Ezekiel: Why didn't you tell me you can't drive? Havana: I can drive! I just can't drive stick! Ezekiel: Why is it so hard? It's simple! Havana: If it was simple, I could do it!
— Holy Matrimony
Also known as driving a manual.
Perhaps the American tourist is picking up their European rental car at the airport, or perhaps the main character needs to park the old banger or the superpowered Cool Car. Either way, they'll take a look inside at the manual gearbox and then exclaim in horror "I can't drive stick!" - and then proceed to anyway. Usually used as an excuse to then laugh at some terrible driving (crunching gears and noisy, lurching stalls are a must) or as the setup for a "My Car Hates Me", although it can also be used to provide justification for allowing one character to drive over another, more sensible choice (e.g., if you need The Ditz to come along for the road trip).
Far more common in US comedies, as automatic transmissions are very widespread in the North American continent, but aren't as popular in Europe note Manual transmissions used to be more fuel-efficient, and gasoline is way more expensive in Europe than the Americas. Even with automatics becoming more fuel-efficient, automatics are still more expensive to buy. Also uncommon in UK shows, because you need a different class of license to drive a manual - if you take your test on an automatic, that's all you'll be driving (legally). In many European countries the law states that driver's education must be given on a manual transmission car. Also rare in Japanese media; even though automatic transmissions are even more widespread in Japan, you're required to demonstrate that you can drive stick to get a driver's license unless you want to obtain one that only allows you to drive a automatic transmission car legally.
It should be noted that in real life, and in some fictional works by people who know cars, changing gears on a truly old vehicle is a challenge even for people used to driving manuals. This is because of the now-ubiquitous mechanism called "synchromesh", which allows you to change directly from one gear to another, but didn't become common until after World War II.
Also tends to show up in any situation involving commercial vehicles above 25 tons, as heavy trucks are typically running nine to eighteen gears, sometimes even today without synchromesh.
Contrast Universal Driver's License
Used as a plot point in one Speed Racer episode: Speed suspects (rightly) that something is wrong with one of his competitors because his racecar has an automatic transmission. Turns out his arm was permanently paralyzed by gangsters he double-crossed.
Arianna of Campione! made her first introduction driving a car with manual transmission. She didn't actually understand why the car had an extra pedal and compensated for not shifting gears by flooring the accelerator. She managed 80 kilometers per hour on a congested road in first gear. This part was ignored in the anime version.
Her not recognizing a manual may be a case of the author not realizing the prevalence of such vehicles in Europe. It does not, however, explain how she got a driver's license in Japan where she would be required to understand a manual transmission. But as is stated in-universe, how she got a license at all is unknown.
Knights of the Dinner Table: Weird Pete discovers that Gordo can't drive stick during a road trip to GaryCon when he wakes up to to find Gordo is still driving in first gear. By the end of the trip, Gordo has mastered driving stick (with the aid of Squirrely) and is ecstatic.
In The Truman Show, Truman tries to leave his 'hometown' by taking a bus to Chicago. But of course, as his hometown is located in a giant studio (a fact that is kept hidden from him), the bus is operated by a walk-on, and cannot drive anywhere. To cover up this fault, the driver panics and grinds the gear instead of starting it, completely trashing the bus.
Batman Begins - The new Batmobile is manual transmission, and Batman makes a point of asking whether Jim Gordon can "drive stick" before letting him use it.
It's actually controlled with a Throttle lever like that in a boat or plane. It's the same sort of joke though.
RV has our main character trying to turn around a huge RV on his street. He manages to break the parking prawl during the gear grinding ordeal. Remember, this RV is a column shift automatic. The RV rolling away on perfectly level roads becomes a Running Gag.
Little Miss Sunshine - The manual transmission of the VW is given as the reason why the whole household needs to make the journey; the mother needs to look after her daughter, but can't drive a manual transmission, so her husband also needs to make the journey. Later, the clutch breaks down, necessitating the comedic rolling starts which appear throughout the film.
