Are manual cars going backwards?

Thursday 22nd October 2020

There is a school of thought, mostly among older drivers it must be said, that unless you change gear manually you are not really driving and that people who drive automatics are somehow less of a motorist and more of a passenger.

But this outmoded attitude is rapidly going the way of the eight-track stereo and standalone sat-nav, as the rise in the number of new automatic cars on roads increases – and that change of pace is only going to shift into a higher gear as electric cars (automatic by default) become more popular.

Auto's have been trending over the last decade

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders says there are 37.5 million cars on the road in the UK and of that number, 8.4 million are automatic. That may not sound like a lot, but it is a 70 per cent increase on 2007 and some industry experts predict new sales of automatics could overtake manuals within two years.

If you want more evidence, look at the number of learners now opting to take their tests in an automatic. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency said there were 70,429 in 2011/12 but by 2018/19 that number had raced to 185,043 – an increase of 163 per cent.

It isn’t hard to see why. The proposed ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles in 2035 has made newbie drivers question the need for mastering the traditional gearstick if within 15 years it’s a skill they won’t need. With more awareness about road safety, and our highways becoming ever more stop-start, the appeal of letting the car do the hard work will only become more attractive. Who hasn’t suffered the rush hour calf cramp and creaky knee thanks to having to continuously pumping the clutch?!

In the US, where trends generally make their way across the Atlantic, manual cars are falling out of favour far more quickly than in Europe. Just 41 of 327 new car models on the forecourt this year offer a ‘stick shift’ as it is quaintly called.

But are manuals better? 

All of this surely means using a manual gearstick, like winding on a cassette tape with a pencil, is becoming a lost art. How long before we bring out pictures of the centre console of our pre-2035 vehicles for the younger generation and describing the joy of changing the gearstick between the little 1 to 6 and R that sits like a mystical hieroglyphic buried within an Egyptian pyramid?

However, there may still be some torque in the manual gearbox yet awhile. Going back to those driving test statistics, just 39% of learners in an automatic pass first time, while in a manual that number is 47%. Is that because physically changing gear places the driver more in tune with the machine they are controlling?

Manuals do, still, give you more precise and efficient control of your speed, they are steadier in wintry conditions and they are cheaper to maintain, says the RAC.


So perhaps those wise old drivers are right after all.  Maybe manuals do make driving more enjoyable, more fun and are a link back in time to those pioneers of the road who first set off in goggles, a cheery scarf and no real idea about braking.

Yes, the manual gearbox is an endangered species and automatic technology, driven by higher safety standards and the buzz for electrics, will improve. But it is part of our cultural heritage so perhaps we should just enjoy it while we can.

Have a look at our huge variety of manual and automatic cars for both personal and business use HERE. 

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