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Why The Manual Transmission Must Live On

Despite all the rational reasons for why the manual is facing extinction, the reasons to drive them still exist

Ntsako Mthethwa
June 12, 2023
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Why The Manual Transmission Must Live On

An in-depth look at the automotive world would indicate how it's transformed through the years, as technology and electrification have become global topics of discussion. 

While the future looks optimistic, some things won't form part of it; a topical one being manual transmissions.

Before getting into details about the subject at hand, it's best to understand the history of manual transmissions. History books and websites tell us of two French gentlemen, Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor, who invested in, designed and built the first 3-speed transmission in 1894. 

It was an incredibly complicated arrangement of a non-synchromesh transmission. It earned the 'crash box' epithet due to how complex it was to mesh the desired cogs resulting in cringeworthy grinding and crunching sounds. Think of what happens when you try to engage a gear without depressing the clutch properly. It was that, but worse.

Despite the efforts that came with operating the non-synchromesh transmission, most cars continued to use the system until the year 1929, when Cadillac wielded the synchromesh manual transmission to its cars. This technology has since been adopted and modernised by almost every carmaker to date.

That was a long time ago, though, and it's safe to say that the world has changed since. Modern developments in the automotive fold are seeing manual transmissions slowly facing their demise as more and more vehicle manufacturers shift towards automatic gearboxes.

To illustrate how serious this is, here's a thought: In 2020, Mercedes-Benz released a report indicating its plans to ditch the manual transmission from its range by the year 2030. A year later, Volkswagen wanted to do the same. Here's why...

For a start, the market doesn't seem to want them anymore. Most premium manufacturers are phasing them out entirely because sales numbers suggest a huge upswing in automatics. Manual gearboxes also don't seem to have a place in the future outlook of the automotive world.

They're essentially obsolete when you speak of electric or hybrid cars, and these have seen a massive uptick in adoption. Generally speaking, manual transmissions also don't allow for smart tech-based driving assistance and semi-autonomous features. And these are increasingly sought after by customers for safety, convenience, and general driving pleasure. Consider the difference between a manual car versus an automatic car while stuck in traffic.

Furthermore, the axing of manual 'boxes is happening particularly fast within the premium segments where niceties such as semi-autonomous tech and smart auto-transmissions can be customised and intelligent. But what about performance? The truth is, automatic transmissions are far smarter and faster than even the most pro-manual gear shifter, so even for speed and efficiency, the auto tends to win.

In South Africa, manual transmissions are still found in many products. In cheaper segments of the market, the manual is still strongly offered and purchased. 

Everything from a new Volkswagen Caddy to a Renault Kwid or something more utilitarian like a Toyota Hilux workhorse will still sport a manual transmission. For those sports car lovers among us who still want BMW Ms and Porsche 911s with a manual, it tends to become trickier to find. You have to make a very specific request for these, but they'll still do them for you.

So, why am I still a huge defender of the manual? Ultimately, it's because I love driving. I feel a stronger sense of command and engagement. I feel more in control. In particular with high-performance manual cars, a driver tends to be more attuned to the rev counter while also pondering ahead. 

Before making a turn, you're already preparing both feet for some dance act to brake, clutch, and accelerate out of a turn simultaneously. Purists will affirm that there is no truer feeling than being 100% at work in a manual sports car and allowing the exhaust note to belch out in fierce clamour.

Despite all the rational reasons for why the manual is facing extinction, it'll still be around for the next few years. Simply because, as stated, the reasons to drive them still exist. Just like there are still those who prefer pieces of vinyl over streaming services. 

My advice to you: practise your fancy footwork and enjoy them while you still can.

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