In Dogma, not only does Jay not know how to drive stick, but he doesn't even understand what it is. This leads to:
(while Jay is driving Bethany's car about 65 MPH in first gear) Bethany: What gear are you in? Jay: "Gear"? (cut to the car with its hood open, copious amounts of steam and smoke billowing out) Jay: Well, what am I supposed to know about shiftin'?
Both National Treasure films have Riley driving his new Ferrari with no concept of a clutch. It gets better in the second movie when he grinds it in gear from a stop, only to drive backwards into the car behind his!
In the Broken Lizard comedy Super Troopers, officers Foster and Mac are stymied from posing as truckers to gain information when it turns out that neither of them are capable of driving a stick shift big rig.
The remake of The Italian Job had a whole deleted subplot during the climax where Left Ear has to drive one of the gang's Mini Coopers with Handsome Rob talking him through it.
Funnily enough, in Columbia's 1998 Godzilla film, DGSE agent (France's equivalent to the US CIA) Philippe Roche tries to get an Army Humvee moving in order to sneak into the subway system, but fails. It's American Nick Tatopoulos who points out that it's not in gear. Nevermind the fact that in Real Life, the Humvee is an automatic specifically to avert this trope.
In Pretty Woman, at the beginning of the film Richard Gere's character leaves a party in a Lotus sports car, and clearly has trouble with the shifter (making a lot of the sickening grinding noises). When he meets Julia Robert's character, after observing him she takes the wheel and has no trouble driving.
In Buffalo 66, Billy comandeers Layla's vehicle, but needs her to drive it. With disdain, he says he doesn't drive "shifter cars" because he drives fancy cars like Cadillacs, which "shift themselves." Of course, Billy is a pathological liar.
The Da Vinci Code - at one point in the book, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu make a getaway in a stolen taxi: this doesn't go as smoothly as they would like, owing to the fact that Langdon normally drives an automatic.
In Jonathan Gash's first Lovejoy novel, The Judas Pair, Lovejoy is humiliated when a new girlfriend shows him that he's been driving his veteran car in first gear for months because he couldn't understand its unusual gear-shifting controls.
In Piers Anthony's Killobyte, a lack of ability to drive stick stymies one of the players of the virtual reality game when confronted with a Jeep.
Artemis Fowl: Mulch Diggums steals an LEP shuttle and flies to the rest of the group's rescue. Once back in the pilot seat, Holly is horrified to find out he was in first gear the whole time, Mulch answers he didn't know it had gears, and thought it was automatic.
Viktor Suvorov wrote in one of his books how a man on television was given a Western and a Soviet tanks to drive, and stated that the Western is better because it has automatic transmission. Then Suvorov remarks it is very foolish of the driver not to understand the difficulties in wartime production and field repairs.
Suvarov failed to understand that a properly designed heavy duty automatic is actually more "soldier proof" than a manual.
Scrubs - J.D. accidentally destroys a parked car with a monster truck - he puts this down to the fact that "it's been a while since I drove shift!".
Inverted in an episode of Last of the Summer Wine, where the already reluctant driver Clegg is terrified at the prospect of driving an automatic.
However, also played straight in a running joke about Edie's bad driving. Half the time she blames "this stupid stick thing", and the other half "it's because your father keeps moving the pedals around!"
On the reality show The Amazing Race, there are times when the contestants are given stick shift cars to drive. Often, neither member of a team knows how to drive stick. Teams have been eliminated from the race over this.
Subverted by S12's Vyxsin who could drive stick, apparently because she comes from Kentucky, where sticks are apparently common. That said, even she had troubles with stick in Italy...
For Americans in Europe Great Britain, driving stick shifts can still be tricky even if they know how, given that they're suddenly using their left hand to do it.
Captain Kirk, in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "A Piece of the Action", though it's doubtful he'd have done any better had it been automatic.
Top Gear's Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment fits this trope, when Americans appear as the guest.
Jeremy Clarkson to American singer comedian Rich Hall (he's done some comedy singing before) before they showed the video of Hall driving the lap: "You can drive a stick shift car?" Rich Hall: "I can now"
Lionel Ritchie, a notable exception who was doing well until the driver side front wheel came away from the car at full speed.
