Opinion: Journalist Misses Mark With Manual Car Man Editorial

Twitter is amazing sometimes. One of the best parts about it is that occasionally a great piece of journalism — a feature story or investigative report — finds its way into your timeline.

Sometimes, though, you get the flip side. Sometimes, you come across an opinion/hot take so bad you feel like you, should you have a platform, eviscerate it.

Luckily, I have such a platform. And while anyone these days can post a screed on Medium, Substack, or even Facebook, the platform I have here is best suited for the takedown that’s about to commence. Lucky you.

The piece in question today is this gem from MEL Magazine, which bills itself as a men’s lifestyle and culture outlet. I’ve read content from MEL before and found it to be perfectly fine, but I cannot believe an editor didn’t either talk writer Ian Lecklitner out of writing this piece or at least working with him to strengthen his arguments.

To be clear, I don’t know Lecklitner, and I don’t want to make this personal. Previous TTAC eviscerations of poor journalism and/or bad arguments have sometimes veered into personal attacks, and I plan to do no such thing. Lecklitner might be a nice guy, and God knows that every journalist who publishes their opinion, myself very much included, occasionally drops one that is poorly argued or underbaked. Some of you think I’ve done it here. You may or may not be correct.

It’s an occupational hazard, especially if you publish your opinions multiple times. So, I’m gonna go easy on Lecklitner himself here, but not his arguments.

Let’s get after it, section by section:

WHY ARE MEN SO OBSESSED WITH DRIVING STICK?

Men who can drive stick think they’re the top dogs of the road, but really, they’re just the top dogs of grinding our gears

OK, the headline isn’t so bad. Makes me think we might get an analysis of stick-shift drivers broken down by gender, which could tell us some things about who buys what kind of car, and who considers themselves an enthusiast. I’d read that.

But then, that subhead. What the hell is going on there? Who are these stick-shift driving men who think they’re king of the road? Is this a thing? I have never heard of this. Not to mention, that with the manual transmission slowly dying (more on this later), are there really a large number of males who drive manuals and act like assholes on the road?

We’re not off to a good start. And the lede paragraph sets a troubled tone.

When I was a teenager, one of my best friends drove a black Volkswagen Jetta with a manual transmission. He tried teaching me when to press the clutch late one night, but I panicked and stalled. That’s all it took for me to pledge allegiance to automatic cars, and I haven’t touched a gear stick since.

A younger, meaner me would’ve probably poked fun at someone for panicking the first time they tried to drive a stick — didn’t most of us get flustered on our first tries? And didn’t we overcome that, in order to learn? But I won’t do that here. Some people just react that way, and it’s fine. Though I do find it weird he never tried again.

That said, if driving a stick wasn’t for our author, fine. It’s not for everyone, at least not since the automatic trans became dominant. If you don’t want to do it, or even try to learn, you don’t have to, and that’s OK.

Of course, if we ended here, well, no big deal. It’s just a writer expressing a preference, with a backstory. But the piece goes on.

The automatic cars I’ve owned over the years have always delivered me from point A to point B, and they’ve been largely reliable (except for my used Honda CR-V, which would spontaneously shut down, sometimes in the middle of the L.A. freeway). Yet, I’ll occasionally run into a guy who, for some reason, is insulted by my inability to drive stick. He’s what I call a Manual Car Man, a dude who prides himself on seamlessly shifting gears and thinks less of anyone who can’t.

OK, here’s where we start going off the rails. Let’s put aside that reliability isn’t, for the most part, related to transmission type. I’m more curious about the existence of Manual Car Man. Because quite frankly, I don’t think this guy really exists. At least not in any great number.

I’m not saying the number is zero — I’ve met a few people, mostly enthusiasts who work in the industry, who look down on those who can’t drive stick, or can’t do it smoothly. But based on personal experience, they’re mostly looking down on fellow car people — people that they expect will have an interest in, and ability to, drive a stick. I have yet to meet any car guy (or gal) who will shit on someone outside the industry for not driving a stick.

It’s one thing for auto journalists to quietly gossip about the dude who can’t shift smoothly while posted up to the bar, shrimp in one hand and cocktail in the other, but nothing in our author’s bio seems to suggest he writes about cars.

