How to drive a stick shift car. (A different way of learning).

Aug 22, 2001 (Updated Aug 24, 2001)

The Bottom Line Driving a stick shift car is one of the best feelings for a car enthusiast. Here's one way of learning most people never thought about.

Nothing beats driving a standard transmission car if you are a driving nut. It doesn't matter if you are driving a Yugo or a Porsche 911 Turbo... standard trannies make any car feel more responsive and quicker.

I've driven since I was 16 and have gotten so used to my little Tercel that I began to drive what most people would call controlled "recklessness". This means you know your car so well, that you'd drive between doubled-parked cars with only inches of clearance without slowing down.

As confidence grew, you get curious about other cars. And after trying out other cars, you wonder about stick shifts.

Eventually, many teen drivers (and young adults) like myself will want to learn to drive a stick. It is not only the thrill of having more control over the car, but a status symbol as well. It shows that you are a real car nut and can drive almost anything. (Gee, there are only two kinds of trannies anyways). With most cars being automatics, having a stick shift can set you apart from the crowd (unless you're in California).

Enough fluff! Lets get to it already!
Whatever the reason may be, you want to learn how to drive a vehicle with a standard manual transmission. Most will ask a close friend or family member if they can teach them. (if you are lucky enough to know someone that would let you drive their car). Others, on their own, will buy an old beater to learn first... something that would last a couple of years at least.

Any help you can get is a step in the right direction. However, I am offering a better way to learn...and this is the way I learned it, and this is the way I taught my brother.

Manual Transmission 101
Before you do ANY actual driving, you should learn how a manual transmission drive train works. Research on the internet (use search engines), books, magazines, whatever that has relevant information. Remember that driving a "manual" car is just that: MANUAL. You do everything manually, so why not learn how it works?

Unlike an automatic transmission, manual ones are pretty crude. Knowing how it works will give a good idea on what to do when you get in a stick shift car. An automatic was designed to be easy to drive, but the mechanics itself is very complex (well, not really, but more complex than a manual). Stick shifts, on the other hand, is very simple, and requires you (the driver) to know what you are doing. So what's the best way of knowing what you are doing than to learn how the darn thing works in the first place?

The Engine
The engine, once started, is always rotating, as it should. To make the car move, it should be connected to the tires somehow, right? However, we need to give the engine a controlled environment because we NEED it to keep turning. If it were directly connected to the wheels, then how would it keep turning if we were at a stoplight (braking)? If it was connected directly to the wheels and the wheels stop (as in braking), the engine would die. For a less harsh description, it turns off, though die is a better term, since you are killing the engine's longevity by stopping this way. Although it wouldn't destroy the engine if you do it a couple of times, iIf you do it on purpose every single day, though, it would come back to bite you.

The Peacemaker (Clutch for stick and Torque Converter for autos)
Since we want to keep the engine turning at a stop, we need something to separate the engine from the drive train, but still leave it connected somehow.

If you ever had one of those pinwheel flowers that spin when there is wind, then you'll have some idea how a torque converter works. Basically, imagine having a fan blowing onto another fan that is off. This will make the other fan turn in the same direction as the one that is on. Why? Because air is flowing onto the blades of the fan that is off (like the pinwheel flower) and it starts to turn. In a torque converter, one fan blade is connected to the engine while the other one is connected to the transmission (the rest of the drive train). Instead of moving air, there is liquid and the entire fan-liquid-fan combo is housed in one assembly. You can see where this is going.

As the engine turns, it turns the turbine blade of the tranny as well, which is connected to gears, which is connected to the wheels. If you stop the wheels, the engine will still turn because it is not connected to the wheels directly. Since it is not connected directly to the transmission, it's not efficient. New autos, however, "locks" the torque converter at high speeds, which would connect the engine directly to the drive train, giving better gas mileage. You can check out the effects of the torque converter by stepping on the brake and moving the gear selector from Park to Reverse and even Drive, then back to Park. You will hear your engine slow down a bit (under a load) when it is in gear, but back to Park (or even Neutral), the engine idles a lot easier.

The manual trannies use a clutch to keep the engine away from the tranny when it is unneeded (like at a stop). The clutch (for simplification of this article) consists of two plates. One is connected to the engine while the other is connected to the transmission (where all the gears are, and essentially making up the rst of the drive train). The clutch works by mechanically meshing itself onto a plate that is connected to the drive train when you want to move, and move away from the plate so it's no touching it when you don't want the engine's help. This allows the driver to move the car when need be, and stop without killing the engine by disengaging the clutch.

