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Manual Transmission, A Beginners Guide to Driving a “Stick Shift”

Manual Transmission, A Beginners Guide to Driving a "Stick Shift"

Manual Transmission: In today’s day and age, with the easy availability of automatic transmission cars, it is much easier to learn on an automatic. There are so many things to get used to when learning to drive, that trying to master a clutch and gearshift while trying to remember to stop in front of the stop sign or back into a parallel parking space seems a bit silly.

However, there may come a day, or night when you are stuck having to drive a friends car or no other rental is available so, better to already know then add to an already stressful moment.

Preparing to drive stick

Obviously, you will need a stick-shift car. Your best bet is not new, nor one that has had the clutch recently replaced. Clutches are much “stickier” when new, and this makes learning more difficult. It’s also better to learn in a smaller car, with a smaller engine. They are much easier to get going and to stop. Lastly, choose a car with a floor-mount stick shift. Don’t try to learn on a car that has the shifter on the steering column. Floor mounted stick shifts are more intuitive and easier to use.

You’ll want a couple good, safe places to practice. The first should be a large FLAT parking lot, preferably one with few lamp-posts so you don’t have to concentrate so much on the “where you’re going” while you are getting comfortable with shifting. The second should be a long straight section of low traffic roadway.

It is best to practice on a clear day, not at night or in inclement weather.  If you are borrowing the car and the owner wants to come along, work out in advance that you might ask them questions, but your intent is to learn, and that you will be learning from a few mistakes along the way. In other words, they should keep quiet unless you ask for help. Let your friend (you don’t think they’re really going to let you borrow their car to learn without coming along do you?) drive the car to the middle of the parking lot, and have them shut it off in first with the parking brake on. Trade places and climb into the driver’s seat.

Getting a Feel for the pedals

Three pedals, a stick shift and a parking brake are all necessary for a manual transmission car. We’ll get to the parking brake later – let’s concentrate on the pedals and stick shift.

You already know two of the pedals–the gas and the brake. They work the same as they do in an automatic. So let’s skip to the clutch. What the clutch pedal (far left) does is control the distance between two discs or “plates.” pedal positionsOne plate is connected to the engine, and has a big, flat surface. The other plate is connected to the transmission and is made of a material like fine sandpaper. The clutch pulls them apart when you press the pedal in, and lets them touch each other when the pedal is up. When you press in the clutch pedal, you separate the engine from the transmission.

Since the pedal is not an on-off switch, you can control how quickly the two come together, letting one slip against the other for a bit, as you let the clutch pedal up. This “letting out the clutch” is the key to getting the car moving from a stop.

So, with the car still turned off, put your right foot on the brake pedal, and with your left, push the clutch to the floor. Practice pressing it to the floor somewhat quickly, then letting it back up slowly. It’s not that hard to get used to.

Controlling the gearshift

Now check out the gearshift. In general, the gears are laid out like an H, with first in the upper left, second directly below it, third is to the right of first, fourth below it, and if there is a fifth, it is up to the right of third. Reverse is usually on the left side of the H, sometimes up, sometimes down. Usually you have to push the gear lever down into the floor before it will let you go into reverse. The pattern is usually marked on the top of the knob as well.

Now, with the car still off, your foot on the brake only, and the gearshift in first, try to pull it straight down into second. It probably won’t budge. This is because when the clutch pedal is up, there is usually internal pressure against the gears that keep you from taking it out of a gear, as well as putting it in a gear.

While we’re on the topic, why leave the car in first gear when it was turned off at the beginning? The answer is that manual transmission cars don’t have a “Park” gear. Instead, you leave the car in first gear, and the fact that the transmission is connected to the engine means that it can’t turn while the engine is off. First gear is the best gear to do this in because higher gears could let the car move a bit if the engine turns just a tiny bit – first gear creates the greatest resistance.

You may also ask why you need the parking brake as well. If you ever watched the Tom Cruise movie Risky Business, you’ll know. Yes, in spite of all I’ve said above, it is possible to knock the lever out of first and into neutral, at which point the car can roll away.