From here, our author posts a tweet from autos writer Alanis King, who he quotes later. The tweet mocks a certain type of man that brags about his vehicular adventures — it’s funny, and that type of man does exist — but the tweet seems irrelevant to his argument. King doesn’t even mention stick-shift drivers in the tweet.

Before I infuriate everyone, let me be clear: There are incredible people who prefer manual cars for respectable reasons. For instance, the folks on r/StickShift tell me they enjoy driving stick because it’s more engaging, cheaper and (allegedly) allows for greater control. I can appreciate them and their preferences. (However, there was one Manual Car Man in the group who said they prefer manual cars “because everything else trash, homie.”)

Next, we get this. An acknowledgment of why some folks choose a clutch pedal, and that many, if not most, of those who do are cool people. OK, that’s fair. But the parenthetical is a problem. Is one quote, perhaps made in jest, really proof that the Reddit poster is a “Manual Car Man” or that this (again, as far as I can tell, nonexistent or almost nonexistent) type of person is the scourge of the highways and byways of this great nation?

But instead of simply enjoying his passion and leaving me alone, the stereotypical Manual Car Man gets off on a deep sense of superiority.

Wait, what? Who gets off on being superior because they know how to drive a stick and enjoy it? I don’t feel superior to my friends and family who can’t drive a stick — or who can but don’t enjoy it — just because I like to row my own. And by the way, the percentage of people I know in my personal life who can’t drive a manual is probably around 90, with another 5 percent being people who can drive stick but would rather not for whatever reason (commuting, laziness, age, etc.).

Seems pretty absurd for a person to look down upon their social circle just because most of them lack a certain skill, or have that skill but care not to use it. I have friends who have skills I don’t, skills I could probably learn but have not, and unless I am completely oblivious, I don’t think they look down on me for lacking those skills.

In other words, I’m having a hard time buying that most stick-shift drivers care enough to “feel superior” to those who can only drive automatics. Maybe a few do. But I bet they’re a really small minority.

“The love of driving manual is extremely tied to the idea of a ‘pure’ driving experience,” says Kristen Lee, deputy editor of The Drive. “Cars without manual [transmissions] — and indeed, people who do not or cannot drive manual — are looked down upon by these manual-driving people, because they’re seen as lazy or illegitimate in their automotive enthusiasm.”

I agree with the first part of that quote — some folks are purists and see manuals as more “pure” than automatics. I don’t, despite a preference for rowing my own, in part because the few manual-transmission cars still on sale aren’t that much more “pure” than automatics. Some rev-match for you, so you don’t need to heel-and-toe (something that my clumsy self is bad at, anyway). And just about all of them have the same electronic doo-dads for safety and driving assistance that automatics do. If you want a “pure” driving experience, you need to buy a really old car. Even then, you have to go back pretty far to avoid things like power steering and air conditioning and boosted brakes — exactly how “pure” are older cars?

The second part of the quote — again, I’d like to see examples of this phenomenon. I’m not picking on Lee here, and I respect her work, but is this really a thing? Maybe she has experienced it personally, but again, I feel like the Manual Car Man isn’t quite the menace, nor around in quite the numbers, as the MEL piece suggests.

What adds to this sense of dominance among Manual Car Men is the fact that manual cars are well on their way out the door. Not only are automatic transmissions objectively faster than humans (and therefore manual transmissions), but multi-speed transmissions in general are facing obsolescence. “This is all going away soon,” says Patrick George, editorial director of The Drive. “Why? Electric cars. They don’t need transmissions with gears at all.” Plus, demand for manual cars has plummeted in recent years, in large part because automatics are superior when it comes to overall performance.

OK, this is more or less true. No real beef with this part of the piece, though I will point out that a manual-transmission EV is possible — Ford built a one-off Mustang for SEMA a while back.

This leaves the Manual Car Man feeling both non-conformist — he’s saying “talk to the hand” to a wave of modern technology — and cocky in a pseudo-generational sense. It would be like if a Boomer guy tried to snub a millennial dude for not knowing how to use a rotary phone, despite the millennial having full knowledge of how to use an iPhone. “It’s a silly thing to be snobbish about, kind of like being proud that you can use an abacus,” says Lee.

I….I don’t know what the last part of that first sentence means. I’m also not sure what’s wrong with being non-conformist, as long as one isn’t a jerk about it. The phone metaphor sorta makes sense, I guess…but again, are there many manual-transmission-driving people who are being all snobby about it?

