Manual Summer: Assorted Stories from My First 6 Months of StickS

It all started from an offhand comment: "You know, your mom and I saw something you might like when we were on our way to Costco." That thing happened to have five gears, four wheels, three pedals, two doors, and one previous owner.

(Full disclosure: BMW wanted me to drive their 1994 325iC so badly that they built it nearly 20 years ago, and sold it to someone that happened to live in my neighborhood, who then parked it on the street with a "FOR SALE" sign in the window. Predestination is real, people.)

The first time I drove it, I really didn't want to drive it ever again. Out in an empty stretch of gently-curved road in a nearby office park, I sat sweating in the seat, both from the weather and my own nerves. My dad gives me some instructions:

"OK, so give it a little gas [revs to approximately 2500] and let out the clutch a bit [releases clutch too far and releases the gas, causing the car to buck and stall]. I told you, you have to let it out slowly. You're going to fast." Repeat x20. At that point, automatic transmissions were singing sweet two-pedal nothings into my ear. But I had to persevere, stalls be damned, because I wanted to be an enthusiast. After about an hour of belting around the vaunted Playa Vista Office Park Circuit (it's in the 2014 F1 provisional calendar, just after Korea and the Sesame Street Circuit), my dad thought I was ready for the ultimate challenge: the actual road. With TRAFFIC. With a firm hand on the wheel and a less-shaky foot poised on the third pedal, I was ready to direct my steed to the desired destination.

But the clutch is a harsh mistress. And with approximately 10,000 cars lined up behind me (OK, maybe only 5,000) I managed to stall not once, not twice, but three times. Shakily, I drove to my grandparents' house nearby, eager to show off my new skill...and nearly drove through their garage door when I let off the gas with the car still in gear. Whoops.

Manual Summer: Assorted Stories from My First 6 Months of StickS

Hey, baby bro!

My mom proved a somewhat better driving instructor, probably because she taught my dad how to properly drive stick, and drove a V6 Euro-spec Ford Capri back in the late 70's (and also got several speeding tickets in a V6 Euro-spec Ford Capri back in the late 70's). In fact, I have a suspicion she supported the purchase just so she could steal it away from me occasionally. But under her guidance I became more confident with starting and downshifting, though she wisely decided to take over after we could smell the clutch overheat during hill-start practice.

Speaking of abusing the clutch, on my third day of driving on my own the car decided to strike back. I pressed the clutch in to downshift into second...and it had lost almost all pressure. I managed to nurse it into my college's parking structure, and when I tried to get it back into gear after my morning class, the clutch pedal just sank to the floor, as did my stomach. Dejectedly, I called AAA and had it towed to a mechanic after class (kudos to the tow truck driver-how he managed to maneuver within the structure was probably black magic) I learned that not only had the clutch slave cylinder sprung a leak, but the transmission oil seal was leaky, front control arm bushings shot, and the driveshaft coupling had a chunk taken out of it. The Ultimate Repair Bill, indeed.

Manual Summer: Assorted Stories from My First 6 Months of StickS

Slowly but surely, I managed to get less jerky with starts and shifting into 2nd, though not before completely embarrassing myself in front of several girls by stalling at a 4-way stop, restarting the car, nearly stalling again, and finally bucking away in shame. Something I noticed about driving a convertible is that you start to tan while you drive, which leads to burning. So much burning. I think the "M" in "BMW" may stand for "melanoma", which is why I have a tube of industrial-strength sunblock in the poor excuse for a center console.

Which brings me to the main gripe: the freaking cupholder. Not the sagging glovebox, nor the blown speakers in the back, nor the convertible top that smacks the cover when it lowers, nor the weird squeaking sound that's probably something loose somewhere-those are part of the character. But the sorry excuse for a Big Gulp holder is the fly in the ointment. Not that I can have a sip of tasty beverage on the move anyway, because my right hand is already occupied with the-shifting-and-the-singing-and-the-moona-and-the-juna, but it's also right where my elbow is. It's like the engineer, quite hungover from a night filled with bier und bratwurst, snapped in his daily design meeting after one too many discussions with BMW's focus gruppe. "Fine! You want cupholders? You want CUPHOLDERS? How about in front of the center console so you hit your drink with your elbow every time you shift, arschloch." So you have to improvise:

Manual Summer: Assorted Stories from My First 6 Months of StickS

Pictured: precious cargo.

It seems the same engineer was in a similarly-grumpy mood when he designed the back seats, which are suitable for children/double amputees who enjoy the sun in their eyes and the wind in their hair and not many others (how this guy still has a job I'll never know). But I digress: when the only thing you can complain about is the cupholder, in a jokey way, you know you've really found a car you can care for.

Over the summer my car saw the highways and byways, and managed to ascend the hills of the Beach Cities without rolling backward too often and obnoxiously revving in a desperate attempt to halt the rearward motion. It saw girls and guys, sun, surf, sandy feet, and always managed to put a smile on our faces with a throaty burble from the exhaust. I absolutely love it, and I love the connection I have with it with my right hand and left foot. Manual, for me, is the way to go for the foreseeable future.