A sign of the times, part 2

This story’s being sent about as an example of stupid criminals, à la News of the Weird, but I just view it as a sign of the times:

Bellacino’s Pizzeria closes at 9 p.m. That’s when one of the employees left work out a back door, where his car was parked. He was approached by two teens armed with a gun, who demanded his wallet and his car keys.

The employee wisely gave both up.

The suspect jumped into the victim’s car, but he couldn’t get it started, because it didn’t have an automatic transmission. It was a standard shift with a clutch pedal.

The victim ran back into the pizzeria and called police. After a few minutes, other employees opened the back door expecting the criminals to be gone.

“And I look out, and the guy’s still in his car, trying to start the car, but all he has is the radio on, ’cause you have to keep the clutch down to start the engine,” said pizzeria employee J.J. Williamson.

Frustration turned to resignation, and the suspects left the scene in a more conventional way — they ran. But not fast enough before Cobb police arrested Joshua Johnson, 18, and a juvenile.

This story is amusing, and it’s fortunate that no one got hurt. While it’s tempting to laugh at the carjackers for their stupidity, it’s actually not all that surprising what happened. After all, I doubt too many carjackers, would take the time to look carefully and see if a car that they’re about to carjack has a clutch and manual shift, and professional car thiefs generally prefer to steal cars when their owners aren’t in them. It used to be that almost everyone knew how to drive a stick shift, but now relatively few do, particularly young people. Carmakers don’t even make that many models where a manual shift is an option; it’s mostly specialty high performance cars. It seems that only truck drivers are able to work a clutch anymore. Even back in the late 1970’s, the driver’s education class that I took to learn how to drive didn’t teach us how to use a manual shift. In one way, it’s kind of sad, because manual shift cars, properly driven, tend to get better gas mileage than cars with automatic transmissions.

I didn’t learn to drive a stick until I was in my 20’s. I actually rather liked my old stick shift car, a Ford Probe that I owned for 10 years (although I admit that driving it around Chicago could get to be a pain sometimes). I wouldn’t mind owning a manual shift car again someday, but it’s unlikely to happen.


  1. #1 Candice
    June 24, 2007

    …this is also why you don’t park BEHIND your place of work, if you’re going to be leaving late, and alone.

  2. #2 alexstev
    June 24, 2007

    Here in the UK, most cars are manual – I learnt on a manual (in the late 90s) and have owned two cars, both manual. This is fairly normal here.

    Automatics are looked on as a bit of a luxury – plus in some circles people who drive an automatic are looked down on as it’s assumed they don’t have the skill to drive a manual. Although that might just be the circles I move in…

    I’m not sure why there’s such a difference between the US and UK – but if you take a formal driving test in an automatic, you are only licensed to drive automatics, so most people take their test on a manual even if they plan to buy an automatic just so that they can drive a manual if the occaision arises.

  3. #3 Andreas Schaefer
    June 24, 2007

    Same rules as for the UK here in Germany – a license made on an automatic is marked and good only for those.
    I think there are still a lot of manual shift cars here and fondly remember my first real car ( for some values of real ) the Renault 4 with the ‘crutch shift’ in the middle of the dashboard. (That fondness may be caused by thinking that the times were better and the younger me was happier. )

    I am not sure if gas-saving is a reality for most drivers ( saving on the purchase of the car may be ) likely a well tuned automatic ( and I hear some cars can switch between ‘styles’ ) saves more. Also given my trust in the average drivers driving abilities ( as a cyclist I tend to have my own dim view of that ) a major advantage of an automatic may be one less distraction . ( of course these days we have mobiles and i-pods for that. )

  4. #4 Orac
    June 24, 2007

    For my European readers, there is no such distinction in the U.S., at least not in any of the states where I’ve lived. If you get a driver’s license, you can drive a manual or automatic transmission, regardless of what kind of car you used to pass your driving test. It’s just one drivers license.

