Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Last Manual Transmission Generation and its Impact on Motorcycling

My son has been driving a car for almost 6 years now and never once has he really driven a manual transmission.  I saw the trend coming, years earlier as rental car fleets moved to automatic transmissions in even the lowliest of offerings, in order to be assured that ANY driver could drive one. The joke used to be that, if you wanted to teach someone how to drive a manual, you’d go rent a car rather than have them bash and crash your gearbox.  By the time my son came of driving age, this was no longer an option.  

The plan was to get him to learn to control a car at speed and, once accomplished, to add in the complexity of a clutch pedal and stick shift.  A great plan, but it never panned out. Once my child had his license (or at least was well on his way to having one) his interest in driving my manually operated Subaru sedan was nil.  For the few years, I’d throw it out once in a while. His first two summers back from college; I would offer religiously to teach him the intricacies of rev matching and engine braking.  After a while, the writing was on the wall.

As a kid, I was over the moon at any fast vehicle.  My Dad has a progression of better and faster cars that always keep me wondering when I would get my hands on them.  When I was about 11, my older brother’s buddy took me for my first motorcycle ride.  I was hooked at the sensation of speed, even though we probably never exceeded 40 mph.

Later, as one of the perks of business travel, I made it a personal goal to drive as many different cars as I could.  I was never happy to have to drive the same car twice, with the exception of the Lincoln Town Cars that National Rental Car would let us young adults drive for an extra $1 per day.  Wait? You’re going to let this 24 year-old hoon a Town Car in the middle of a Minnesota winter?  I sure hope that they had good mechanics there at National as we were mighty tough on those “free” vehicles.  Do you remember the scene from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where they pump a Cadillac’s tires up to 70psi and then proceed to drift it all over town?  That was us, pushing those big rear wheel drive cars through, around and over snow drifts. We might have had a little something to drink at dinner first, now that I reflect on it.

What does this have to do with motorcycles you say?  (You did say that, I heard you.)  The generation who can no longer drive a “stick” will find themselves at a serious disadvantage when it comes to motorcycle riding. We’ve already seen more than a few bikes test the waters with automatic transmissions.  As gasoline prices rise (and fall and rise again), we’ll see more people experiment with scooters, which continue to grow in displacement to rival what once was considered a “large” bike.  Manufacturers are adapting their product line-ups to augment and eventually replace manual transmission bikes with automatics and other hybrid vehicles.  And by hybrids, I don’t mean electrics, though developments there continue to advance.  I mean three-wheeled trikes or “ekirt”s, like the Can Am.  If you’re a newbie or just getting on in years and want to continue to ride, why would you want to have to shift your Honda or Harley-Davidson trike?  Speaking of Honda, they continue to surprise and amaze me with the diversity of products that they develop.  

Burgeoning markets will dictate the low-end of the spectrum but developed countries will demand and receive the latest innovations and electronic controls, including the aforementioned electrics, gas/battery hybrids, ABS, ride by wire and automatic transmissions.   Low volume bikes will lose options and may eventually be offered with one choice of transmission, which may be the choice which nets the most profit, an automatic (for the people).

Clutch handles and foot shifters will go the way of kick-starters and a new era will begin.   Sure, there will always be those motivated individuals who will go to the effort to learn to ride a “proper” bike, with all the manual controls but, how long before those bikes (our bikes) are no longer considered the norm?  I think you can expect to see a radical change to our rides and the industry over the next 20 years.  I guess the only positive thing about that is this is about when I’ll be hanging up my leathers.  Hang on to your current inventory.  When the whole world goes mad, in 50 years our bikes will be collector’s items for precisely the simple and manual controls we enjoy.  Might make a nice gift to that grand-kid who (I sure hope not yet) is eventually on the way.

The snow is melting and Valentine’s Day is this week.  Kiss and be kind to your “Old Lady” or “Old Man”, as the case may be.  And get ready to ride again.  I’m shooting out of my driveway at the first sighting of bare asphalt.  I know you’re eager too.  Make sure you do the proper safety checks, especially those tires, as you’ll need all the grip you can get, with the sandy roads here in the Northeast.  And wear the gear.  I don’t care if you go textile or leather but wear a helmet and cover up that ugly old body of yours.  Myself?  I’m thinking of a custom Vanson jacket, with inlaid leather, worthy of being handed down to the next generation.  I sure hope that kid learns to shift soon!

A low, slow wave,

Joe Rocket