Sneakers and stick shifts: What’s the best pair for the job?

My search led me to one definitive answer.

By Chris D'Alessandro Wheels.ca

May 26, 2023 7 min. read

Article was updated 4 months ago

Join the Conversation (1)
I refuse to wear “driving shoes”.

Ferrari or BMW-branded Pumas give off an energy somewhere between “divorced dad” and “kid from your high school who was unnaturally good at glow-sticking”. You can practically smell the cologne from here. Don’t even get me started on wearing actual Sparco racing shoes anywhere that isn’t a race track. That’s like walking around all day in ski boots or a hockey helmet. They’re sports equipment. Not fashion.

Still, it’s been tricky to find a pair of sneakers that look dignified with a casual outfit and which are comfortable and communicative for spirited manual transmission driving.

Lucky for you, I’ve tested just about every usual suspect sneaker on the market (though admittedly, not every single one, you might have a favorite not mentioned here) and can make a few recommendations.

And yes, there is one I would recommend above all the rest.

Honorable mention: Common Projects Achilles

Pros: Margom rubber sole. Tough guts. Works as art.

Cons: Way too expensive. Way too nice to rally.

For those in the know, the Common Projects Achilles is the king of the minimalist sneaker. High quality Italian leather ages well over time. A Margom rubber sole easily cleans away scuffs and can be replaced if needed. A steel shank, brass lasting nails, a leather cup sole, and a suede heel counter give the shoe long-lasting structure and superior comfort.

But they start at $640 for a pair. Which is a tough, tough pill to swallow for something you’re going to abuse with heel-toe power shifts. It’ll hurt way too much when you put a proper scuff in the supple Italian leather or crease the toe box with constant clutch use.

However, I’ve been experimenting with an older pair which are long past their crisp prime and I have to say, they have great pedal feel. So if you’ve got a pair of old Common Projects no longer fit for the office or a wedding, consider recycling them into driving shoes.

Good: Converse Jack Purcell

Pros: Inexpensive. Toe and heel support. Double stitched toe box.

Cons: Cheap materials. Dirt and grime magnets. Seasonally available.

Converse Jack Purcell

Chuck Taylors used to be my go-to shoes for… everything. They were cheap, timelessly stylish and their basketball heritage meant they had great pedal feel for driving stick.

But I found every pair had the same failure point — a glued-on plastic outsole which ultimately split and separated at the tow box. Constantly creasing the toe box to push in a clutch pedal seemed to only accelerate the failure.

This led me to Converse’s more robust casual sneaker; the Jack Purcell as my first attempt to find a better driving shoe.

Originally developed by a Canadian badminton champion, Mr. Purcell’s shoes were designed for greater support on the court. However, they also featured a more protective, double-stacked toe cap.

Combined with a double stitch on the toe box, I found Purcells far outlasted standard Chucks when put on a steady diet of gas-clutch-gas — avoiding the failure point of the toe box separating from the outsole.

However, like all Chucks, the cheap plastic-leather on the Purcells easily flakes away and the outsole still wears away and warps in just a few short months of use. All those cheap materials are also impossible to clean. The tongue attracts a disproportionate amount of dirt and grime and the metal ringlets for the laces score the leather underneath.

Converse doesn’t always stock the Jack Purcells, but their Chuck 70 models use an identical double-stitched toe box. I’ve found the Chuck 70s perform at essentially the same level as the Purcells. Moreover, they can be had in a robust canvas material — so you might as well save a few bucks over the "mickey mouse leather" models for clutch duty.

Better: Vans Old Skool

Pros: Superior materials, support, and protection. Made for abuse.

Cons: Tough break-in period. When they fail, they fail fast.

Vans Old skool

After not quite feeling like anything from Converse was making the cut for manual transmission duties, I asked myself, “When was the last time I wore an everyday sneaker that needed to stand up to abuse?”

When I was a delinquent skateboarding teen, I wore Vans.

After trying Vans Authentics, Classics, and Eras to less than desirable results, I turned towards the Old Skool model — the most robust offering for skateboard enthusiasts — and found them to be much better at clutch work.

Like the Jack Purcells, double stitching prevented the toe box from cracking. However, I also found the tougher, vulcanized rubber outsole handled clutch kicks as well as kick-flips. A rubber cup sole provided great heel support and slightly thicker, slightly more real leather than that of the Converse and held up better to abuse over a longer period of time.

There were a couple of weak points for the Vans, however. Because their insoles are foam, and midsole is a kind of moldable plastic, it all wears down over time and eventually provides no support. Additionally, because Vans are bonded with tape when the heel or toe begins to wear down, the layers of rubber separate from one another and the entire outsole just falls out.

My Old Schools were fantastic up until they began to fail. And then seemingly all at once, they just did.

Worst of all, however, was the extensive break-in period. I found that fresh out of the box Vans cut into the back of my heel to the point of breaking the skin. A fairly tortuous experience when you’re trying to clutch your way through heavy traffic.

Best: Adidas Gazelle

Pros: Inexpensive and often on sale. Superior shape, feel, and comfort. Available in suede.

Cons: Styrofoam-like materials. A more sporty, less casual style.

Adidas Gazelle

In general, I’m not a fan of Adidas shoes. Every pair of Stan Smiths I’ve ever tried has been hot garbage. The air cell-filled outsole collapses immediately. The “leather” is just compressed scraps coated in plastic and stamped to look like real leather. The tongue rides up the arch of my foot. The toe box creases immediately. The outsole, despite having a visible stitch, is just glued onto the upper of the shoe.

So it took me a while to start experimenting with Adidas as a driving shoe alternative. However, a "40 per cent off" was enough of an incentive to try a pair of Gazelles which have been, far and away, the best pair of casual sneakers I’ve ever used for driving stick.

Now admittedly, the Gazelle is cheating a little bit. It was originally designed as a trainer/running shoe and that heritage shows. But it still doesn’t look so much like sportswear that it’s disqualified from casual wear, and the benefits far outweigh the detractors.

The double-stitched toe box and cap prevents creasing and encourages using your toe to shift. A cushy, supported heel makes your foot feel locked in, while not digging into your flesh like the Vans. The bottom of the outside also provides excellent grip with its hexagonal pattern.

The lack of metal ringlets for the laces and the general softness of the materials make the Gazelles easy to clean and more repellent to scuffs — especially in suede form. The tongue does feel horribly cheap — honestly like a styrofoam cup, but I have to say it's held together well so far.

The shoe overall feels flexible, while also secure. So you get a great pedal feel, while not wearing out the arches of your feet. Their origin as a training shoe really comes in as an advantage here.

The Gazelles simply check all the boxes. They feel great as a driving shoe. They’re made to stand up to abuse. They’re not terribly expensive. And they look more like an everyday piece of fashion than they do a piece of sports equipment.

Obviously, I’ve tried a lot more shoes for driving stick over the years than what I mentioned above. Skate shoes like Supra and Nike SB. Dad shoes like New Balance Legacys and Reebok Club Cs. Even some classic sneakers like Nike Blazers. I personally found they did an acceptable job, but I never liked how trendy they were — in fashion one summer and out the next.

I landed on Jack Purcells, Vans Old School, and Adidas Gazelles not just for their ease of styling and clutch-kicking capabilities, but also because they’re all yet to go out of fashion since their inception.

And in the case of the Gazelles, they’ve been a sneaker staple since the ‘60s. Once again, making them the most favorable choice in my books.




More from Wheels & Partners