Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Shifting Gears

My Honda is in the shop being inspected for needed repairs, so I am driving Rick’s truck this week. My Honda has an automatic transmission. Rick’s Nissan has a manual transmission. This morning it occurred to me that I am so old that I remember cars before they had synchromesh transmissions. Naturally I looked up synchromesh when I got home and read up on it. In fact the cone synchromesh transmission was introduced by Porsche in 1952 in its 356 model, so in fact synchromesh was around long before I was driving, but the cars that did not have synchromesh were still around when I was learning to drive. The first car I drove was a Willy’s Jeep, a post-World War II model that had a manual transmission. I was eleven at the time I had my first driving lessons, creeping and jerking up and down the driveway on the farm. I remember well the resistance of the gear shift lever in my hand and the horrible noises that poor tortured transmission made as I tried to learn how to coordinate clutch and stick shift. I remember that when I came to a stop I had to shift into neutral before shifting into first to start up again. Most of the cars I drove were like that, and the first car I drove that had synchromesh to shift down to first was a revelation. Talk about an idea whose time had come. My mother’s car, a 1963 Dodge Dart, had a push button automatic transmission. Part of the whole 50s-60s push button convenience movement, I guess. After my wrestling matches with manual transmissions those push buttons were amazing. Once you punched the “D” for drive button, you just left it there and forgot about shifting gears while the car did it for you. In 1969 my father bought me a 1958 Chevy Del Ray for $284.00, or a little over $300 with tax and license, at the Santa Cruz Volkswagen dealership on Soquel Drive. Giving me the car wasn’t generosity on my father’s part. The Ford Falcon that I purchased on my own (for $150) had died up on Skyline Boulevard, and he towed me home instead of watching the All Star baseball game on television, so he was ready to get me launched back into my independent life before I could cause him any more trouble or inconvenience. Oh yeah: the truck he used to tow me home was the pickup he bought to replace the one I ruined by driving without oil a year or two earlier. I drove the Chevy without water in it at one point, turning all the gaskets into burnt cork, and he and my uncle took it out to my grandfather’s barn and hoisted the engine out and took it apart, cleaned it up, and put it back together like new in about a week. Fathers and uncles did that sort of thing for daughters back in the day. You can see why my father wanted me to go live somewhere else. I was ridiculously high maintenance. The Chevy had a manual transmission featuring the gear shift lever on the steering column, which was popular in the 50s. It was not as nifty as an automatic tranny, but it was pretty smooth and easy to use. One night on the way back to LA from San Luis Obispo, the transmission locked up and suddenly I had only two gears, second and reverse. I went into the first gas station I could find and told my tale of woe to a nice middle-aged man who got under the hood and unlocked the linkage arms, and told me that I needed to shift gears gently, using only my fingertips, because if I cranked the gear shift lever with my whole hand, the linkage would lock up again. So from then on I practiced the gentle gear shift, light and delicate. If I let anyone else drive the car they invariably locked it up, even though I warned them to shift gently. I carried a hammer in my car so I could get under the hood and hammer the linkage arm that was stuck in the higher position back down where it belonged. I preferred stick shifts for years. I thought automatic transmissions were boring. But now I drive a Honda Civic with an automatic tranny. I like it. When I have to drive the truck, though, I find that my gear shifting ability comes right back. It’s good to know I am able to shift gears when I have to. Now, I know all you readers are highly intelligent people, so I won’t belabor the point of today’s rambling sermon. Here it is: in cars and in life it’s good to be able to shift gears when you have to. And when your linkage gets stuck, sometimes you have to use a hammer.‘nuff said.

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