Pink Hair pops her head into my office.
“Can you drive a stick?”
First of all, I’m a bit offended. Can’t she see the piece of an old race car mounted on the wall?
But there must be a story here, so I listen. Her friend Matthew is stuck downtown. In his family shuffle of automobiles he wound up with a stick shift econo-box in need of attention. He had picked it up at a repair shop and tried to drive it home. However, he is inexperienced with a clutch, and driving through historic Savannah with its squares, traffic lights and meandering tourists is not a suitable training exercise. He has wisely parked it in a hotel loading zone. He needs help.
We trundle downtown and I get out of the car to help him out. Then it turns out that with all his false starts and sitting with the flashers on to avoid a parking ticket, the battery is stone dead. An hour of various alarums and excursions ensues, but finally I’m in the left seat and the engine is running. It dawns on me that I haven’t driven a manual transmission for many years, and this one has a nearly dead battery. Choking it down would mean a massive loss of parental face.
I get it rolling with way too much throttle, and we’re off.
After a few shifts, it’s starting to come back. Hey, I remember how to do this! Soon we’re stopped at a light, waiting to cross Oglethorpe Boulevard. I’m in first, holding down the clutch.
Suddenly it’s 1970, and I’m in Jacksonville Beach on my way home from the ship. I’m first in line for the traffic light, just the way I like it. Just across the intersection is an overpass, a short concrete tunnel. The car is a 1965 Porsche 356SC, with milled heads and a custom camshaft. But the best part is a magnificent bit of metallic stagecraft hanging out the rear end. It appears to a casual observer be a muffler, but it’s actually a megaphone to dump all the noise to starboard. If I work this right, and I usually do, I can hit 6,000 RPM in first gear by the middle of the overpass. The resulting reverbatory cacophony will be exquisite, as usual.
But then I’m back in 2011, and it would be ungentlemanly to blow up Matthew’s little Ford. I ease on down Price Street. This thing doesn’t have a tach, just a wildly conservative light that tells you to upshift just as things are starting to feel good. But the past comes back.
It’s 1974, and I’m driving a Lotus Esprit as the pace car for an SCCA sports car race. My boss at the dealership thinks this is a good way to show off the car. The rule of thumb to start a race in this class is “on the cam” in second gear, and I’m there, watching all those wienie cars in my rear mirror. It dawns on me that I could keep my foot in it, hit third, and most likely lead the first few laps. But I don’t think that would be appreciated, and I pull into pit lane like I’m supposed to. By the way, I also took my mother to K-Mart in this car. She thought it was kind of silly.
We’re cruising South, out of downtown, and things are opening up a bit. About Gwinnet street, I have another flashback. I’m in an Alfa Romeo Spider, (red of course) with the top down. In another “show the flag” deal, I’m driving in a rally. This is not a race, but a geekish navigation exercise, with the goal being to match a predetermined average speed. But we have missed a turn, and I’m trying to catch up on these backwoods Georgia roads, to get back to the calculated speed. I need to point out that the Alfa has a classy chrome shift lever mounted right on top of the transmission. The box itself is smooth as a peanut butter and honey sandwich, and I’m flying. Over the wind noise, my navigator says, “You know, I think you LIKE being behind!” Guilty as charged.
I’m getting comfortable now, and it’s time to enhance Matthew’s education. “You know, Matthew, you don’t really need a clutch if you know what you’re doing.” I drop back again to the early 70’s, selling cars with hydraulic clutches notorious for blowing seals and ceasing to function as planned. We were used to it. When a customer called in to complain of a lost clutch, we’d take a shop car to them, trade keys, and drive their car back. Sometimes we’d beat them to the shop. It’s a simple drill. If you have to stop, turn off the engine, put it in first, and hit the starter when the light turns green. Then, with a little care and footwork, you can run through the gears with your left foot on the floor.
With the confidence of five minutes back in the shifting business, I announce a demonstration. Matthew turns a bit green, but I make it through the gears clutchless. He turns a deeper shade when I demonstrate the old heel and toe trick by downshifting, blipping the throttle and braking all at the same time. I confess, by now I’m showing off.
We turn left onto Derenne Avenue, and we’re in four lane traffic . I’m transported back to the early 80’s driving conservatively down I-95 with my elder daughter, who was herself a beginning driver at the time. We are in a 1978 Saab WagonBack, a nice family conveyance. I’m in the left lane at a gentlemanly pace, easing past a semi. Suddenly I spot his turn signal in my peripheral vision, and I realize three things:
- I’m under his mirrors, I’m a little guy, and I don’t think he sees me.
- My EPA approved horn is too weak to get his attention.
- There is a lot less truck ahead of me than trailer behind me.
I quickly grab a handful of fourth gear out of fifth and a boot full of gas pedal. The old girl picks up her skirts and moves smartly forward. My daughter’s big brown eyes get a little bigger. “I didn’t know this car would do that!” “Well”, I replied, “Usually it doesn’t need to.”
In 2011, we’ve turned left onto Matthew’s quiet street. But I’m thinking Saabs again, this time my 1982 silver four door sedan. With a turbocharger. A turbocharger with an attitude. When you get it into the boost, it whistles, shakes and starts dropping miscellaneous parts onto the road, but it sure is fun. I’m almost to Matthew’s driveway in 2011, but in my mind I’m at the intersection of US 301 and some anonymous road in South Georgia, running my traps. I’m at the stop sign, with no cars in sight in all four directions. It’s time. I hit first through fourth at full throttle, turbo wailing and enjoying itself. I’m well into triple digits when a modicum of discretion requires a slight lifting of the right foot and a shift to fifth.
Turning into Matthew’s driveway, I realize that for the last 8 years I’ve been driving a four wheeled living room that Pink Hair calls “The Cloud”. It’s no slouch, and even has a shift-friendly transmission, but it’s not quite the same.
So I’m old. But I CAN drive a stick!