Alright, let’s get a bit more productive. Ignition turned off, right foot on the brake, push in the clutch and try moving the stick shift through the pattern, one gear at a time until you get to fifth, then back down again. Now try to find reverse. It is often hard to find. If you’ve been quiet so far, now might be the time to finally ask the owner something like “How the heck do I get it into reverse?” They will tell you the secret, which depending on the make and model may involve a modified golf or bowling grip.

How to safely come stop

Before you get to the part about moving, you need to get just a bit of experience stopping, otherwise your friend in the passenger seat will start clawing at the dash and screaming like crazy as you try to negotiate a hard left to avoid the one other car still parked in the lot.

At least for now, we’re going to go for the simple stop. It doesn’t matter what gear you are in, you can always use the brake pedal the way you are used to by pushing in the clutch first. With the car turned off and the parking brake set, rest your right foot on the gas like you be in normal driving, and put your left foot wherever you normally feel comfortable. Practice the panic stop – left foot quickly pushes the clutch to the floor and the right foot moves to the brake and presses it. You don’t have to slam the clutch, but do it quickly. It has to become somewhat natural. Later we will talk about using the clutch as you slow down, but for starters, always push the clutch in before touching the brake.

First gear…

It’s the decisive moment. Put your right foot on the brake and use your left foot to push the clutch down. Put the gearshift in neutral. Make sure it’s in neutral by wiggling it. It should wiggle side to side easily. Now turn the key and start the car. Turn off the radio, the fan, and anything else that makes noise. Slowly, let out the clutch. If at any point the car feels like it wants to move, push the clutch back to the floor: you are not in neutral. Shut down and start over.

With the engine warmed up a bit, and a clear path ahead of you, push the clutch back in and move the gearshift to first. With your right foot still on the brake pedal, let the clutch out slowly. You will hear the engine slow a bit and the car try to move as you let it out. You have found the point at which the clutch “catches.” Push the clutch back in and take your foot off the brake, and try it again. NOW you’re set.

Clutch to the floor, right foot on the gas, give the engine just a little extra gas – not much. Now slowly let the clutch come up. As you feel that catch point, the RPM’s will start to drop and the car will start to move forward a bit. Slowly give it more gas to keep the RPM’s constant as you let the clutch out. This is the key to the whole thing. Give it enough gas to keep the RPM’s constant until the pedal is all the way out. Now push in the clutch and brake to a stop. Repeat three or four times until that “catch” point starts to feel comfortable.

Quit stalling!

In fact, since we just mentioned stalling, let’s give it a try. Warn your passenger first. Try letting the clutch out WITHOUT giving it more gas. The car starts to move, then the engine dies, and the car jerks to a start. It just stops moving – hard. This is why you always leave the car in first gear when you park (and use the parking brake for safety’s sake).

Getting up to speed

It’s time to drive around a bit. You’re not going to go out of first gear, so you can stay in the parking lot. First gear is good up to about 15 MPH on most cars – don’t exceed this or you will over-rev the engine. Start out in first just start driving slowly around the parking lot. Once the clutch is completely released, wind it up to about 10 miles and hour then pull your foot off the gas. Whew – it almost throws you through the windshield. This is because engine speed and car speed are directly related, unlike in an automatic transmission where there is more “coast” in the transmission.

Once you are down around 5 MPH, give it gas pretty firmly, about 3/4 of the gas pedal. Even on a small car, you’ll jerk your head back hard. Again, the wonderful thing about a manual transmission is that it is directly coupled to the engine. Practice smoothly slowing down, then speeding up a bit.

Drive around the parking lot in first a bit more, and as you come up to a curve, slowly take your foot off the gas while you push the clutch to the floor and coast around the curve. On the other side of the turn, start pressing the gas pedal to bring the RPM’s back up and let out the clutch. The first few times the car will buck, because the engine will be going faster or slower than the transmission. Again, this is where letting the clutch out slowly comes in. As you let out the clutch, keep increasing power to the engine until the two “feel” the same speed. This takes a while to master. Your friend and owner of the car may turn a couple shades of pale here if you over-rev or let the clutch out too slowly so those two disks rub against each other too long. You want to get this down so that the clutch is completely engaged in about 1/2 a second or faster.

