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.”

Globe and Mail: Megawheels – Mamma Mia! Tanya’s shifting gears!

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Specialized driving school gives actress the method for performance in trafficThe Glove and Mail Logo


Nicole Robert can’t say that finally learning to drive a manual-shift car this spring has helped her to play Tanya in the hit musical Mamma Mia! But it sure makes it easier to be herself in the real-life world of Toronto traffic, and she says she owes it all to Carlos Tomas and his Shifters driving school.

On stage, since moving from Vancouver about 18 months ago, the actress/singer’s role has been that of a glamorous, self-confident, older woman. But away from the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Robert suffered a form of vehicular stage fright behind the wheel of her husband’s five-speed Saturn Vue and in a car belonging to one of the mainstream driving schools.

“One day last year, my husband got me to do the driving on the way to work,” says Robert, who is originally from Quebec and uses the French pronunciation of her surname. “Well, I stalled at a downtown intersection and I couldn’t get stated again because I panicked. I flipped; I lost it. I just had to get out of the car. He had to replace me with all this traffic backed up behind us. It was awful.”

By December, Robert had given up. “I wasn’t going to learn from my husband. I certainly wasn’t going to learn in the winter. I’d spent about $500 on lessons and I was probably getting worse – no confidence whatsoever.”

But she decided to give it another shot this spring after one of her coworkers told her about Shifters, a school dedicated solely to the art of the stick shift.

“What a difference! By the third lesson I was really learning,” Robert says. “Carlos [Tomas] was born to teach. For him, I think that it’s not just about shifting gears, it’s about life. He’s philosophical, he’s into yoga, that kind of stuff. Whatever it is, it works.”

Tomas admits Robert was a tough case. “She’d had a bad experience,” he says, “but that’s common for a lot of people who come to us, especially women who’ve tried to learn from husbands or boyfriends. Young people who try to learn on their parents’ cars can feel similar pressure.

“Yeah, we go through a few clutches, power trains, tires, but the teacher has to be able to stay calm if the student is going to learn. And I try to learn about each student – what they do and how they think. It helps me tailor my approach. It’s really important when you’re teaching to build on things the student already knows.”
In Robert’s case, she didn’t even get to drive Tomas’s Mazda 626 in her first Shifters lesson.

“At the other place it might as well have been a friend or relative saying, ‘Drive!’ then yelling at you when you make a mistake. Carlos started by explaining the concept, not just what you should do but why you do it. He uses, uh, the thing [a power-train model]…if you’re at all visual, it really helps.”

Carla Arnold went to Shifters because she just had to have a Mini Cooper when the popular retro car was launched two years ago.

“I got one of the first 500 in Canada and they only came with the standard,” she says. “I ordered it in April, signed up for the lessons, and by the time the car was delivered in May, I was completely ready to go. We did lots of repetition so it all became second nature. We also did things like go to [Toronto’s] High Park area so I could get comfortable starting on hills.

[Tomas] is so good at explaining things and he doesn’t freak out. I’d signed up for the package of three lessons [$259], but I felt I needed a bit more, so I went with the five [$419],” says Arnold, 35, who runs the ticketing operations for Can Stage. “It was worth every penny.”

The value of learning to drive a standard properly is impossible to calculate. It can save lives as well gasoline and maintenance costs, according to Tomas, who has been a driving instructor for 27 years. The avid sailor, a native of Portugal whose family came to Toronto when he was 10, didn’t settle on the standard-shift niche until 1987, the year he launched Shifters. He has taught driving instructor for George Brown College, Young Drivers of Canada and the Ontario Safety league, as well as courses in skid control and emergency maneuvering.

He has had one long-time co-instructor, Marcel Oostendorp, but thinks he will expand the business soon. “I don’t have any real, direct competition in Toronto, and I’m not sure if there are any companies like this in other cities,” Tomas says. “ Our students come from all over Ontario. We’ve even had people from as far away as Nova Scotia, California, Edmonton and New York city.”

Slightly more than 60 per cent of Shifters students are women. Over all, most are in the 25-to- 40 age range, but he has taught some retired people who have bought their first sports car or who plan to travel in Europe, where many of the rentals are stick shift.