  5. #5 sailor
    June 24, 2007

    “If you get a driver’s license, you can drive a manual or automatic transmission, regardless of what kind of car you used to pass your driving test. It’s just one drivers license.”
    I don’t know if it is still the same but in the UK I did a motor bike driving test on a piddly 50 cc motor bike. That qualfied me to drive any size motor bike!

  6. #6 Inquisitive Raven
    June 24, 2007

    When I learned to drive in the late 1970’s, we spent exactly one day on manual shifts. Then my parents spent a year in England, and my mom decided that I was going learn to drive a stick if it killed me. I probably nearly gave the instructor an MI. I’m afraid I had a decidedly American tendency to take my left turns wide and my right turns tight.

    There’s also the fun and happiness of the shift lever being on the wrong side of me. Fortunately, the clutch was in the same place relative to the driver’s position as in an American car.

    This stood me in good stead when I bought my first car, a five speed manual.

  7. #7 Janne
    June 24, 2007

    I think all of Europe has changed the bike license by now. My parents actually got a bike license “for free” when getting a drivers license! No wonder accident rates were horrendous. Nowadays I think all of Europe has standardized on Light (125cc and some maximum power, from 16 years of age), Medium (35Kw and some weight limits I believe, from 18 years), and Heavy (everything else – from 20 years, and the Medium license is automatically converted to Heavy after two years). Or something like that – I took my bike license before the new rules came into effect.

    Overall a good idea. Bikes are very different from cars, both in how they handle and how the fit in the overall traffic landscape, and there’s almost as big a difference between light and heavy bikes too.

    And yes, most people drive stick shift in Sweden too, in part because like in the UK the licenses are different and automatics are costlier and has a reputation of consuming more fuel. Automatics are seen as something taxi drivers and delivery people use (since they stop and start all the time), and something for the elderly or disabled that can’t really handle a stick shift.

  8. #8 HCN
    June 24, 2007

    Our first car was had a manual transmission. Dear hubby spent hours and hours trying to get me to learn how to drive the thing. We would usually go to a neighborhood with lots of hills and little traffic, by the lake. In other words, very nice neighborhood… one where he had park the car in between a BMW and a Mercedes Benz at its beach club.

    I tried, tried and really tried to get that car to proceed from stop on a hill. But that skill eluded me. Even though I had a valid driver’s license, I opted to use the bus.

    For a 20-something birthday dear hubby bought us an automatic transmission car. Yeah… I can drive!!!

    By the way, in the USA… most cars are sold with automatic transmissions. You almost have to special order a stick shift!

    I have a few standard excuses for driving an automatic:

    1) I do not have to prove my masculinity (something I used at work when the other engineers bragged about their stick-shift driving ability… and to those who are slow to pick up hints, I was one of the very few female aerospace engineers! —- on the day in the early 1980s a stupid newspaper trivia list mentioned that there were NO female aerospace engineers “not a one”, I had that stupid piece of paper shoved in my face multiple times! — oh, and I knew several that had graduated with a BSAA from my university, some from the 1950s!).

    2) There is technology available that actually does the shifting (even more so if you drive a hybrid).

    3) If “God” had wanted me to drive a stick shift he/she would not have given me two left feet.

  9. #9 Marc
    June 24, 2007

    My closest friend also has good memories of his Ford Probe: It was a great car. Too bad he wrapped his around a freeway divider after staying up too long. (He was fine; the car–not so much; oddly enough, I wrecked my car the same day.)

  10. #10 Michele
    June 24, 2007

    My grandpa taught me to drive a stick before I got my license. I did’t have a stick until the first new car I owned (a Ford Escort). I drove that car for ten years and loved it, until I started working in downtown L.A. and lived in the north end of the San Fernando Valley. I’ve driven an automatic since and would like to again, but as long as I’m living on the Westside that probably won’t happen.

  11. #11 Porlock Junior
    June 25, 2007

    Orac say,
    “If you get a driver’s license, you can drive a manual or automatic transmission, regardless of what kind of car you used to pass your driving test.”

    Best example yet of the need for the distinction between “can” and “may”.

