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Is this the end of the stick shift?

Instructors rue demise of standard car driving lessons in the age of automatics

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With a foot on the clutch and a hand on the gear stick, Allan MacDonald is doing his best to keep a love of the stick shift alive.

But the York Region driving instructor is on a lonely mission.

Come February, there will be just one car with a manual gearbox available to Young Drivers students in the GTA — and that’s only because the car is owned by the York Region franchise instead of an individual instructor.

MacDonald is one of the instructors who uses the white 2010 Toyota Corolla.


“I love it, I’ve always loved it,” he said. “You’re always moving, always paying attention to your car and what’s around you … always listening for the friction point (when your foot is far enough off the clutch to apply gas).”

The four-year-old car will be a rarity after the national company announced this month it will be shuttering its GTA standard program.

There aren’t enough people interested in the lessons to make it worth all the repairs required for vehicles constantly being damaged by new drivers stalling or grinding gears.

Those unable to book MacDonald’s white Corolla will have to head out of the city. While Young Drivers affiliates outside the GTA have no plans to limit their lessons, the nearest ones require drivers to head west to Guelph/Cambridge, north to Orillia, or hundreds of kilometres east to Ottawa for their 45-minute lessons.

It wasn’t an easy choice to make, said Angelo DiCicco, a long-time instructor and general manager of the GTA and some surrounding regions for Young Drivers.

But when he recently began teaching his 16-year-old daughter, Nicole, how to drive, he realized there wasn’t as much interest.

When he said clutch, Nicole thought “small fashionable evening purse” instead of a floor pedal.

And she’s not alone.

These days a standard car is a bit of a misnomer in North America, where the new “standard” is automatic.

Maybe one in 10 cars sold now is a manual, according to John Gamal, sales manager at Downtown Honda. Despite a brief reprieve in 2012 when the media declared a manual comeback, the news since has been less than optimistic.

For Young Drivers in the GTA, the number of students asking for lessons on a manual has slipped from 40 per cent of all students in 1988 to 5 per cent in 2008. This year there are just 1,500, fewer than 2 per cent of all GTA students.

Next year there likely will be none.

“It’s a dying art,” DiCicco said. “It’s like a language; it can be lost in a generation.”

It’s also getting tougher to rent a standard car. Hertz, Avis, Enterprise and National do not advertise manual vehicles on their websites. A Budget Rent-A-Car representative said some locations carry stick shifts, but most cars are automatic.

At the Eglinton Ave. W. Rent-A-Wreck, manager Vladimir Ermakov said they stopped renting manual cars because they suspected young men were using them for street racing. Stick shift fans can go to the Riverdale Rent-A-Wreck, which has two “very popular” manual cars, compared to more than 75 automatic, said supervisor Jasmeet Singh.

Back in the car, MacDonald slowly eases his left foot off the clutch and just as the car starts to shudder, moves his right foot off the brake, pressing slowly on the gas pedal. When the car speeds up just enough, he pushes the clutch in again and shifts to second gear. What takes students awhile to learn is second nature for him and he loves it.

It’s driving, as opposed to just steering, he said.

But what’s next for the stick shift is uncertain.

The decline in sales, coupled with the decline in lessons doesn’t bode well, said DiCicco. Still, outside of North America, a manual transmission is the norm.

That’s partly why DiCicco hopes he might be able to bring back the Toronto program at some point, in some form.

He’s familiar with the shudder, lurch and horrified faces of new students stalling a standard vehicle for the very first time and he knows it can be a pain in the neck, especially in the city’s stop-and-go traffic.

And yet, he said, it can also be “sheer joy.”

“It’s beautiful . . . you have more control.”

With files from Laura Kane

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