Finding Focus: Can we shift back? Please?

By WES BROOKS,

Before we shift out of neutral, I want to tell all of you how much I enjoyed myself with you last Saturday.

Several thousand of us stood shoulder-to-should on Hardy Street to revel in the Mardi Gras parade festivities.

We were all there: short, tall, red, brown, black, white, Democrats, Republicans, moderates, Christians, Muslims, atheists, and those are just the labels I’ve been able to come up with in the time it’s taken to type this sentence.

I didn’t hear a siren. I didn’t hear a coarse word or see an upset face (other than the 3-year-old next to me who had his ice cream taken away for spitting it on the kid next to him), and not one show of aggression.

Quite the opposite from what’s portrayed ad nauseum on the news. Hattiesburg, you rule.

Our tune for this outing comes from the Australian rockers, AC/DC, or as they’re called in Australia, “Acca Dacca.” Released in the summer of 1979, “Highway to Hell” was the album that put the band and that album’s producer, Robert “Mutt” Lange, on the world stage.

Fun fact: although recognized as an Aussie band, only one of the founding members was actually born in Australia—drummer, Phil Rudd (Melbourne). Guitarists and brothers Malcom and Angus Young and singer Bon Scott were all born in Scotland, and bassist Cliff Williams is from England.

Queue the title track from that album, pop the clutch, and let’s motor.

 

Living easy, living free

Season ticket on a one-way ride

Asking nothing, leave me be

Taking everything in my stride

 

Not too long ago I found myself in the market for a new car. My kiddo finally got his license and my Mrs. and I “gifted” him the vehicle that’s reliably carried me to and from work the last 4 years. He’s happy he’s in a very nice SUV with some independence, and his mother and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be the parents of a 17-year-old son who drives like a 80-year-old woman (no offense, ladies). 

My first vehicle was a blue ’84 Toyota 2WD pickup truck. It wasn’t flashy, but it had a radio and AC, and got me wherever I wanted to be—and I so was proud of it.

It also had a standard/manual transmission, but that was no issue for me. Before I even had my license, my grandfather had already taught me the nuances of how to shift gears and work the clutch on the back country roads of the Free State of Jones. 

While my little 4-cylinder was lacking in speed, it made up for it in torque. Given enough gas, I could pop the clutch and spin the wheels on dry pavement. When it rained? Forget about it. That truck was so light I had to drive it expecting the wheels to spin.

It was a BLAST, and back then, kind of a badge of honor to know you could operate a manual transmission proficiently. Even more so to be able to say you could drive something atypical like a 4-speed manual shift-on-the-column (the gear shift was on the steering column behind the steering wheel).

I’m sure I’m not the only one who got some prideful amusement when a person asked if they could borrow your car and they answered “no” when your response was “Can you drive a stick?”

 

Don't need reason, don't need rhyme

Ain't nothing I would rather do

Going down, party time

My friends are gonna be there too

 

As I shopped the interwebs for a new vehicle, it quickly became apparent that vehicles with a stick shift are as easy to find as Waldo. I found that manufacturers basically give new car consumers two options if they give you the option at all: that manufacturer’s most bare bones base model (the one that also has manual windows and door locks, or the ultra-tricked out GT-turbo-charged, satellite equipped limited signature touring edition.

In other words, my options are getting something that looks like what a government agency would buy in bulk to fill a fleet of delivery vehicles, or something from The Fast and the Furious movies that does the quarter mile in under 10 seconds.

 

No stop signs, speed limit

Nobody's gonna slow me down

Like a wheel, gonna spin it

Nobody's gonna mess me around

 

Not to sound too old, but I do remember when just the opposite was true—getting an automatic transmission in most models was an upgrade, i.e. a luxury feature.

I get it. Time and advances in engineering have allowed auto manufacturers the ability to produce automatic transmissions that are more reliable and cost-effective than their manual counterparts.

But where’s the enjoyment in that?

Have manufacturers lost sight of the fact that people who seek out a vehicle with a clutch and a stick shift aren’t overly-frugal base-model drivers? They’re not. They’re looking for the same thing the folks who dump thousands of dollars into race-ready roadsters are looking for—the experience of “driving” the car. 

 

Hey Satan, paid my dues

Playing in a rocking band

Hey mama, look at me

I'm on my way to the promised land, whoo!

 

I’m not campaigning to drive with the reckless abandon Bon Scott is singing about, but I’d like to regain control of the gear box. However, it appears that if the auto manufacturers have their way, we won’t be driving at all. Mercedes-Benz and Tesla have already introduced auto-pilot or “self-driving” models. If that proves true, it looks like driving in the future will be reduced to climbing in your transportation device and saying “Siri, take me home.”

While we wait for that technology to catch up to us, maybe I could garner support from a different angle. Moms and Dads, how easy will it be for your teenager to answer that text message if they have one hand on the wheel and the other on the gear shift? Could they work that phone if they’re in a stick and traffic stops on an uphill incline?

Answer: They can’t. It’s impossible to concentrate on anything but the delicate balance of clutch, brake, accelerator, and being ready to shift to 2nd gear once they start moving.

Auto manufacturers, do you want to cut down on cell phone related car crashes? I can’t help but believe that cell phone-related MVA’s would plummet if drivers were forced to put their attention back where it should be—operating the vehicle.

Differing opinions are always welcomed. Until then, stay safe and happy motoring.

When he’s not rocking his socks off with his three-piece band, Brooks, a native of Jones County, is a busy family man who can often be spotted hopping from one event to the next with his wife, Shane, and their son, Campbell. Email him your thoughts, comments, encouragment, and critiques to: 6550music@gmail.com.