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Here. Steal My Car If You Think You Can Drive It

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Here. Steal my car if you think you can drive it.

By Martha Hindes
Senior Editor
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel

I write this after seeing the great news that MINI USA announced that its 2021 models will be offered with standard transmissions, (Not a surprise really. If it was an American brand it definitely would have been.)

A business colleague of mine looked a bit puzzled when she asked why I drive a standard transmission vehicle. She's very much into autos and has written a number of articles about cars and the industry, so the question somewhat surprised me.

As I recall, my first response was something like, “Because they're fun to drive. I always buy a stick!” I could have added a myriad of other points such as liking having much more control and  agility, better fuel economy (at the time I bought it more than a decade ago), not having to worry about the higher cost of having an automatic repaired down the road, having a vehicle that's less likely to be stolen when the thieves can't figure out how to drive it, the respect (and less costly bills) I get at repair shops being a woman who rolls up in an older short throw shifter. I also wanted to be able to test drive stick shift autos and you kind of need to know how to do that before an auto maker will give you a press car to review. 

I think I did add the amusement of having a valet sheepishly asking if I can retrieve my own car (SUV actually) since he can't drive a stick, or the times I've waited longer than others until the only valet at the function who knows how to drive one can go get it for me.  But the primary reason is “FUN.”

For years I was a frustrated wanna be stick driver who loved the sound of a sports car I could tell was a manual taking off with a roar and a command you just don't get with an automatic. It was just delicious. And it continued to beckon as I searched unsuccessfully for someone willing to teach me.

My previous car at that time was a compact AMC Hornet with a 360 cubic inch engine crammed into every inch of space under the hood, in blazing yellow with orange racing stripes. I'm not sure why they built it that way – maybe for a special function – and I got it used. But I had a lot of fun pretending I was shifting gears as I drove. It wasn't one with its front end weight, but I referred to it as my “wheel stander” anyway. Who would argue with me? That gave it that extra bit of panache that fanned the desire even more.

So on one 4th of July it threw a rod and patriotically blew up, leaving me with a choice of going dependable and familiar or being where I really wanted to be – behind the wheel of a standard transmission car.

Mind you, at this point I still didn't know how to drive one. But I did have a vehicle salesman I knew quite well, so I went to the dealership and spelled it out. “It's the only thing I will buy. Someone will have to teach me how to drive it.”

To my surprise he said “I will. It shouldn't take that long for you to learn.” We headed out to the test car, the model I had chosen to buy, and he gave me the pointers of when to push down on the clutch and gas pedals, give it more gas! Don't panic if you stall out (we were driving on side streets). The usual stuff until you start to get the rhythm, learn how the engine should sound, get the feedback from the steering wheel and from the pedals under your feet. It was exhilarating. And he was right. It hadn't taken me that long.

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The only problem actually was at the end of the test when he had me drive into a dealership bay when the large overhead garage door went up. I was halfway through the opening and that's when I stalled as the garage door was coming down.

I never saw anyone with his girth jump out of a vehicle so fast, rush over to the stop button and hit it with the door about a foot above the vehicle. It stopped. (I don't think he turned gray haired from that but he could have.)

Would that be enough to discourage me from buying a car I was just learning to drive? No way.

I filled out the paperwork and all the other stuff involved in a purchase. And I did fine. No accidents. No tickets. Just the deep down satisfaction of finally achieving what had been a long time goal.

When it came time to buy my present vehicle, a first generation Ford Escape, there was only one thing that was not negotiable. It had to be a stick shift. Yes, at the time Ford did make a standard  transmission version. It still had a controlling ownership in Mazda, the “Zoom, Zoom” Japanese car company. And Mazda, of course specialized in sticks. Since Mazda had the standard transmission Tribute (sport utility cousin of the Escape) Ford  briefly offered a standard transmission version of the Escape.

I corraled one of the only Ford salespersons at the dealership near me who could drive a standard transmission. It took him about three days going through three states to find a new standard shift Escape at another dealership. But he did, He worked out a trade with that dealership and brought it home. I treat it with TLC and I'm still driving it.      

And a couple of kickers.

No I don't mind driving in rush hour traffic. You learn how to pace it.

You learn to tap your brakes just before you take off from a stoplight after idling in neutral to be sure the cop right behind you knows your brake lights are working so you don't get pulled over.

And about that anti theft talent. I recall another business colleague who was apprehended getting into his standard transmission vehicle late at night by a couple of unsavory types who held him up at gunpoint. He relinquished his keys and watched as the thieves in his car jerked down the street for about a half block with the terrible sound of gears grinding. Then they stopped in mid street, got out and fled.

I've always wondered why my auto insurance doesn't include a discount for having a stick for that kind of reason. That's about the only downer I can think of.

Copyrght 2020, Martha Hindes, Automotive Bureau. All rights reserved.