‘Taking one hand off the wheel is an underrated part of the old manual gearbox experience’

Could there be a substitute for what we miss about a manual? Porter thinks so

Richard Porter opinion

Sometimes in television production you hear the phrase ‘a bit of business’. This is often used in studio-based shows to refer to a moment when you’re giving the presenters something extra and a little off-piste to do. A prop, a physical challenge, some excuse to get them out of their seat, off their mark or away from the usual format in the hope this will make things more interesting. Whenever Have I Got News For You introduces a one-off round hinged on some crudely made prop, that’s a low-level bit of business. Ant and Dec love a bit of business. Chat show producers delight in discovering that a celebrity guest has some talent for limbo or juggling or playing Polynesian nose flute and is willing to demonstrate this because that’s a bit of... you get the idea.

Every so often we’d try for a bit of business on the Clarkson, Hammond and May era of Top Gear, much to the delight of our studio director who wasn’t much into cars and came from a shiny-floored light-entertainment background, the natural home of a bit of business. ‘We’re thinking maybe Jeremy could try unicycling or James could fend off an attack dog,’ we’d say, and his eyes would light up at the thought of something that wasn’t talking about cars. ‘Lovely bit of business,’ he’d say enthusiastically. And then we’d try it, it would be bollocks and we would drop it after the first rehearsal. Or, worse yet, we wouldn’t. But it was still bollocks. A bollocks bit of business. 

> Lexus in development of a manual transmission for electric cars

I was thinking about a bit of business the other day in relation to the manual gearbox. In a modern car the manual ’box is not the most efficient or effective way to help the machine to move along. But we like it because it breaks up the driving show in an interesting way. Unfortunately, not many car buyers agree. Ferrari ditched manual ’boxes long ago, arguing that its double-clutch paddleshift is superior. Jaguar tried to show some willing by introducing a manual to the F-type V6, found uptake was under five per cent, and rapidly binned it again. Porsche hangs in there with manual options, and for GT3s the stick/paddle split is about 50/50. But with lesser 911s over 90 per cent of buyers choose PDK. In the general car market, automatic sales have outstripped manuals in the UK since 2020, so you can see where this is going… 

Don’t worry, this isn’t another one of those columns bemoaning the death of the manual gearbox, because I’ve realised that, in truth, our fondness for the business provided by a clutch ‘n’ stick is really a love of having something to do, and this brings me to my new electric car. It’s a Volkswagen e-Up and as a dinky runabout for urban chores it’s fantastic, being smooth, quiet, pliant riding and blessed with a lively 0-30 time. The single worst thing about it is the way people insist on remarking upon its ‘Yorkshire name’ as if this is an original observation, which it isn’t. And anyway, the greeting they’re thinking of is ‘ay-up’.  

The real joy of the e-Up is that to make it go you simply pull a lever back to D and off you scamper. But you can also nudge back again into B, which gives you a fairly aggressive level of regenerative braking, or leave the lever in D and tap it side-to-side to toggle between three less stoppie levels of regen. And this is where the bit of business comes in. Sometimes when I’m driving my new Up I like to embrace the challenge of selecting the right level of regen for the exact circumstances, from a full freewheel to a quick yank back into B just in time to bring the thing to a stop for some lights. I wouldn’t claim it’s up there with the sublime experience of nailing a brisk upshift in a 997 GT3 RS, but it definitely adds a satisfying level of business to ordinary driving.

Part of this, I think, is that you have to briefly take one hand off the wheel, and that’s an underrated part of the old manual gearbox experience. It adds a punctuation point to driving, a brief respite not from the transmission of torque to the wheels but from holding the same position all the time like a TV presenter whose production team haven’t thought of any gimmicks for them this week. Perhaps this is why I’ve heard it said that in the early days of paddleshift ’boxes in motorsport some drivers took time to acclimatise, because seamless, hands-on-the-wheel shifting was a strange disruption to their hard-won driving rhythm. Maybe those drivers, like me, would enjoy reaching for the lever as they drove a VW e-Up.

It’s strangely good fun. We can wail about the death of the manual and the impending spectre of the anodyne EV driving experience, but don’t give up hope. I think we’ll be okay as long as we’ve got a bit of business.

This story was first featured in evo issue 298.

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