I first met Gary Bartlett at a small gathering of Americans participating in the Mille Miglia in 1992. We were in the small town of Soragna, near Brescia, Italy. Longtime SCMer Joe Tomasetti organized the dinner. This was before the “MM” became a bucket-list event for wealthy enthusiasts from all over the world. There were few Americans. We were strangers in a strange land as we piloted our old cars across the Italian landscape. Our little group included Cindy Banzer and me in Barry Russinoff’s 1947 Nardi/Abarth/Zagato Siata 750, Tomasetti in his Maserati 150/200Si, Bruce Male in his Maserati A6GCS, Martin Swig in his Alfa 1900 Corto Gara and Bartlett in his Jaguar D-type. We left our cars parked outside the restaurant in the rain. Gary might have put a jacket over his driver’s seat. Swig and Male had run the event before. They spent the evening trying to give us “inside tips” about how to do well. As our Siata had a 750-cc engine, hot-rodded by Conrero — it was the 1947 Italian hillclimb champion in its class — their advice to us was to “go like hell” and enjoy all the fast cars as they sped by. For guys like Bartlett in the D-type, they too would “go like hell” and arrive an hour or so ahead of schedule at the next checkpoint, where they could take an espresso and stretch their legs. In the Siata, we always seemed to arrive 30 seconds before the start of our next leg. That made a stop for a coffee or a pastry theoretical at best. In that era, everyone on the MM was a certified gearhead. The route instructions were in Italian, the hotels were crummy and the food worse. The rain poured at the beginning of the 1992 event. The Siata had no top, doors or windshield. Cindy and I bought ponchos from a roadside stand and motored on. But we didn’t care. We were in Italy, surrounded by fabulous cars that made great noises as they went through the cities of Siena, Fabriano, Perugia and then traversed the fabled Futa and Raticosa passes. The D-type and the A6GCS made thundering sounds, but the Siata 750 exhaust was more like a tired whoopee-cushion that had been bounced on one too many times. Despite the disparity of the horsepower in these three sports cars, they had one thing in common. Their clutches were controlled by direct mechanical linkage. Nothing diluted the information and sensations that the third pedal was sending to the driver.

The end of three pedals

I recently got a note from Bartlett that made me think of this dinner. He forwarded me an interview Bob Sorokanich of Road and Track conducted with the head of R&D at Lamborghini, Maurizio Reggiani. Reggiani offered a lucid, thoughtful explanation of why we will never see a true manual transmission in a new Lamborghini. I paraphrase it here: All of the systems that are integrated in the new Huracan LP 620-4 Spyder need to have a dialog with one another. The clutch is one of the fuses of the system, whether you are engaging or disengaging the torque. A manual transmission creates a hole in the communication between what the engine is able to provide and how the car reacts to the power of the engine. If you want to control the chassis, you must control the power. If you want to control the power, the clutch must be under the control of the brain of the car, not your brain. Even with modern manual transmissions, there is a servo that reduces the load of the clutch pedal. … With an engine making 690 foot-pounds of torque, if you hesitate at the closing point of the clutch, you will burn it out immediately. Reggiani concluded by saying that when he wants a true, direct, manual transmission experience, he takes his 1966 Alfa Romeo Duetto out for a drive. To read the complete interview, Google “Road and Track Reggiani.” Like all those manual-transmission sports cars gathered in Soragna so many years ago, the clutch linkage on the Alfa is simple. The clutch pedal is connected to a metal rod that goes forward to the clutch pressure plate. When you push on the pedal, you activate the clutch. No hydraulics, no servos, nothing to dilute the experience. In fact, the direct, true manual transmission in modern cars died over a decade ago. What we have seen since is the evolution of the gear-change mechanism to handle the increasing sophistication and horsepower of today’s sports cars. If there is to be a place for manual transmissions in the cars of our era, I suggest it will be only with small-displacement cars such as the Lotus Elise, where you don’t need a computer to manage the relationship of torque to gearbox. Or you can just drive a Duetto. ♦

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