Just 4 percent of new vehicle sold in the U.S. today come with manual transmissions. But 90 percent of worth vehicle comes with a stick shift (okay, that’s an unofficial stat).
The decline of the true manual—thanks to the ease of automatics and the future-tech of paddle shifters in many fancy cars—means that fewer Americans are exposed to stick-shift vehicle. Which means fewer and fewer people outside of the Fast and the Furious franchise know how to drive stick. That’s a shame. You may never own a manual, but you should add this skill to your repertoire.
SOME THINGS YOU NEED to KNOW
This could be frustrating. Changing gears is a skill that takes some getting used to, and you will inevitably kill the engine a few times. (That’s what happens when you let off the clutch without giving the vehicle enough gas. The vehicle lurches, then dies, then you feel embarrassed for a second and restart it.)
where possible, you’ll want an experienced stick-shift driver in the passenger seat to help out, but you will be walked through the basics here. One thing to know: A stick-shift vehicle doesn’t just go when you let off the brake the way an automatic does. So if you’re on a hill and let off the brake, the vehicle will start rolling down the hill. We’re telling you this now so you’re not taken aback the first time this happens.
Checking from the left, you have the clutch pedal, brake pedal, and accelerator. You work the clutch with your left foot and the other two with your right. (If you drive a manual in the U.K. someday, the pedals in a right-hand drive car will be in the same order from left to right, though you’ll obviously shift with your left hand instead of your right.)
Give attention to your tachometer. This engine RPM gauge has been there staring you in the face all these years. But there’s not much need to watch it in an automatic, so you probably let go about it while you were fiddling with the radio. In a manual, the tachometer reading will assist you to know when to change gears.
If you want to learn how to drive three pedals, your first step is to find a suitable vehicle to learn on, since transmissions differ from vehicle to vehicle. A Mazda Miata or Honda Civic will have a light and forgiving clutch, while a big-block Chevy Camaro will have an aggressive and heavy clutch that functions a side gig as a leg press. So borrow a plain-Jane family car, find an empty parking lot, and do the following. You’ll be puttering around on your first day.
START IN NEUTRAL
Before you go for the ignition, check which gear the transmission is in. If it’s anything other than neutral, hold the clutch pedal all the way in, put the vehicle in neutral, and let go of the clutch pedal. Starting a vehicle in gear will rocket it forward, or backward if it’s in reverse. Release the parking brake, and start the car with your foot holding down the brake pedal.
Note: If you’ve driven only automatics, you might be confused by the fact that the stick shifter has no “N” on it. Basically, if you’re not in any of the numbered gears or reverse, the vehicle’s not in gear and you’re in neutral.
FEEL FOR THE FRICTION POINT
Okay, so the vehicle’s on and you’re ready to drive. Once you release the parking brake (more about this later), push the clutch all the way in and hold it there. Keep your right foot on the brake, and move the shifter into first gear. Lift the clutch pedal—slowly. This is called letting out the clutch.
The engine’s RPM will drop, and through the clutch pedal you’ll feel the friction of the transmission’s clutch disc starting to grab the engine’s flywheel. Experiment with this for a while. As you let more clutch out, the revs will steadily drop. If you go too far the engine will stall out, but the world won’t end.
UP WITH THE LEFT FOOT, DOWN WITH THE RIGHT
The friction point is when you want to start applying the accelerator. What this means for you as the driver is that your feet are going to move in opposite directions at the same time, pushing the gas as you’re letting out the clutch. Imagine they’re riding a seesaw together. If you let out the clutch too fast or don’t give it enough throttle, the car will buck like a gassy horse.
IMAGINE THEY’RE RIDING A SEESAW TOGETHER
Drill this mantra into your brain:
– Clutch pedal all the way in.
– Move shifter to next gear.
– Begin letting out clutch to feel for friction point.
– At the friction point, apply accelerator (gently) as you lift off the clutch (gently). Feel it grab and settle in.
– Take your foot completely off the pedal.
– Now you’re in gear. Drive, but keep your foot off the pedal. Even the light pressure of resting your foot on the pedal wears the clutch.
REPEAT AS REQUIRED
Going from 1st to 2nd, and so on, needs the same set of steps. Downshifting works the same way. You might downshift from 5th to 4th if traffic slows you down on the highway and the engine is revving low—say, at 1,200 RPM. When you downshift, the revs will jump a lot higher, so you will need to use more accelerator pedal than when you upshift. You’ll learn that it varies from vehicle to vehicle, but you want to give it enough gas at the friction point to turn 3,000-4,000 RPM as you let out the clutch. Don’t give it enough accelerator and the vehicle will decelerate hard.
COMING TO A STOP
When you’re coming up to a stop, push in the clutch in, flick the shifter to neutral, and let the clutch out. When going to neutral, you don’t have to feel for a friction point or apply gas. Just let the pedal go.
HOW TO PARK
This is vital. A manual transmission car doesn’t have a gear called “park” like an automatic does. That means you must but the parking brake on when you park the vehicle.
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To park a manual, turn the engine off and keep holding the brake pedal in. If you’re on a hill, put the clutch in and move the shifter into reverse gear. Once you put the parking brake on, you can let up on the brake pedal.
Finally, to escape that hilly parking spot, you will need one more trick in your repertoire. Most of us don’t have three feet, which poses a challenge: The moment your right foot comes off the brake to go for the gas, you’ll start rolling (unless you’re lucky enough to have a vehicle with a hill-holder clutch, which won’t roll backward with the clutch depressed). So you’ve got to have lightning quick feet or rely on another tool at your disposal: the parking brake. Get your steering wheel positioned to leave the spot and, with the parking brake engaged, start releasing the clutch and adding throttle. As you feel the vehicle start to struggle against the parking brake, release the brake and fully engage the clutch. That trick allows you to engage the clutch at your leisure without rolling back into the row of Hell’s Angels choppers parked immediately behind you.
Don’t get discouraged or embarrassed. Remember, everyone who can drive stick was once in the same boat learning as you are, and everyone who can’t drive stick has no credibility to judge. Plus, you’re in a vehicle, and you can just duck down and drive away from them.