    Reminds me of the shutdown message on my computer: after it has properly cleaned out the file buffers and all, it says “…you may now safely shut down the computer.” I don’t need no steenkin permission to shut down my computer, safely or unsafely.

    As to transmissions, HCN confirms what I thought, that the ability to shift gears is now a status symbol. What else could account for the universal fad for six-speed transmissions in cars that have plenty of torque over a decent range of engine speed? Maybe the Honda 2000 is to blame, for its high performance from a little engine, the sort of thing that may actually _need_ a 6-speed. Otherwise, it’s “Hey, Ma, look at me, I know how to shift gears, look, I’m doing it all the goddam time!”

    (Ahem. In 1958 you bleeding well shifted gears to the satisfaction of the California DMV examiner or no license for you, bozo. Parallel parking not optional, either. There were real men in those days — and believe it or not, even women, even in the benighted 50s, were expected to master the necessary skills.) (Yes, Nurse, I’ll take my medication now.)

  12. #12 hipparchia
    June 25, 2007

    I can drive shift car OK. But I neve learned the shifting in a Trabant car we had once upon a time. It had this curvy stick on one side of the wheel and how to get to each speed was a mystery. Cool thing was it could start when in third shift. Nowadays, there aren’t too many Trabis in the streets anymore, they are used more for a curiosity. My dad says that he gets scared to think how he drove us kids around in a car that will not cover any safety standards.

    Now, if I tried to steal an automatic car, I’d wonder, where the hell is the clutch pedal.

  13. #13 Andrew Dodds
    June 25, 2007

    Funny thing is, when my wife and myself took a fly-drive trip around the States, first time we stopped the car, we couldn’t get it started again – didn’t realise you had to have your foot on the brake to start up. And in San Francisco, it took real trust to believe that the car would do hill starts..

    Mind you, when it comes to American cars, it’s not the automatic gearbox that’s the problem, it’s the diabolical handling; we nearly ended up in the pacific at one point.

    Porlock – Think the trend may come from Europe. Driving a diesel gives you a fairly narrow band of revs where you get large amounts of torque, so having more gears is an advantage.

    Of course, the *real* reason to drive a manual is so that you can rev the engine lots and do wheel-spin starts, which is, of course, irresistably attractive to women.

  14. #14 Graculus
    June 25, 2007

    Of course, the *real* reason to drive a manual is so that you can rev the engine lots and do wheel-spin starts, which is, of course, irresistably attractive to women.

    In automatics that’s a tranny slam. Reponsible for the high u-joint attrition rate throughout the 70’s.

    Yes, I can drive stick, but it’s just rowing the gearbox in city driving.

  15. #15 James Taylor
    June 25, 2007

    Actually, one of the main reasons I have exclusively bought manual transmission cars is for security and I have never had one stolen; however, they have been broken into several times. The sales manager looked at me like I was insane when I bought my current manual last year. I do like to actually drive the car too. Around here, only automatics get stolen.

  16. #16 TheProbe
    June 25, 2007

    Orac: I didn’t learn to drive a stick until I was in my 20’s. I actually rather liked my old stick shift car, a *Ford Probe*

    I most definetely approve of your well considered choice of transportation.

  17. #17 khan
    June 25, 2007

    I learned to drive a stick at the age of 21 (1972) when I bought a used VW Beetle; the car salesman showed me how to shift.

    I have driven a stick since then.

    Recently my ’89 vehicle started making death rattles, so I bought a used car with an automatic. I miss the stick.

    One advantage of a manual is you can roll/push start it with a dead battery.

    I think I’ll buy a new car with a shift in 5 years; I like the Smart car.

  18. #18 Warren
    June 25, 2007

    I wouldn’t mind owning a manual shift car again someday, but it’s unlikely to happen.

    Even entry-level cars by Hyundai are available with a 5-speed manual.

  19. #19 Ithika
    June 25, 2007

    3) If “God” had wanted me to drive a stick shift he/she would not have given me two left feet.