Robert, who will turn 50 in November, likes her new mobility, but says she still has a way to go before she is completely comfortable with the manual shift.

“I’ve still only driven once with my husband in the car …let’s just say I’m rehearsing alone. But c’mon, I didn’t learn to drive at all until I was in my 30’s, and it was hard at that age,” she says.

I’m a late bloomer. I’m shifting the gears, I’m playing a babe [in Mamma Mia], a silly babe, but a babe. Until now I’ve always been a character actor. Now, I get to dance with young guys who are after me. Life’s pretty good.”

Globe and Mail: Megawheels – Clear Vision is Vital In the Wintertime

winter driving in sunshine

Clear Vision is Vital in Winter ConditionsThe Glove and Mail Logo
By Carlos Tomas

It’s harder to see in winter than any other time. And with more than 90 per cent of your decisions riding on vision, even the smallest losses count. After all, how can you possibly control situations if you can’t see?

Here are some of the problems drivers face:

Increased glare. With up to seven fewer hours of daily sunlight than in summer, the sun is in your face during rush hour much more often. Depending more on artificial light, you are subject to a lot more night-time glare. Add the reflection of roads and fresh snowfalls, and visibility may be next to impossible.

Shorter sightlines. Freezing rain, snow and blowing debris dramatically reduce long-range visibility. Night-time whiteouts can leave you with almost no visibility at all. Fog can reduce visibility to 4 per cent.

Impaired vehicles. When compared to daylight, clean headlights reveal only a smidgen of the road. Dirt can rob you up to 90 per cent of the beam strength.

Take time to prepare your vehicle and reduce these effects: check all lights; have your headlights checked for proper aim so they don’t blind the rest of us; check the turn signals as well.

Other things you need to do:

Check the defrosters. Get your radiator coolant tested to ensure that the heater and defroster are in top shape.

Eliminate wiper smear. Replace streaking blades with rubber-encased winter wipers. They don’t freeze.

Brush off all the snow. No one needs your portable blizzard, especially cyclists and pedestrians.

Uncover the windows. How can you see 360 degrees around you through a porthole? Don’t create blind spots that may hide crucial details such as the unlit cyclist.

Clear the windshield. Scrape off all of the ice. Otherwise your wipers are useless and you end up wasting washer fluid. De-ice wiper blades. Wipers need to fit the curve of your windshield to clean properly.

Unclog the jets. Check the operation of your windshield washer jets. These may be cleared with a pin.

Clean the outside mirrors . And avoid damage to the motors by freeing your power mirrors of snow, ice salt and grime.

Degrease interior glass . Window surfaces and rearview mirrors can be easily neglected until nighttime glare assaults your eyes. All glass should be spotless.

Defrost the windows. Use an old credit card as a scraper to clear interior frost. Open windows a crack when carrying several passengers; lively conversations fog up windows quickly.

Wear sunglasses. Reduce eye-fatiguing glare with a good pair of driving sunglasses. These should be of the kind that block out blue rays.

Use the visors – Block out the sun’s glare. Visors are not meant clamping paraphernalia against the headliner.

Eliminate visual clutter. No matter how lucky loose objects on the dash and rearview mirror hangings are, clean sightlines are much luckier.

Save your wiper-motor. Turn off your wipers before shutting off the engine. Otherwise freezing rain can lodge them in midcycle. Restarting the engine can burn out the motor.

Finally, carry washer fluid, a snowbrush, ice scraper, window cleaner, old towels or paper towels, a flashlight and flares.

The Globe and Mail: Megawheels – A Heavy Foot and Winter Don’t Mix

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Globe and Mail Megawheels – SAFETYThe Glove and Mail Logo

A Heavy Foot and Winter Don’t Mix
By Carlos Tomas

If it makes sense to drive smoothly during winter what causes so many people to resort to the heavy hand and the heavy foot?

Late perception equals late response which equals abrupt response.

Dry roads will often excuse poor seeing habits by letting a driver squeal their way out of a crash with a last-moment swerve or stomp of the brake. But winter’s limited-traction conditions are not so forgiving to panic responses. And the restricted view from inside a vehicle, plus the camouflaged decision-making information, adds up to reduced warning of potential dangers.

