Not the same old dance: An ode to driving stick shift

By Nancy Jorgensen | March 14, 2023

  • Volkswagon Beetle in the shade. This car is similar to writer Nancy Jorgensen's beloved red VW.

Volkswagon Beetle in the shade. This car is similar to writer Nancy Jorgensen's beloved red VW. (Photo by ms.akr)

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Some people get really passionate about taking sides on everyday things that make our lives a little sweeter.

Coke vs. Pepsi
The Beatles vs. The Stones
Biggie vs. Tupac
And of course, manual vs. automatic transmission

Writer Nancy Jorgensen is Team Manual and tells us about her love of — and nostalgia for — driving stick shift.


A few months before our wedding, my boyfriend bought me a car I couldn’t drive. A cherry red, two-door Volkswagon Beetle. Like a little sugar bun, round and sweet. I settled in the bucket seat, hesitant after my single parking lot lesson on manual transmissions.

I checked the mirrors. Jerked into traffic. Don’t be afraid of the hill. I shifted. Gave it gas. Sedans and station wagons zipped past. The engine putt-putt-sputtered. Quit.

A rookie with four-on-the-floor, I didn’t realize the car was in third gear. I fumbled with the clutch and stick, and after several attempts, found first gear and slipped back on the road. As the four-cylinder, 60-horsepower engine purred in the rear, I relaxed a bit and let the wind tangle my hair.

By the time I pulled into our alley garage, imaginary stars twinkled my Beetle — with its pedal for my left foot and its knob for my right hand. Already, I craved more practice with step-ball-change car-eography.

Soon, the clutch and I were like lovers. We went everywhere together. My parents’ house to swim in the pool. My grandma’s cottage to gather beans and eggs. My daughters’ daycare center so I could teach choir classes at work.

In summer, with the windows cranked, driving delivered whiffs of freshly cut grass. In winter, with a hole in the floorboard, commuting coughed up ice and sleet. That car wedded me to the road, so close were the steering wheel and windshield. So tight the space between me and Wisconsin’s wavering weather.

I eventually traded my ’72 Bug for a family car with four doors. But every vehicle since—’87, ’97, ’09—required my left foot dance with a clutch.

Five years ago, when a surgeon damaged my boyfriend-now-husband’s left leg, we surrendered our manual transmission. The dealer almost refused our trade-in. No one wants a stick shift anymore, he said. Won’t be able to sell it.

Is it possible to pine for a pedal? To love a rubber-covered hunk of metal? To feel an absent clutch like a phantom limb? I sense its presence. I anticipate using it. My leg twitches and hovers in its void.

But the clutch isn’t all I’ve lost. I’ll never again have parents with a backyard pool. No more grandma with gardens and chickens. No more baby daughters strapped in the backseat.

Nostalgia is like a 1970s poncho. It covers me in discordant threads, some delicate, light, and brief, some weighty, rough, and lasting. Strands of memory intertwine, and it’s impossible to separate one from the others.

Last week, a snappy little convertible with a lion’s roar zoomed past me in the park, and I felt something like longing. I imagined myself in a leather seat, downshifting on a hill, gliding through gears, third, fourth, fifth, cruising Lake Michigan’s shore, sailboats on the horizon, leaning into curves at fifty miles an hour.

In real life, I get behind the wheel of my SUV. A screen tells me where to go, an air conditioner cools to a precise number, and a cabin cradles me far above the bumpy pavement. But it’s hard to navigate when the parts I love the most are no longer there.

Nancy Jorgensen

Nancy Jorgensen

Waukesha writer Nancy Jorgensen partnered with daughter Elizabeth Jorgensen to write a 2022 middle-grade biography, Gwen Jorgensen: USA’s First Olympic Gold Medal Triathlete (Meyer & Meyer Sport). She has also written two choral education books published by Hal Leonard Corporation and Lorenz Corporation. Her essays appear in Ruminate, River Teeth, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere.
2023-03-14T13:24:55-05:00Tags: , , , , |

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