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Young drivers can learn stick shifts in classic cars

Wednesday, August 24, 2016by  Jon Osterberg
Out of the blue, this week I received an invitation for a fun program offered by Hagerty Insurance.
     Hagerty insures my two vintage Chevies, and next month it’s teaming with LeMay Car Museum in Tacoma to teach teenagers how to drive cars with manual transmissions. I was invited to offer a car and help coach.
     Called the Hagerty Driving Experience, the program aims to ignite a next-generation passion for classic cars. It’s free, held Sept. 17 on a closed driving course. About 40 students can participate.
     Apparently, it’s a fact: Few of today’s youth know how to drive a stick shift. And as aging boomers like me can attest, learning to use a clutch is an art form. One at risk of becoming a lost art.
     My mom’s first three cars were stick shifts – “three on the tree” is what we called it when the gear shift was mounted to the steering column. Sportier cars had “four on the floor.” Mom bought a one-year-old 1961 Ford Falcon that served as the family car until 1968, when she got her first car with an automatic transmission, a yellow Mustang. For her, that automatic was sheer luxury.
     I learned to use a clutch at age 13 when I drove the ancient Sylte Ranch truck in a hay field. The first car I owned, at 18, was a ’61 Impala with a Powerglide auto tranny. But I bought my dream car at age 21, a 1970 Chevelle SS 396, and it has a factory Hurst four-speed. That summer I quickly and happily honed my stick-shift skills.
     My wife learned to drive in 1971 in her dad’s Volkswagen Beetle, which had a floor shift. And when she bought her first car at age 22, she got her own VW, a cute red bug with a stick.
     When we sold her bug in 1979, we bought our first new car. Ordered it from the factory, in fact – a blue 1979 Chevy Monza 2+2. That car was a dream during the gas crisis. Along with four on the floor, it had an economical 4-cylinder engine and an 18-gallon gas tank that enabled a crazy driving range on the freeway – 600 miles per tankful!
     The point being, in years past, learning to drive a manual transmission was a given. Not so today.
     Both of our kids had their licenses when 2002 rolled around, and I thought I would be a really cool dad and buy them an old classic car to drive to high school. I found a 1962 Chevy Impala two-door for sale, great shape, Palomar red. I bought it. Yes, I admit, I liked the car a lot, but it truly was supposed to be the kids’ car.
     I tried to teach my son to drive my stick-shift Nissan pickup in an empty park-and-ride. After several attempts and a little gear-grinding, he finally threw his hands up in exasperation and said, “Dad, I don’t want to do this! It stresses me out every time I grind the gears. Can we just forget it?”
     My daughter was even less willing, unable to grasp the coolness of a vintage Impala. She denies it today, but I clearly recall her words: “Dad, I don’t want to drive that big boat to school.”
     So the Impala became mine. It’s now been retrofitted with a glorious five-speed floor shift, which makes for great freeway fuel economy.
     Today, my son has been a stick-shift whiz for years. When I’m gone, the Chevelle will be his.
     And I’m hopeful my daughter has grown to appreciate the Impala, because when I’m gone, it’s hers – “boat” that it is.

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Comments on this post

personDY08/25/2016 06:32 PM
Those are two sweet rides and they bring back my early days of grinding the gears. Didn't take long before the clutch and gearbox were second nature to me. Nothing like putting your ride through the paces.

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