To the driver, the clutch is activiated by the third pedal (to the left of the brake, brake being the middle pedal). Since you will be engaging and disengaging the clutch, you can see this can cause an urupt motion once the engine gets connected to the tranny. The clutch is made of a material similar to your brakes. As you know already, when you stop your car, it SLOWS down smoothly to a stop. This is the same with the clutch plates. Most beginners will "jerk" a stick shift car when then want to move it. This is the reason why. They must get used to treating the clutch pedal as an INVERTED BRAKE PEDAL. In other words, if you let go of the clutch, the clutch plates are now against each other. If you push the clutch pedal, the plates move away from each other. This is why many people will tell you to "cluch out while you gas in". This will allow you to get the engine revving a higher, giving you power to move the car without killing the engine, and at the slightly higher RPM, the clutch plates should be touching each other slightly (like if you were just trying to slow down with brakes). As you feel the clutch catch, your car will start moving slowly. You should be letting the clutch out a little more so it contacts more, and should also be giving it a little more gas to make it go faster. THIS is how you launch your car from a stop SMOOTHLY.

Time to Move Out (How to drive)
Once you get in the car, you must do the driver's ritual. Adjust your seat, put on your seat belt, and adjust your mirrors. Heck, adjust your steering wheel if that tickles your fancy - and if the car allows. Memorize the gear pattern on the stick itself. On most cars, it should be printed on the stick shift knob. In fact, with the engine off, push in the clutch and move the stick around to get a good feel for it. Pretend you driving and shift thru the gears in order from 1st to your last gear. Be careful when you REALLY drive to AVOID REVERSE. Although newer cars have a failsafe where you can't shift it into reverse if the car is moving forward, don't make it habit incase your particular car DOESN'T.

You are now ready to start the car.

Starting the car
If it's not already so, put your car into neutral by pushing in the clutch and move the stick out of the gear gate. If you don't know what gate it is in, just tug the stick around until you feel it snap back into its neutral position (as in the center). Move the stick left and right to make sure you are in neutral. It should give easily. Are you still pushing in the clutch? Good. You can turn the key now.

Most new cars require you to push in the clutch as you crank your engine because this will ensure that the car won't move anywhere when the engine is turning. (Remember Manual Transmission 101?). These car have a failsafe in which if you try to start your car without pushing in the clutch (even though you are in neutral), it will NOT even crank.

Moving the car (in 1st gear)
The engine should be purring now. You can let go of the clutch at this point (provided that you are still in neutral). Assuming you are on flat land (empty parking lot, hopefully), lets get you going.

Push in your brakes and let go of your hand brake. Doing this will make sure you car is not going to roll after you the hand brake is released (do this even on flat land JUST IN CASE!).

Push in your clutch ALL THE WAY DOWN.

*WARNING: This is important as most beginners push it in partially and not know it. Then when they try to engage to a gear, they will grind gears! Why does this happen? Because the engine is still turning and you are pushing a gear into a SPINNING engine! If you clutch it in all the way, the plates will be completely disengaged, which means the tranny is not at the mercy of the engine. This will allow you to put the tranny in gear without grinding it.

You can now put your car in first gear. Let go of your brakes and immediately (be cool and casual about it, don't pounce!) push the gas a little while simultaneously releasing the clutch as explained in Manual Transmission 101. The car should move now. Jerky or not depends on how smoothly you released your clutch and how high the RPMs were. (Tip: Revving the engine just above 1000 RPM and letting the clutch go super slowly will let you feel how the car will react). When you feel the car about to move, you have found the cltuch's friction point. The two variables you have to think about is the clutch's engagement and the gas so the engine won't die. Too high of an RPM will launch your car like a space rocket, so careful not to let go of the cluch fast (the term for that is "dropping the clutch") at RPMs of 3000 and above!

If the engine dies, don't fret. Try, try again! You will eventually get the hang of it. The reason why you may not be successful was probably because you didn't give it enough gas or you released the clutch to quick (though not to the point where you actually dropped the clutch).

Once you are moving, you can gradually give it some gas and let go of the clutch a little more until you have completely released the clutch. 1st gear have a pretty high ratio, so most likely, you should be shifting now. Although it's a preference, most people shift at around 3000 RPM. It depends on how the engine is handling it, really. If the engine can still take more (doesn't sound like it's huffing or puffing tired), you can shift a little higher. Others shift at around 2000 because we want to save gas (and we're the cheap breed!). Young drivers who drives fast (and want fast acceleration) shift near the red line. The term "red line" refers to the tachameter gauge in which the red zone starts (in you car's manual book, it should say DO NOT rev beyond the red line... and you SHOULDN'T either!). That means these kids are maximizing the engine's potential, but of course, sucking up a lot of gas along the way.

