhaust pipes," Harris said.
Yet, a significant 40 percent of the vehicles sold by SLP go out with automatic transmissions. That percentage of automatics would increase if SLP tried to extend its market beyond its core buyer group, "because the general buying public prefers automatics," Harris said.
Gone are the romantic days "of being in touch with your car" by becoming one with its gears, getting into its rhythms, shifting at the presumed optimum moment to preserve harmony of motion, Harris said.
"Most people just want to get in, drive and go. Their parents owned automatic transmission cars and minivans. They were trained to drive on automatic transmission cars. That's what they know."
It almost makes one want to become a European, said reader Robert Elvin, who e-mailed The Post from New York.
Manual transmissions still rule on the other side of the Atlantic, said Elvin, whose comments are supported by auto industry research putting manual cars and trucks at about 65 percent of the European market.
"I am 60 years of age and know a number of German professional men my age who have never driven an automatic, except when they have come to the States and rented or borrowed a car," Elvin wrote. German and other European automakers are pushing automatics and dual transmissions in the United States simply because it makes good marketing sense to do so, Elvin said.
But he said he is not, and never will be, a fan of automatics.
"All my cars have clutches," Elvin wrote.
CAPTION: Gearing Down (This chart was not available)