The end of shifting your own gears, by CJ Wilson: Motoramic Experts

August 22, 2013

CJ Wilson is a star Major League pitcher for the L.A. Angels. In his spare time, he races cars and owns his own race team (CJ Wilson Racing), using it as a platform to benefit his charity work. Wilson has always been a car guy, practically owning every Porsche on the market — including a rare Carrera GT — as well as recently purchasing one of the fastest production cars of all-time, the new McLaren P1. In his first column as a Motoramic Expert, Wilson talks about the death of the manual transmission and an upcoming electric world. - Ed


Time marches on and so does technology.

I'm not old enough to remember the lamentations of early drivers as the wooden wheel got phased out, nor the steam boiler, nor the rumble seat. And as such, I'm not quite old enough to remember the good ol' days my dad talks about with 10 cent gasoline, '57 Bel Air fins, and drive-in theaters. Today however, the gasoline engine is clearly in the twilight of its career (because good cars have soul--if you believe like I do) and the manual transmission has long begun the descent into the nether.

For a large majority of drivers, this is merely a convenience, as it is easier to plug in your car to a wall than to fill it up at a pump, and easier to let the car sort the gears out itself as opposed to exercising your left leg. But I'll admit to being an enthusiast, and logic isn't always top priority.

The Motoramic Experts series features insights from some of the most talented people in the automotive realm.

My name is CJ Wilson. Outside of my day job as pitcher for the LA Angels, I race cars. I own a race team. More to the point, I simply love to drive.

Involvement in that driving is what has kept me largely out of trouble behind the wheel. Sure, I have a few speeding tickets, but don't text and drive, email and wheel, or tweet and weave. My first car was a manual transmission Mercedes 240D — and boy was it slow. But driving a steel pig like that makes a young driver learn to look ahead, check your mirrors (no right side mirror in the 240) and conserve fuel when you could (diesel in California was, and still is, very expensive). The manual transmission meant that when going up a hill, I had to shift to 2nd or 3rd (from 4th) to avoid stalling. But hey, my head was in the moment. I was terrified most of the time, and all the better for it today.

In sports cars, the manual was the only real option for guys like me. That is, until about 15-20 years ago when the F1 transmission on the Ferrari 355 and the TipTronic transmission from Porsche burst onto the scene. My first sports car was a used 1997 911, and after the experience in that old Merc 240, I felt like I had to get another manual transmission; the used cars with auto-boxes were said to be "uninvolving." So as a young, aspiring, but not yet major league sports star, I grew accustomed to traffic, hill holding, and all that comes with a manual transmission experience. I became a better driver, remaining aware, became more aware (learning about speed traps, even on toll roads) and avoided accidents, texting mishaps, and running over debris in the road. My friends and their regular automatic cars hit each other or complete strangers, and sometimes inanimate objects. Now, I'm not trying to come off as totally elitist or condescending, but some of my friends and family are truly awful drivers.

So, as we (Americans) order fewer manual transmissions — because "when I drive, I still have to multitask" is the way of the west — automakers have been killing it off. Even one of the greatest sports cars in the world, the Porsche GT3 (the last purist Porsche they say), was recently released with only a semi-automatic PDK (albeit a fabulous transmission from what I've heard). Ferrari doesn't even offer a manual anymore. All is not lost; however, it is just a constant evolution towards easier, faster, more accessible, more economical, dummy-proof living. Cars are faster than ever, at every price point. Used cars keep getting cheaper, so for those diehards like myself, there will always be a Craigslist post selling an oddly-named enthusiast car like an Mx-5, M3, WRX, NSX, S2000, 911, etc., and they are all waiting to be mis-shifted, clutch dumped or revved up by a new and inexperienced owner. In time, they will be double-clutched, downshifted and blipped properly, but the learning curve is what we as a society have grown to reject.

As to that aforementioned increased economy, necessary to appease government regulations, here come the 2nd and 3rd generation of EV/hybrids. Nowadays, cars like the upcoming BMW i8, the Tesla Model S, heck even the McLaren P1, Porsche 918 and Ferrari LaFerrari (wish that was a typo) have outstanding battery technology and are high performance or outright hypercars. Some regular cars, due to increased mechanical efficiency, lighter materials and better refinement, have crested the 40 mpg rating, despite being gasoline only (Mazda 6) but almost all the cars we are going to be buying and driving in the next few years will have some kind of grunt provided by a regional Edison plant or windmill electric plant. Batteries and alternative fuels are the future, for better or worse (worse for enthusiasts, or luddites, or our ears; better for frogs and owls and our lungs). At least the Model S and the BMW i8 look like sporty cars.

We have come a long way from the original Honda Insight. I prefer diesel fuel and the driving experience it provides to electric drive, but the way Elon Musk is going, I've converted from zero-percent enthused to, well, something more like halfway enthused. Maybe electric cars, with proper engineering, can stir the enthusiast's soul after all?

The debate I have had more than once is: what happens to all these old gas guzzlers once battery swaps and bio-diesel are the norm? Will we have to petition for gasoline-use rights to fire up that old manual sports car in 25 years? Imagine what gas will go for then — a lot more than $4.25 a gallon. I'm not convinced that it is wise to collect cars at all, given that this could be legitimately on the horizon. We enthusiasts could have a lot of paperweights and doorstops on our hands.

For now, long live the car. Who knows what the next 25 years will bring.

Photo: Getty, Flickr - Ian.Kobylanski