    Well, you’ll need to explain this one to me! I know why you’d want to use the clutch and accelerator at the same time, and why you’d need the clutch and the break — but all three!?!

  20. #20 HCN
    June 25, 2007

    I am not coordinated enough to get a car to start uphill. You need to release the clutch and engage the gas in such a way to prevent sliding backwards down the hill.

    One way to do this is to use the handbrake on cars that have that available. But I am still not coordinated enough.

    I have a friend who learned to drive a stick in Kansas. When she first drove in downtown Seattle she was on James Street at a light heading uphill. When the light turned green she tried and tried to get it going forward, but managed only to roll back all the way down the block… forcing the sports car behind her to back up also.

    To illustrate what kind of hill this is… for the old City Hall the 4th Ave. entrance was on the 1st floor, and the 5th Ave. entrance is on the 5th floor.

    My father used to drive Mercedes Benz DIESEL cars. Not only were they stick shifts, they had an odd starting sequence. You had to wait for the glow plug to warm it up a bit. He figured no one would steal it because they could not start it. As he got into his 70s, he gave up on sticks because he was just tired of dealing it them.

  21. #21 Grumpy Physicist
    June 25, 2007

    All of the cars I’ve owned have been manuals, but it was only with my second car that I ran into the “push down the clutch to start”.

    The first, a Mustang, was perfectly happy (attempting) to start while in gear and the clutch engaged.

    So yes, I did have a “why the hell isn’t this car starting??” on the second car, with the transmission in neutral but without pushing in the clutch.

    In the case of the foiled car-thief, I don’t think their problem was from being old fogies.

  22. #22 CortxVortx
    June 25, 2007

    It’s rather amusing that “standard transmissions” are no longer “standard” equipment. I’ll have to start referring to them as “manual transmissions.”

    I much prefer manuals. I had that for my ’78 Honda Accord (which I drove for 12 years); for my ’89 Ford Escort (another 11 years); and now for my ’00 Ford ZX2 S/R. I’ve lived in a medium-size city (300k population) on down to small town, so traffic wasn’t a problem. And while my son learned to stick-shift in no time, my wife is still leery of the arrangement (she has the same 3-pedal problem with hills).

    With an automatic transmission, what can you do with your left foot other than tap to the music (especially now that the headlight dimmer switch is no longer on the floorboard)?

  23. #23 HCN
    June 25, 2007

    Also, to clarify my joke: I also dance like I have two left feet.

  24. #24 Andrew Dodds
    June 26, 2007

    HCN –

    Stick to waltzes, then..

  25. #25 Andrew Dodds
    June 26, 2007

    HCN –

    Stick to waltzes, then..

  26. #26 Vlad
    June 26, 2007

    I learned to drive stick at 27. The trick to hill starts is balancing the clutch and the gas, this is not even remotly and easy skill to pick up. The only time I have trouble with it now is on steep hills when something over $50K pulls right on my rear. I also noticed after less than one year of driving manual transmissions I have trouble with automatics. I hate the clutch in my wifes car, I keep trying to hit the pedal and missing. She drives an automatic.

  27. #27 HCN
    June 26, 2007

    The last time I tried to waltze, I seemed to trip over my own ankles. It is very hard to dance with two left feet, even harder to find shoes.

    Did I mention I was not very coordinated?


  28. #28 Meg Thornton
    June 27, 2007

    Here in Australia, there’s two separate types of standard car licences. One is the one I have (type C) which indicates you’re able to drive both a car with an automatic transmission and a car with a manual transmission. The other is the type E, which means you can only drive a car with an automatic transmission. I learned to drive in a manual, although I’ve driven both types since then. Of the two, I prefer the manual transmission, mainly because I’ve never yet run across an automatic which didn’t have a really weird spot in the shift at around 60km/h (which is, oddly enough, the default standard speed in most metropolitan areas here in Australia). Usually that turns out to be the spot where the transmission can’t figure out whether it’s going to stay in third, or jump up to fourth, so it backs and forths all over the place and drives me bats.

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