To change gears, you must push the clutch in while letting go of the gas (simultaneously), then change the gear, and do the clutch-out-gas-in thing again. That's's like a dance.

(Tip: To pass cars, you can't just hit the gas hard like you do in automatics. You must downshift (go to a lower gear), which will make your RPMs higher once you re-engage your clutch. This will allow you to do what the young kids do...accelerate quickly... to pass a car. Be warned, though - DON'T DOWNSHIFT IF YOU ARE ALREADY HAVE HIGH RPMs!!! Once you downshift, the RPMs will go higher than what you have already on your current gear, which will make the needle go PAST the red line, and blow your engine).

Slowing the Car
Of course, you'll have to eventually have to slow down sometime, Mr. Speed Racer!

To slow down, you can just let go of the gas without doing anything else if you are just slowing because someone cut you off. This is a small change in speed, though. To get back up to speed, just hit the gas again.

To slow down SIGNIFICANTLY, you must hit the clutch to disengage the clutch, and brake if necessary. To get back up to speed, you must make sure you are in the right gear for the new (slower) speed you are currently in. Change gears (most likely downshift, since you are now slower) if necessary, then re-engage the clutch ever so gently while you give it some gas.

Stopping the Car
The next logical step from slowing, of course. By now you should have a good idea how to do stop. Same as slowing the car, except now you keep on the brake until you stop.

On stop signs, you don't really have to let go of the clutch. Just let it stay in and change gears back to first.

On longer stops (like at McDonald's "Express Lane" and at red lights), throw the stick to neutral and let go of the clutch. Remember to keep your foot on the brake, though, as you don't want to roll forward...or worse - BACKWARDS into the car behind you.

Dead engine in the middle of the intersection!
If you kill the engine smack dab in traffic, don't let that discourage you. Just restart and go. Most of the time, other drivers won't care or notice if you restart your car fast enough. And even if it DOES take you a while to take first...let them honk! They are obviously automatic drivers! Most stick shift drivers will be more patient since it has happened to them before. In fact, some (including me) applaud the fact that we have a new breed of stick shift drivers... or at least we'd just give you other stick drivers a break. :)

Going uphill
If you are going uphill, downshift so your engine doesn't need to work as hard to move your car up. If you are stuck in traffic going uphill (which, if you now know how a stick shift car works, is hellish - rolling backwards suck more than rolling forward!), use your hand brakes. If traffic starts to move, just do the clutch-out-gas-in dance again, but this time, feel for the friction point. Once you feel it, release the hand brake. This will keep your car from rolling backwards.

Don't change gears when going over (or about to go over) railroads. Doing so may increase the chance of stalling your engine (especially if you are still a new driver) and being stuck on the tracks. You shouldn't be racing a train, anyways. :)

Of course, you should always pull your hand brake up when you park. Unlike autos, the transmission isn't there to help hold your car still. (Even so, you should use the hand brake on your auto cars so your tranny will have less stress). However, you can have your tranny help you in keeping your car stay put by leaving in gear (1st or reverse is used the most) along side with your hand brake.

Every car is different. Some cars are harder to get it into first or reverse, while others are easy. Some have this problem intermittently. Just get used to the car and expect to re-try the gear if it doesn't work. You may have to move the stick to 2nd before you get into first if it is sticky. Same for reverse.

Sucker the dealerships
If you have no one to ask for help, go to the dealers. If you are in a place like BMW, ask for a stick. You can tell them that you want to learn. If they try to talk you into an automatic, just say, "If I am getting a car like a BMW, why should I get an automatic? That's not how you drive a Beemer!" Also say you know a little about driving it (as you should after some researching!)

Your first stick shift car
Don't buy a junker, thinking you will sell it right after you learn! Why? Because it won't take long for you to drive a stick relatively well. Get a car you know you will still keep like any other car. This way, you won't regret your purchase AFTER the few days (or even hours) you spent learning to drive.

Are you a Pro yet?
Not yet! And don't go out trying to learn stick just from reading this, either. As I said before, you must do some researching yourself. Get diagrams and such, since ePinion does not allow me to post pictures here. They will give a good visual representation of what goes on in the transmission when you drive.

Here is a great place to start:

Don't fret, and just have fun!

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