ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Seventy years ago in the U.S., 70 percent of cars came with a stick shift. How many American cars have stick shifts today? The answer is 9 percent. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton has the story of one man who would like to reverse that.
TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Eddie Alterman loves automobiles. Yeah, he's a gear head. He's the top editor at Car and Driver magazine. His whole career, he's watched the sales of cars with stick shifts decline. And when Ferrari failed to offer a manual option for the new 458 Italia, he said enough is enough - basta.
EDDIE ALTERMAN: OK. Let's start at the beginning.
SAMILTON: Today, Alterman will give Julia Espinosa her first lesson in driving a manual transmission. He's making converts one by one. Espinosa says ever since her uncle regaled her with tales of touring the back roads of England as a young man, she's wanted to learn how to drive a real car, you know, one with a stick.
JULIA ESPINOSA: The clutch pedal needs to be depressed completely before it's going to engage, or you said halfway?
ALTERMAN: About half way.
ALTERMAN: And you will feel that engagement point.
SAMILTON: So here in a high school parking lot, like so many before her, Espinosa stalls the car, a second time and a third.
ALTERMAN: And then start to let roll into the gas.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ALTERMAN: Just a little more gas in.
SAMILTON: But lo and behold, on the fourth try...
ALTERMAN: There you go.
SAMILTON: There you go.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
ALTERMAN: Whoo, you did it. OK. Now, to get into second gear...
SAMILTON: By the time the lesson is over, Espinosa has mastered the basics. She's not ready for the back roads of England yet, but it's a start.
CHRIS TERRY: A great number of people become addicted to driving stick shifts.
SAMILTON: That's Chris Terry of Ford. He brought the car for the lesson. I ask him, isn't it too much trouble to offer manual transmissions for such a small pool of customers?
TERRY: No. The trouble would be is if consumers didn't think that they were going to get a choice and that they thought that Ford Motor Company was going to turn their back on driving enthusiasts.
SAMILTON: Eddie Alterman figures young people, in particular, should focus more on driving and less on distractions.
ALTERMAN: It's about do it yourself. It's about having fun in the car and not doing it through apps or downloading Pandora or anything like that. It's about actually having a connection to the mechanical part of the car.
SAMILTON: So now, Alterman takes the wheel. Espinosa just took Stick Shift 101. Now, it's time for the advanced class, matching revs on a downshift.
ALTERMAN: And when I go back down to second, I'm flipping the throttle.
SAMILTON: It does look like fun, but the numbers keep going down.
TIM KOTLAREK: In 1940, we sold our first Hydromatic transmission.
SAMILTON: GM engineer Tim Kotlarek says his company introduced the first commercially successful automatic transmission in the U.S. He expects most sports cars will always come with a stick option, but even though he's a car guy, too, he prefers an automatic. So do stick shift enthusiasts think that's lazy?
KOTLAREK: Yeah, I am. I'll be the first to admit it, but it's the ease of things. Right?
SAMILTON: That, plus automatics are now about as fuel efficient as manuals. And just get stuck in a stop-and-go traffic jam with a manual and that'll suck the joy out of driving a stick, for sure. But to this Don Quixote of the car world, a world without manual transmissions...
ALTERMAN: I don't want to live in that world, to tell you the truth. It's a world without guys building tree houses for their kids. It's a world without train sets. It's a world without any fun, as far as I'm concerned.
SAMILTON: So Eddie Alterman fights the good fight, armed with a website, some decals and t-shirts that read, Save the Manuals. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.
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