The car’s manual transmission connects me to its energies and motions. Among other things, it returns me (in the dreamy subliminal dynamics of gears and speed and memory) to the time when I was 19 and drove west across Kansas in the middle of the night, the Volvo 544 coupe plunging through violent prairie line storms—wild, soundless lightning, lashing rain. The Volvo’s manual transmission was like my Volkswagen’s—fluent and, as it were, comprehending—as I ran up and down the gears, my brain integrated with the living engine, left foot working the clutch, right foot the accelerator, left hand the steering wheel and right hand on the knob of the gearshift: man and beast colluding sweetly and roaring along through the tremendous electricity of the Kansas night and the bright meteor showers of rain. I felt happy and free.
The Volvo yesterday, like the VW today, was modest. Luxury was not the point. Luxury is a mug’s game—a moral disability. The point was something we did not sufficiently love—the purity in the execution, in the skills, the simplicity of the gears. Now luxury offers us cars that drive themselves while we doze off. I wonder if that’s a good idea. Someday we may need the earlier skill.