Armed only with average visual skills, drivers may be ill equipped to recognize and take control of hazardous situations in time. This can result in drivers being:
•  Too slow in identifying the intended lane because ice, snow, salt or puddles conceal the guiding pavement markings;
•  Disorientated, confused, or lost due to snow-covered road signs;
•  Unable to look through the snow-covered windows of parked vehicles for pedestrians potentially crossing their path;
•  Faced with vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians or animals suddenly emerging from behind snow banks.

Drivers should retool their surveillance skills and eliminate the surprises.

Look way, way ahead. Pick the path of least resistance and best traction and have ample time to smoothly sidestep hazards with few adjustments. When lane markings disappear, pick out the rows of vehicles far in the distance.

Read the road conditions. They’re not all the same. Identify what is slippery and what is not. See the “slip and sliders” in the distance as indicators of the bad spots of the road ahead. Whenever possible, position the vehicle’s wheels on the best available traction.

See everything from way back. How can you see way up front if the vehicles ahead constantly block your view? Hint: If you can’t consistently see two or three traffic lights away you’re following much too closely. On highways continually watch the roadway at least 20 seconds in advance.

Reduce windshield splash. Position the vehicle well away from others’ wheel spray and potential icebergs and avalanches that may dislodge from roofs at high speeds. If the following distance looks like everyone else’s, double it.

Anticipate problems beyond the range of vision. In sub-zero weather always drive as if a patch of black ice awaits beyond the next bend or curve. Approach all visual blockades with less speed and be ready to sound the horn to warn anyone that may move into conflict with your vehicle.

Watch everything but the vehicle ahead. A driver’s central vision needs to be free to roam the Big Picture to retrieve information from all around. The moment the eyes drop, the vehicle ahead becomes the focus and you are tail watching. Tail watching causes tailgating.

See with peripheral vision. The vast majority of people drive oblivious to the fact that the vehicle ahead occupies most, if not all of their attention. This fixation stems mostly from fear of plowing into the vehicle ahead as a result of getting caught looking at the wrong place. Drop away and let the vehicle ahead fade into the foreground until it presents no concern.

Trust gut instincts. If you experience discomfort looking away from the vehicle ahead, take it as a sure sign you are too close to it. Drop back as far as it takes to completely dissolve the butterflies. Your peripheral vision will not let you crash.

Develop speed-reading skills. Do not fixate the eyes on anything for more than one second. If a particular detail concerns you, deal with it immediately so your eyes are free to continue their normal glance behaviour.

Practice seeing space. Nearly everyone focuses attention on obstacles. Instead, look for space. If an obstacle is moving see both spaces – one closing, and the other opening. Project into the center of the expanding space, adjusting speed if necessary. You’ll maneuver much more smoothly through traffic.

Scan intersections thoroughly. From well back, look out for anyone apt to intercept your vehicle’s path unexpectedly. Has everyone that is supposed to stop actually done so? Or do you simply assume the best and drive on and then fume when other vehicles bolt from out of the blue?

Establish visual-search patterns. For example, when turning, be certain that there is an open lane to steer into before checking for conflicts. Then rapidly cycle attention between the key areas of conflict until the way is clear to turn.

Visualize each turn’s exit before steering. Mid-turn corrections to tracking errors can prove costly. Before beginning any turn, establish a clear sightline to the turning target and avoid turning too early or too late. You’ll ensure that no pedestrians are about to run out and intercept your path.

Have the window down when turning left. On rainy nights, visibility can be so bad the intended turning path is not visible through the driver’s window. As soon as a clear opportunity approaches, lower the side window and get a clear view.

See the “other guy” as a potential spin top. Not all vehicles have the same tires. Imagine everyone out there is driving on balding all-three-season tires. Some are! Keep your distance.

Eyes up during a crisis. If despite your precautions you begin to skid you’ll detect it immediately if your eyes are on the horizon. That’s when recovery is easiest, at the start. Just look up to where you want to go.

Sound too radical? Try these techniques out and discover for yourself just how stress-free driving can be. You’ll want to drive this way all year round.