THE STICK SHIFT, long considered indispensable element to honest-to-goodness driving, has practically disappeared from this country. The Post's automotive writer, Warren Brown, reports that the long and steady decline of manual transmissions has reached the point at which barely one in 10 new cars is equipped with them. But then the truth is that the kind of driving done with enthusiasm, engagement and a genuine feel for the road is disappearing too. Maybe it doesn't matter that the only gearbox knowledge one need possess anymore is a passing acquaintance with the meaning of P, R, N, D and L.
America's -- especially male America's -- love affair with the stick shift began in the 1940s, when automatic transmissions were becoming a common option. Before that, there was nothing glamorous about the manual transmission; it was just the way everyone drove. But once fathers started driving Hydramatics and Dynaflows, their kids decided that shifting gears one by one was the only way to go.
Cars with stick shifts were faster, cooler and above all harder to operate. The mastery of certain skills, such as popping the clutch to achieve maximal, high-squeal takeoff, could make or break one's reputation. Under the influence of British sports cars, manual transmissions gradually went from three speeds on the steering column to four, five and even six speeds on the floor. The idea took hold of rapid, wind-in-the-hair runs along lonely, curving roads in efficient, gutsy little minimalist cars, with plenty of downshifting to produce impressive howls from the engine and a series of satisfying burps and blats from the exhaust.
Now, of course, there aren't many lonely roads around, and in any case, motorists aren't interested in subjecting themselves to the inconvenience of shifting. Young people, rather than becoming enthusiast drivers, have taken to sport-utility vehicles, which are basically trucks, often fitted with suspensions soft enough to make an inexperienced passenger seasick. Any driver who tried taking one of those tippy giants through a series of "S" curves at speed would be a danger to himself and others. Maybe it's just as well the stick shift isn't there anymore as a temptation.