These feelings of supremacy can lead to instances of sexism, which women have long faced when it comes to driving (despite being incredible drivers). Lee, for instance, has been presumed to be an automatic-only driver on multiple occasions, even though she’s deeply experienced in the manual department. She’s also had her stick skills questioned.

OK, this is undoubtedly a thing. I have no doubt women have faced sexism when it comes to driving a stick shift. In fact, discussing that would make for a much better article.

But more than the ingrained sexism, saying a person can only be truly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about cars if they’re able to drive manual is ableist. “Not everyone can physically drive stick, whether that be due to temporary pain, chronic pain or disabilities,” says Alanis King, associate editor of transportation at Business Insider (and author of the above tweet about Car Men).

OK, this is another really good point! I’d also like to see this issue explored.

What’s more, the Manual Car Man relies entirely on an American-centric viewpoint for his sense of greatness. “In places like Asia and South America, manual cars are the norm,” Lee explains, so people in those countries don’t perceive driving stick as something to brag about. The same goes for Europe and South Africa. In other words, while driving stick is a skill that’s becoming increasingly ​​scarce in America, in the grand scheme of things, it’s fairly common.

Yes, it’s true that manuals are more common overseas. But again, are American stick-shift owners really bragging in large numbers about their prowess with a manual?

That said, again, this may soon change, and what the Manual Car Man may not anticipate is, just as manual cars go extinct, so will he. “When internal combustion engines die, it’ll be a skill for classic car drivers and pretty much nobody else,” says George.

What George says is probably true, as much as many of us hope it isn’t. But I’d bet that “Manual Car Man” actually is aware this could happen. In fact, if the author’s premise is true, and if one explanation for braggadocio about the ability to use a clutch pedal involves the scarcity of stick-shifts, wouldn’t the “Manual Car Man” be anticipating, if not dreading, the death of the stick?

And now we’re finally wrapping up:

But, in the meantime, I beseech the Manual Car Man to make an (oil) change. Sir, it seems your passion has turned to hatred. Remember why you learned to drive stick in the first place. “You know the joy that comes with it,” King says. “Approaching redline and upshifting. Downshifting and feeling the engine braking.”

I know nothing beats the feeling, but that doesn’t mean we automatic drivers are any less than you. We all share the same roads, after all.

Again, where are the examples of manual-transmission owners expressing actual hatred to those who only use two pedals? Where are the examples of people making drivers like the author feel “lesser”?

I’m not accusing the author of lying about his personal experiences. I have no reason to do so. But how many of these people is he encountering if he felt it necessary to put out 850-ish words on it? And if he’s encountering that many people, couldn’t he give more examples from his life and/or find some tweets that back his point?

I get it — sometimes we writers extrapolate our anecdotal experiences into a story. Not every story idea needs to be based on something that can be measured empirically. But we risk overinflating a problem when we use this approach. Ideally, we’d check our assumptions by discussing the story idea with editors/colleagues and, perhaps, by checking online to see if we’re not alone.

I suspect that’s the case here — Lecklitner dealt with a few idiots, either in person or online or both, who fit the definition of what he called “Manual Car Man.” These idiots were obviously all men, and possibly expressed sexist/misogynistic views. Lecklitner then turned his interactions into a story — one implying this is a bigger problem than it actually is.

Thing is, I know King and Lee have covered sexism in the industry before. Lecklitner could’ve really tapped their experiences to create a larger story about sexism in the automotive world as a whole — and believe me, it still exists and is obviously still a problem — instead of creating a mostly fictional character to address something that is, unless I’ve completely missed it, not a problem, or at least not much of one.

I don’t mean to downplay truly sexist behavior, and I am sure women have endured disgusting remarks about their ability to drive a manual. That needs to stop. But that said, I also have a hard time buying that manual-driving men are, in large numbers, looking down their noses and judging anyone, male or female, who either can’t or won’t drive a stick.

I feel sorry for the author if the car guys he’s around really do act like that. He needs to either tell them off or find new friends if that’s the case. That would be better than writing a post about something that is either not happening in large numbers — if it’s even happening at all.

[Images: Volkswagen, Hyundai, Ford]

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