Can car lovers learn to live without manuals?
How much fun would golf be if you just loaded a ball into a gun, pressed the trigger, and the ball was shot out of the gun towards the green at exactly the right velocity? And why do people sail boats, when they could far more easily just use a powerboat?
The answer is the skill involved. There wouldn’t be any fun if there wasn’t some skill involved so there’s a sense of achievement when you get it right. So, logically, the more skill involved, the greater the fun, right?
To a point.
I’ve written many a time that the pleasure of a sports car is the sense of achievement you feel after getting something difficult right. And there’s a lot to get right with a sports car – the exact positioning of the car and the line you take through a corner is almost infinitely variable, and that’s before you get to the speed you choose, the braking and throttle. All that means that any given corner has more variables than a game of chess – you’ll never do it exactly the same twice, and chess players don’t need to contend with the condition of the chess board changing under them. And then we add another layer of complexity and variables with gearchanges.
The art of deciding when to change gear, dip the clutch, select the gear, and then even heel-toe shift to rev-match adds a whole new level of skill to driving, let alone driving fast. There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of braking at the last moment on track, feeling the tyres at the limit while performing the perfect throttle blip to smoothly slot home the next gear.
So if more skill = more fun, then maybe we should revert back to double-declutch gearshifts. And get rid of over-rev limiters, so you blow your engine if you get it wrong. Maybe delete power steering, and set alignment so every car is super tail-happy. Or put the engine right at the back…oh, wait…Porsche did that already.
There’s actually a point when something becomes so hard it’s no longer fun. Imagine if jigsaw puzzle pieces were simply all squares, still possible to complete but way harder. Or if dartboards were half the size…a much more difficult game. And so it is with sports cars. Without gearchanges, there’s still plenty of variables left to master and the fun isn’t entirely destroyed, any more than having a caddy help you with club selection destroys golf.
Two cars in particular have prompted me to write this piece; the Alfa Romeo 4C, and the Toyota Supra A90. Both are absolutely true sports cars, and both are automatic only. Yet, selecting and changing gears in them is direct, pleasurable and fun, making me seriously rethink my love of manuals. This isn’t about speed of efficiency, as automatics have beaten manuals on that score long ago, it’s about the sheer joy of driving. Racecars are now automatics in whole or part, and there’s a new breed of young race driver who has never raced a manual.
I think my view at the moment is this. The modern automatic sports car is an absolute joy to drive, a rewarding pleasure. But, as you improve, you’ll need further challenges and a manual gearshift offers that extra layer of complexity, skill demand and ultimately sense of satisfying achievement.
So I’ll stick with manuals for a while yet, thanks. What about you?