It happened on the first corner, so there wasn't much shifting going on yet. On his full run he drove nicely, but shifted messily, leading Jeremy to say, "apart from the gear changing, this is extremely good."
British example, Christopher Eccleston was only going to go round the track in an automatic, as he only passed his test a few weeks previous, in an automatic.
Subverted by the Aston Martin DB7 GT, which went from a standstill to over a hundred in one gear (fourth).
Subverted again (and harder) by the Corvette Z06, which went from a standstill to 175 mph all in fifth gear.
When Jeff Goldblum was the star in a reasonably priced car he kept complaining during portions of his lap that he wished he'd had more car, these being the parts most guests take in fourth gear while Jeff (on advice from the Stig) never went above third.
Jeremy himself fell victim to this, when he discovered that the lorry he purchased for the Burma Special lacked a synchromesh.
On Sex and the City Carrie rents a car with a stick shift even though she never learned how to drive anything but automatic. She explains to Miranda and Samantha that "This car went with my outfit."
In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Phases" you can see the stage hands pushing Giles' Citroen when he and Buffy arrive at the Bronze, because the actor, Anthony Stewart Head, couldn't master the unusual gear-changing system fitted to that kind of classic Citroen.
An inversion in the episode Real Me as Giles had just purchased a new Midlife Crisis Car and has trouble with the automatic transmission, being used to a stick. He puts it into neutral while driving, apparently several times, as he instinctively tries to shift.
In the NCIS episode "Kill Ari (2)", Ducky's former assistant Gerald, held hostage by Ari until Ducky swaps places with him, dashes for Ducky's Morgan, and attempts to drive away. Gears grind, and the car lurches forward several times. Ultimately Ari takes pity on Ducky and they swap cars, allowing Gerald to drive off in his own automatic.
Ducky: Use the clutch. Good God man! USE the CLUTCH! (almost crying) You're stripping the gears!
Ari: This is too painful, Doctor.
Season three of Ice Road Truckers has two of the Canadian drivers from previous seasons come to Alaska to drive on the Dalton Ice Road. One of them has driven trucks most his life but the truck he is driving has an unfamiliar transmission setup and in the beginning he keeps shifting to the wrong gear. Considering they are driving over steep hills and along winding mountain roads covered in ice, shifting to the wrong gear could cause the truck to lose traction and go off the road. If that happens in the wrong spot, it can be deadly.
Similar problems are experienced by Lisa in the first season of IRT Deadliest Roads. The first-second shift is a dogleg.
Used on Voyagers!, with Jeffrey knowing more about how to use a clutch than Bogg.
Canada's Worst Driver, is a reality show which tries to rehabilitate bad drivers using various challenges. For obvious reasons, the show's participants absolutely play this straight, all the time. You can just guess what happens when they do a challenge that involves using a manual transmission; ground gears, burned clutches, and the like.
One participant in Season 2 was utterly incapable of driving stick, to the point that during the stick shift challenge, after being taught by the head instructor of the country's top driving school, her MTBFnote Mean Time Between Failures on the challenge vehicle was 45 seconds. Possibly less.
In Season 6, the manual transmission challenge was to balance a car on a teeter-totter. While some did well, even some contestants who already owned cars with sticks had issues. Even worse, every single car they had brought out for this challenge got its transmission damaged by a contestant, meaning that the final contestant wasn't even able to have a turn!
A recurring problem in Time Trax is that the main character is totally incapable of driving a stick shift. This is due to his being from 200 years in the future, when all cars are automatics.
In the Psych episode "No Country for Two Old Men", Juliette's father is so scared of the stick shift on what would have been his and Henry Spencer's getaway car that the two have to trade places. And, as Henry points out, this is after having successfully flown a plane and executed a perfect landing despite having no flying experience.
In the Season 6 finale of 'Mad Men'', Pete loses the coveted Chevrolet account (and accordingly the chance to run SCP's Detroit office) because he can't drive stick, and wipes out a Chevy showroom.
Red vs. Blue: Caboose can only drive stick, not automatic. It's easier to just go with it.
