► Was the automatic-only Porsche GT3 a mistake?
► Mark Walton says so – because they forgot about 'wabi-sabi'
► Driving is about emotion, and that's what manuals generate
Flick through the Walton family photo album from the 1970s, and it’s pretty clear which camera we owned. All those blurry, over-exposed images, light flares and orange tones prove that my parents weren’t wielding a high-quality SLR; oh no, the cheap Kodak Instamatic was the camera of choice for us.
Launched in the 1960s, the Instamatic was a plastic camera-for-the-masses that used small-frame cartridge film. If you still have one it’s junk, because they don’t make the film anymore. Though that’s no great loss to the Walton archive: in capturing our exotic holidays to Saltburn and Butlins, there are probably more pictures of my mum’s blurry, pink fingers, as she accidentally obscured the lens, than there are of my little brother.
Strange, isn’t it, that after 40 years of technological progress, gradually perfecting digital sensors and compact lenses, we now have the ability to take pin-sharp images every time; yet most of the pictures on Instagram look like my mum took them. All that technology produces a perfectly sharp, brilliantly lit picture, and the first thing we do is apply a filter called ‘Low-Fi Chopper 1972’ and turn everything orange and fuzzy.
Why do we do that? It’s about character, I suppose. The imperfections are what give the images character and mood. Digital is too sterile; flawed feels more atmospheric, more human.
The Japanese have a word for this. They call it wabi-sabi – the appreciation of the imperfect; the cracked teapot or wonky chair. It’s the delight we take in a old person’s wrinkled skin, or the way a piece of driftwood lies on an otherwise immaculate beach. Wabi-sabi is the acceptance that we are all mortal beings, briefly passing through this broken world like leaves that bloom in the spring. It is about appreciating the artistic melancholy of the autumn, and our ultimate return to the soil, where we decay.
Wabi-sabi also explains the return of the manual gearbox. Like camera manufacturers, car makers have spent years pursuing a kind of digital perfection. In the automotive case, the technology has been pushed forward by the ideals of motorsport. ‘Racing cars have semi-automatic gearboxes,’ the German engineers told us. ‘Performance road cars must follow!’ insisted the Italians.
These buttons and paddles were quicker, they chimed, and easier, leading to better lap times, improved performance. If, in response, you pined for a scraping and clacking open-gate manual you’d receive a sad smile, like you were nostalgic about sexism in the workplace.
But the motorsport argument is bogus. Racing cars aren’t designed for enjoyment, they’re designed to win. Sports cars on the other hand – road-going sports cars – aren’t about flat-out speed, they’re about the emotions we feel when we drive them; the human, organic, analogue perspective.
I’m sure some Porsche engineers felt like they were applying a filter called ‘Atari Pixels 1984’ when they fitted a distinctly old-school manual gearbox to their 911 R recently; but Porsche miscalculated when they deleted the manual option from the GT3. They thought they were creating a high-resolution photo that everyone would admire because of its pin-sharp perfection; but they forgot about wabi-sabi, our love of the imperfect.
Why else do you think TVR is coming back? I drove the Jaguar F-type manual recently. It was my ideal spec: V6, 335bhp, rear-drive, 18-inch alloys, sports exhaust… and three pedals in the footwell. To be honest, the six-speed ZF manual isn’t the best in the world – it feels like the gears are made out of rubber rather than unyielding steel. But it’s slick and fast, and the clutch action is smooth and well-judged.
Most of all, I just love the feeling of my whole body driving the car – the satisfaction of all four arms and legs blending movements and balancing actions to create fast-flowing progress down a road. Plus, I’m still convinced I drive differently with a manual. I have an annoying reflex habit of changing up early with a paddle-shift, whereas I linger longer in the gears driving a manual, wringing out the Jaguar’s V6 for all it’s worth, listening to that howling exhaust.
This sudden return of the manual encourages me to keep up my other campaign – bring back proper handbrakes. In keeping with wab-sabi, I’ve written an achingly mournful haiku:
The handbrake was on.
Releasing it was easy.
And then it was off.
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