Just like the brake pedal, any time you are NOT using the clutch, keep your foot off it. “Riding the clutch,” even if you don’t think you are putting any pressure on it, ever so slightly pulls the two plates between the engine and transmission apart. You not only get less power, but you also increase the amount of slipping that wears down the clutch faster. Clutches are very expensive to replace, especially on front wheel drive cars.

Changing gears

If the parking lot is big enough that you can safely drive up to 35 MPH, you can try shifting in the lot, otherwise, let the car’s owner take you to that deserted stretch of road you picked out earlier.

The next step is going from first gear to second. This is pretty much like when you practiced pushing in the clutch to coast around a corner except that you are going to move the shift lever from first straight down to second while you have the clutch on the floor. Let out the clutch while increasing pressure on the gas pedal just as you did earlier. Practice this on a straight area of course.

Once you get into second gear, you can drive around the lot a bit. Remember to take your foot off the gas when you push in the clutch. If you don’t, the engine RPM’s will go way up without the load from the transmission.

At what speed should you shift to second? Every car is different, but in general, each gear has a good range:

  • First from 0 to 15 MPH topsmanual gear shifter
  • Second 3 to 25 MPH
  • Third 15 to 45 MPH
  • Fourth 30 to 65 MPH
  • Fifth 45 to ? MPH

For now, just keep working on making it second nature to press in the clutch and using the brake pedal when you want to stop. Always go back into first gear to start out again.

A word about first gear. Never downshift from second gear to first while moving. Yes, you can do it and you won’t really cause any damage, but it is generally not a good practice because of the potential for over-revving the engine. When you are going that slowly, and of course when you are coming to a full stop, push the clutch in and use the brake pedal. Once you stop, shift to first.

Stop and Go

Rush hour traffic with a stick shift car can be a royal pain. Clutch in, coast, clutch out. Shift up, shift down. You really get to build up those left-leg muscles. If you spend a lot of time in traffic, think seriously, about whether a manual transmission car is for you. However, all that being said, always remember second gear. Second gear on most cars has an incredibly wide range, from near dead stop to almost 30 or 35 miles an hour. A lot of people just leave the car in 2nd and use the gas pedal to not only speed up, but also to slow down. They only use the clutch and brake pedal when the car in front of them slows down too quickly (you have to leave a little more room between yourself and the car in front of you), or when things come to a complete stop. Try it, it’s not as hard as it sounds.

What else do you need to know?

Revving at stop lights

This is why you want a manual transmission, right? Just push in the clutch and rev the engine. You can do it anywhere: stop lights, cruising down the boulevard, anywhere.

Stalling at red lights

This one is self-evident. Avoid it at all costs. Nothing is more embarrassing than calling attention to you with big revs and a loud exhaust, then jerking to a stop when the lights change. Of course, if you want to find out who your friends really are, this will certainly make them show their true colors. Happy Shifting!

Related Post: Manual Transmission or Automatic, Which is Better?

8 Comments
  1. This was really a great help to a beginner like me…. Every bit of information was valuable.

  2. Thanks it really helped

  3. You’re welcome! Are you just learning to drive a manual?

  4. Thanks I have a clear picture now on how to get started.

  5. this is very helpful!

  6. I’m just starting out and every time I try to press on the gas just a little bit and trying to release the clutch at te sametime. When I do that I always get this rumble and jerking feeling from the car. What am i doing wrong?
    I hear that on first gear, you can press on the gas a little bit and you can release te clutch faster. But when I do it makes a lot of rumbling sounds. What can I do to make a more smooth ride?

  7. That attitude today may well be ‘pound wise and penny foolish’ as
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    The days of being surrounded by Toyota’s may be coming to an end.

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