John Comes Up With ‘Clutch’ Performance

We watched with great anticipation as the giant tanker truck maneuvered through the concrete service lot. The clumsy behemoth gracefully positioned itself directly above the fuel storage tanks, hesitating there for a moment above the open intake ports, like mother Blue Jay hovering above the gaping mouths of her hungry chicks.

The four of us stood by our vehicles among the array of retail gas pumps, and watched the truck driver descend from the cab, attach a rigid black hose to both the tanker and the buried storage tanks, and begin regurgitating nearly 11,000 gallons of gasoline into the ground below.

It was feeding time at this rural gas station, and on the menu was Texas Tea.

We four, we who waited –– we who had believed the gas station attendant when he said the resupply tanker was just down the road, or who like me, had disobeyed his Mother and let his car’s gas tank drain cavernously empty –– we were quickly rewarded for not trying to reach the next gas station 20 miles down the road.

One by one, I watched my fellow wayfarers gas up, then pull away from the pumps, continuing their journeys to parts unknown.

I preferred being last, because I knew Skinny Edwards.

Skinny, who delivered fuel oil when I was a kid, always told his customers not to restart their furnaces immediately after a fill. “There are foreign bodies floating around in there now,” Skinny explained. “You must let them settle or they’ll get sucked into your motor.”

I remember opening the lid to the fuel tank after Skinny pulled away, hoping to catch sight of a real cadaver bobbing in the murk. I never did. I also never forgot Skinny’s lesson. It explains why they never serve Pinot Noir with Brussel Sprouts.

It was a particularly quiet morning at the gas station, as my fellow travelers pulled away. For some reason the falsetto yelp of automatic transmissions shifting into the next gear caught my attention. Then it dawned on me.

There’s the answer, I thought! We should all go back to standard transmissions. What this world needs is a good clutch!

I first learned to drive in a car with a standard transmission, and lest you believe that Henry Ford was my neighbor then, let me remind you that vehicles with manual clutches still exist today. There’s just not very many.

The idea of a clutch is simple. Its job is to interrupt the power coming from the engine long enough for the gears in the gearbox to be selected while the car is moving. Today’s vehicles with automatic transmissions use computers to engage the clutch and select gears. In my early driving days, cars with standard transmissions had a third pedal coming through the floorboard that we stomped on to make gear selections manually.

What was neat was that when you manually engaged the clutch –– pushed in the pedal –– the car coasted.

Many a time I eked out extra miles on an empty gas tank by strategically coasting down steep hills, then releasing the clutch in time for the engine to power the car up the next grade. Repeating the process, I saved hundreds of dollars annually, although to register a real profit, I had to include the cost of a burned clutch or two.

Think of the millions of gallons we could save, today, if everyone was required to step on a clutch!

There are side benefits, too. Road rage declines. We all will be too busy learning again to shift the car manually to be bothered by what anyone else is doing. And we’d get a great workout! Pumping that third pedal will be like taking a spin class on your way to work.

Perhaps I’ve oversimplified. Yet often the best solutions are not complicated. Adding a clutch to our lives might just be the easiest way to reinvigorate this shiftless society.

John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media