The Globe and Mail: Quick, Bring the BMW, I’ve Synchronized those Revs!

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By David Climenhaga – The Globe and MailThe Glove and Mail Logo

Itching to buy that classy sports car but (blush) you don’t know how to shift gears? Help is near, And you get to learn on some pretty hot wheels.

Imagine you’ve finally made it, you’ve got 30 or 40 big ones burning a hole in your pocket and you want wheels that’ll announce your arrival, loud and clear.

But you know, way back before business, law or medical school you learned to drive on Dad’s Detroiter, which was big, plush, heavy, slow – and automatic.

So you face a dilemma: you can buy the BMW or Mercedes your heart desires, with an automatic transmission, and just know that all the real cubic inch guys out there are snickering at you behind their hands. (“Forty grand for that thing and he can’t even shift gears, yuk, yuk.”)

Or you can learn how to shift a standard transmission – which presents problems of its own if you don’t want to burn out that expensive West German-made clutch in two weeks, or worse, stall your silver-grey chromeboat in front of two dozen guffawing Pinto owners.

Which is where Carlos Tomas comes in: your problem is his opportunity.

Now, you could always get a friend to teach you, Mr. Tomas observed yesterday during a combined interview and driving test. But because “the people who phone the school are people who’ve invested in a car anywhere between $16,000 and $40,000 – the average is about $27,000 – they’re not going to want to learn from a friend.

And anyway, he thought (after 10 years of teaching neophyte drivers how to get by on slush-box automatics for a national driving-instruction chain), if car manufacturers can profit from “niche marketing,” why shouldn’t a hard-working car driving instructor?

So early last summer he took his bright idea and set up Shifters Manual Shift Driving School, bought and modified what must be the hottest driving school car in Metropolitan Toronto – a fire-engine-red, turbo-charged Dodge Colt – and got to work on carving out his niche. (The modifications to the Colt, by the way, take the form of passenger-side clutch and brake pedal. Additional cost, if your spouse’s driving is driving you nuts and you’re wondering: about $500.)

Like many people in small business, Mr. Tomas didn’t bother with a lot of expensive or complicated market research. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” he said, ever since he observed in his previous job that “every summer the stick-shift department just went hairy. There were so many calls we just didn’t touch the licenced drivers at all.”

However, he confesses, the real germ of the idea was formed in his first manual car during a hot summer rush hour 16 years ago, grinding and stalling down Toronto’s College Street. (It was an Austin Mini, humiliating enough to be seen in, even without lousy driving.)

Practical experience with Shifters has confirmed his long-held suspicion, Mr. Tomas said, that the real potential for profit is not in training completely new drivers, but with already licenced drivers who have never been behind the wheel of a car with a manual transmission.

In fact, he said, probably 90 per cent of he clients hold a valid driver’s licence – “I would say probably 40 percent have just bought a car, 40 per cent are shopping for a car and about 20 percent are thinking about getting a car, and they want to be able to get a standard.”

Customer subcategories include “husbands who don’t want to end up getting the sports car of their dreams in automatic” and folks bound to European nations where a special licence is required to operate a car with a manual transmission.

“You’d be surprised how many people I work with that have a car in their driveway right now.” ——–

—– The lessons are not always laid out in the same order as those for an automatic car, he adds – for example, there’s no point learning how to park until you know how to start a car on a hill.

Going through the paces yesterday with the Greatest Driver in the World – that is yours truly, this correspondent – Mr. Tomas emphasized synchronized shifting, minimized clutch wear and use of the hand brake when starting and stopping on steep hills.

(Your reporter comes by his title honestly, by the way, usually from the passenger seat. A typical mortoring conversation sounds like this: Reporter – “Watch the truck!” Friend or loved one at the wheel – “Oh, sorry, I forgot I was with the Greatest Driver in the World.”)

Critics take note: At lesson’s end, Mr. Tomas awarded an A-minus. Major sins; however included clutch-destroying unsynchronized downshifts, an embarrassing first-try stall and” a stop-sign that you rolled.”

Taking a driving lesson in a bright red car with fat tires, turbocharging and racing stripes – plus a large driving school sign – is a paradoxical experience. Other drivers keep their distance, but eye you speculatively.

Why the relatively expensive and peppy car? A lot of my customers are going to go out and guy a car with lots of muscle,” Mr. Tomas explained, and I would rather show them how to drive on a car with muscle.”

And is the business gamble paying off? Well he said, he’s busy enough that it’s getting hard to get an appointment.”

But expenses such as a driving-school insurance – not to mention the occasional clutch job – are high enough that Mr. Tomas says Shifters will have to expand to meet his income expectations.

As a consequence, he intends to quit operating out of his home and rent an office within weeks, and he plans to hire another instructor or even two, by next summer.

What he didn’t expect when he started, Mr. Tomas concluded, was the demand for more elaborate programs and fancy footwork techniques. “I was surprised. I didn’t know so many people would like this extra fancy stuff.”