Learning to drive in a real car

“You put your left foot in, you put your right foot in, you let your left foot out, and you jerk the car about.”

— The Hokey Pokey stick shift driving school song

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Renewed my driver’s license a few weeks ago. Quite a few changes since I got a license to drive. Sixty years ago.

There’s been changes just since my last renewal. If your license comes back with a picture looking slightly better than that orange suit jail log photo in the newspaper, you now have to wait eight years for a chance at a better one. Plus, an appointment is required for renewal; no more walk-ins. And the appointment must be made online.

But there is a workaround for that … if you didn’t read the instructions. I saw it when I was there waiting for my appointed time.

A guy walks in and is asked if he has an appointment. “No,” he replies.

“You’ll need an appointment,” the lady behind the desk says with a smile, motioning toward the computer he had just passed up. “See if a time slot is open. We’ll try to work you in.”

I smiled because I had an appointment. Made it online. Yes, I read the instructions that came in the mail. I also read the TXDLP blog site. The part where it suggests one should learn to drive in a car equipped with an automatic transmission because it is easier.

“Once only popular with elderly drivers and those unable to drive a manual car, automatic cars are now commonplace,” the blog site said. As an “elderly driver,” I rolled my eyes and groaned.

I was driving before I turned 14, the legal age in Texas then with driver’s ed. The next Saturday morning, I was sitting in Lee Gray’s driver’s ed class at the Mount Pleasant High School choir building. Mr. Gray’s “day job” was the MPHS choir director.

Dad’s driver’s ed classes started when I was 11. Sunday afternoons on west Texas dirt roads near Seymour. That’s where he instructed me in the fine art of shifting a manual transmission while keeping his ’55 Chevy between the ditches.

My grandfather supplemented that with trips to DeWoody’s Western Auto or the barber shop in Pittsburg. Once out of sight of the house, he would pull into the A&P parking lot and let me drive his manual transmission ’57 Ford with overdrive to what the locals called “back street.” Off the main drag.

“Don’t tell your grandmother,” he warned. “Or me and you both will be in trouble.”

Back then, automatic transmissions were limited to Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, expensive cars. The Aldridge family’s first car with an automatic was a ’58 Ford station wagon. It fared well until the day Mom left my grandparent’s house with three young kids aboard and other things on her mind. She accelerated to the point that familiarity felt it was time to shift into second gear. So, she threw the shift lever up in “three-on-the-tree” fashion where second gear would be. In a standard shift car.

Unfortunately for Mom and the car, that spot with an automatic is called ‘park.’

After recovering from the sudden screeching stop and the awful noises from under the car, she called my father in tears. He consoled her without ceremony or criticism. Soon after, our first automatic transmission car was replaced with another used car. One like we had always had, driven by synchronizing three forward speeds with the clutch pedal. The incident was never mentioned again.

Lacking the knowledge and experience of manual transmissions is a shifty concept to grasp growing up in a generation of kids who considered learning to drive a rite of passage. Learning how to shift gears by listening to the motor, downshifting to reduce speed, running through the gears in a four-speed high-performance car, popping the clutch to burn rubber, or the art of heel-and-toe braking and accelerating a sports car while maneuvering through a road course. What joy is there in driving without those memorable moments?

Besides the fun, learning to drive in manual transmission cars also had advantages. Enamored with cars long before the formality of a license, by the time high school graduation rolled around I had owned three old used car ‘hot rods’ of my own, bought with money earned working after-school and Saturday jobs. That experience opened doors to summer jobs like driving tractors, trucks, wreckers—anything that rolled on wheels and required gear shifting.

I know times change, however. Sometimes for good causes and other times not so much, in my book. But I’m prepared. With a couple of manually shifted ’57 Fords in my garage, I’ll do my part to help educate future generations of young drivers.

“Look at this automobile child. Let me show you what driving a real car is like—one with three pedals on the floor.”

—Leon Aldridge

Photo at top: My grandparents 1957 Ford Custom 300 with a manual three-speed column-shifted transmission and overdrive. The same one referenced above in which my grandfather helped with my driver’s education in Pittsburg, Texas in about 1959 or ’60. It has traveled a total 46,322 miles since the day they bought it new. It’s one of the two manual transmission 1957 Fords in my garage.

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

One thought on “Learning to drive in a real car

  1. In South America (I am from Brazil) the automatic car became popular much later. Until the mid-2000s manual transmission was the norm, Nowadays is becoming harder to find a brand-new car equipped with it.
    The art of shifting gear will soon be lost. We thought it would survive at least in the sports cars segment but no.
    Now they come with a “paddle shifter”.

    Liked by 1 person

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