Some drivers who "grew up" on the stick are extremely irritated by the automatic shifting patterns and the fact that they cannot control it. It could even made driving on automatic by all intents impossible for them. To say nothing of accidental left-foot braking.
Car Talk had Tom and Ray tell a story about how they'd just finished putting a new clutch in a car when an old friend came by for the day and asked to borrow a car. They lent her that car, but cringed when she said, "Oh, it's a stick...oh well! I can learn!" When she returned the car the same day, she told them, "You'd be so proud of me! I didn't stall out once!" And due to the fact that she never stalled out because she was constantly riding the clutch, the brand new clutch they put in lasted less than a day.
In a similar comiotragic event, attendees of a 2008 Jeep enthusiast's club meeting in Maryland emerged to find that every one of their cars had been stolen except for the ones with manual transmissions.
Even as late as the 1970s many cars (and pretty much everything with a three-speed transmission) lacked synchronizers on first gear on the assumption that one would only use first to start out from a dead stop. It can come as a surprise for the unwary modern driver taking a classic for a spin.
Manual transmission is still standard in many developing nations, as these are usually cheaper than automatic. Many tourists and immigrants from more developed nations where automatics are more common often find themselves having to basically relearn how to drive if they want to drive a car in said nations. This has also resulted in people from said countries wondering what the big deal is when seeing this trope invoked in foreign fiction.
According to the 2nd edition rulebook for Vampire: The Masquerade, anyone capable of driving stick should have 2 dots in driving as opposed to 1, which is the minimum to be able to drive cars with any skill at all. The implications that diving stick requires twice the skill of an automatic are, perhaps, best left untouched.
Though the player finds out a level later Murray has never let him drive before. When one considers they'd never been separated before Sly and Murray being arrested, one wonders if he could drive at all before that.
Sega's Ferrari F355 Challenge arcade game has the options of fully automatic shiftng, F1-style semi-automatic paddles, or fully manual 6-speed stick and clutch.
Forza Motorsport 3 and Forza 4 includes the option of fully manual transmission with clutch, the problem is that most Xbox360 steering wheel peripherals generally don't have a clutch pedal. Unfortunately, Forza doesn't simulate full-out engine stalls (it'll take over the clutch before the engine dies) as there is no button to start the engine; though if you don't use the clutch when taking off, the engine will repeatedly nearly seize-up as you start idling forward.
Both Fanatec Porsche and the Fanatec CSR wheels (both work with Forza 3 and Forza 4) have a clutch pedal, and a $50 accessory is a 6 speed H-pattern stick shift. The first time you use it, you'll be grinding through the gears trying to find 5th or reverse. Have fun accidentally throwing your $800,000 Ferrari into first gear at 180 MPH!
Gran Turismo 5 Prologue (and later) supports fully manual transmission with clutch with the appropriate controller (such as the Logitech G25/G27 wheel). Though activating the clutch requires hitting the triangle button when the race starts.
The Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune arcade games have manual transmission controls (with a six speed shifter and slotted gate) but no clutch (though fully automatic is an option).
In a similar vein, the Initial D Arcade Stage arcade games have options for both automatic and manual transmissions, although the Initial D cabinets use an up-down slap shifter instead of a full stick. In both cases, players may find themselves reaching with the wrong hand as the import-only and export arcade cabinets will often have the shifter on different sides compared to an actual (local market) car.
The latest Battle Gear arcade games have options for fully manual transmission with clutch as well.
The veteran PC game Hotrod featured all-manual cars. Pressing space moved you up a gear. It rolled over after 4th whereupon you dropped to 1st and dropped your transmission. Most players never learned how to go down a gear in-game and were only able to either accelerate or slow down, stall out, and start over at 1st.
Rigs Of Rods Zigzags this almost. Defaultly, the game is set for automatic, allowing a player to shift using Page Up or Page Down in a standard automatic pattern (R, N, D, 2 and 1 from top to bottom). Pressing Q will change the mode to a manual shift with an automatic clutch, using A to shift up and Z to shift down. The next is a manual clutch with sequential shift, using the Shift key to depress the clutch (even though the effect of pressing gas, brake and clutch using a keyboard is instant. Thankfully the game doesn't simulate engine, gearbox or clutch damage... yet). The last two is stick shift, designed for the Logitech G25/27 which they have a shift stick and clutch pedal. Finally, there is stick shift with ranges, designed when driving trucks in the game with more than 6 gears, allowing to switch up a range.
This can result in oddness as you can drive manual in automatics and automatic in manuals (also, detailed cars will show the stick moving such as the Tatra T812 DAKAR and Gavril Bandit).
The arcade versions of San Francisco Rush and SF Rush 2049 both include clutch pedals in their manual transmission option, as did their spiritual precursors, Hard Drivin and Race Drivin. In the latter two, you had to push the clutch while starting the car to avoid stalling.
In Daytona USA, the shifter is often used to manipulate powersliding, and provides better control than the "tap the brake" method. However, Daytona USA 2 discourages this; unless you're using the Hornet, shifting to slide will just cause you to spin out.
In Saints Row: The Third, Johnny Gat pitches the idea of hijacking an enemy plane to rescue his kidnapped crew. Shaundi comments: "You can't even drive stick, how are you gonna fly a plane?"
The Simpsons - Homer murders the manual transmission of a truck in "Maximum Homerdrive".
At the end of "Sunday Cruddy Sunday", Vincent Price has difficulty starting a bus without stalling.
In an episode of Rugrats where Chuckie was revealed to be left-handed, Charlotte Pickles expressed dismay, claiming that "He'll need special scissors, desks, notebooks ... and he'll never be able to drive a stickshift!" It's then revealed that Didi and Chaz can't drive stickshift either. Naturally, Angelica being who she is, she proceeded to translate this to Chuckie as "Oh, and you'll never be able to drive a car."
Happened in King of the Hill during a flashback scene when Hank, Dale, and Bill are joyriding Boomhauer's car. Dale displays his inability in driving stick when it's his turn to drive and caused the car to fall into the quarry. This is why the three help the environmentalists to protect the quarry from being drained revealing Boomhauer's car and their lettermen jackets.
"The left brake isn't working!" shouts Dale, as he repeatedly stomps the clutch.
Futurama: The Planet Express Delivery Ship has a manual transmission. Professor Farnsworth makes a point of asking if any of them can drive stick when Fry, Bender and Leela board it for the first time in "Space Pilot 3000". Turns out Leela can drive stick but she won't parallel park.
Brock Samson (and Hank during one episode) of The Venture Bros. drives a 69 Charger with a stick shift. Brock, who has driven it for years, has no issues, and even Hank did reasonably well when driving. Especially since it was his first time driving. The only person with the driving stick issue? H.E.L.P.eR. As Brock discovers when strapped to the hood of his car by Doc's escaped parasitic twin brother. Thankfully, H.E.L.P.eR is a fast study.
Brock: You know to fly the X-1, but you can't drive stick!?
The first time Danny Phantom tries to drive the Fenton Family Ghost Assault Vehicle; "Oh, great. It's a stick." He pulls it off, though.
In one episode of Regular Show, Mordecai and Rigby barrow Pops' car. Pops asks if Mordecai knows how to drive stick, which he does. Mordecai does ask what the second stick shift was for. Pops' reply was a clear example of Getting Crap Past the Radar.
"Carmanita's special parts should only be manipulated by a professional."
Some cars actually do have two "stick shifts", the second one usually being a much simpler forward or back pattern and controlling either 4WD versus 2WD or "overdrive" vs. "normal". They're usually labelled pretty clearly, though.
In "Benson Be Gone" Mordecai accidentally crashes Mr. Maellard's limo into the house and comments: "Remember when I said I can drive stick? Well, I'm a little rusty..."
Only for a select few times in Megas XLR did Kiva or Jamie ever get a chance to drive the Megas. Driving stick wasn't a problem for either of them, but given the Plot-Sensitive Button nature of the entire dashboard, the problem was figuring out which of the NUMEROUS stick shifters to use. Coop's normal stick shifter has the usual gears 1-5 and reverse, but his goes even further than reverse right into "Save Jamie" gear.