When our customers express anxiety about taking a stick shift driving lesson, they’re usually envisioning awful things happening that, well, don’t ever really happen. Because they’ve never done it before, they don’t know what the worst thing is that could happen. After teaching more lessons than we can count, we’ve seen “the worst” and it ain’t nearly as bad as you might expect. My best advice for learning stick shift actually as more to do with emotions than it has to do with your feet and hands.
Expect To Make Mistakes.
There have been many sage prophets. Plato, Socrates, The Dude, and many others. But when it comes to learning how to drive a manual transmission, you’d do well to study the wisdom of a kid in a cartoon. Specifically, Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes.
Much like Calvin lowered the expectations of those who knew him, I suggest you do the same when you’re taking a manual transmission driving lesson. While it’s not going to be disastrously, it’s also not going to be a walk in the park either. You’re probably going to feel stressed. You’re going to stall out. After a few hours, you’ll feel like you kinda-sorta-mostly “know” how to drive stick shift, but you’re not going to feel confident. Now, that may sound defeatist, but my perspective is that it’s better to set realistic expectations and meet them than to hype you up and let you down. The more that you can accept yourself and your mistakes as part of the normal process of learning how to drive a manual transmission, the gentler your experience will be. That, in turn, will actually help you learn stick shift faster because you’ll be able to bounce back more easily. You’ll just take your hits as they come and keep practicing instead of throwing in the towel...er… keys. As the saying goes, “it's not how many times you get knocked down that count, it's how many times you get back up. ” Ironically, the customers who learn stick shift the fastest are the ones who don’t particularly care how long it takes. They’re more relaxed, faster to try it again, and generally more receptive to feedback and instruction.
How Long Will It Take To Learn Stick Shift?
Speaking of expectations, how long should you expect all of this to take? How long until you feel confident about it all? Well, after teaching about 900 stick shift lessons nationwide, we’ve generally found that the following timeline holds true for the vast majority of customers
Basically Competent, Probably Uncomfortable - About 1 day and 2 - 3 hours of practice.
Learning how to get the car into gear: 30 to 60 minutes hours. Believe it or not, the vast majority of people only need about 30 to 60 minutes. We typically recommend that customers get the car moving in first gear from a full stop about 10 to 20 times before moving onto anything else so that they strengthen their muscle memory. Now, you’ll still probably feel a bit uncomfortable and nervous the entire time, but that’s totally normal.
Upshifting and downshifting - 1 - 2 hours.
This is where most people get tripped up because they have to combine a couple of maneuvers (releasing the clutch, bringing the revs down to about 1500, shifting the gear shifter, engaging the clutch). Initially, we recommend you give yourself a long stretch of parking lot and go through each action one at a time, allowing yourself a brief moment between each action. There’s no need to rush. Once you get the hang of it, keep practicing.
At the end of your first day of practice, you’re probably going to feel a little energized or frazzled or some combination of the two. We usually recommend that people who learn stick shift try to avoid driving their stick shift car for the remainder of the day, though driving an automatic is fine. It’s kind of like when my Nana Rose makes red sauce or my mom makes her chicken soup. For some reason, it all needs a day to set. A good night’s sleep helps you incorporate everything you’ve learned and allows you to wake up feeling fresh and recharged, ready to get the car into gear.
Feeling Mostly Comfortable but Still Mindful - 1 week
Assuming you can practice about 5 to 8 hours in your first week, you should expect to feel basically competent driving around most roads in about one week. You’ll still feel a little nervous excitement and you’ll probably want to avoid listening to the radio so that you can give all of your attention to the task at hand. The only time we hear customers talk about feeling more than a little nervous excitement is in situations where their next experience driving stick shift is on an international trip. We get a lot of folks who learn so that they can save money on a car rental while abroad. The combination of being in a different country with different roads, signs, and driving patterns adds to their emotions
Feeling Confident and Not Needing To Think About Gear Changes - 2 - 4 Weeks
If you practice about 5 - 8 hours per week, you should start to feel like driving stick shift is 2nd nature after about two to four weeks. And don’t worry if you stall out every now and then. That is completely normal. You and your car will be completely fine.
Flash Your Hazard Lights
Beginner stick shift drivers often worry about other cars around them getting frustrated by them. They don’t want to inspire anyone’s road rage and I don’t blame them. My best recommendation is to give a heads up to others on the road by turning on your hazard lights while you’re first getting the hang of things out on the road. If other drivers see your flashers and the sign on the back of your car indicating that you’re a new stick shift driver, they’ll probably cut you some slack. If they see your lights and your sign and still get right up on you, well, that’s their problem. You did everything you could.
Make a Sign For Your Car
Ok I know this sounds cheesy, but it works. Print up a banner for your rear window that says something like “Learning Stick Shift” and tape it on the lower part of your window on the inside. Anyone who sees that will know to give you some space, especially if they’re behind you on a hill. Having that extra space will help reduce the chances of an accident. But even more than that, the biggest benefit is to you in knowing that other people around you will do what they can to avoid you and give you space. You’ll feel more at ease knowing that you have the space to go slowly, make mistakes, and figure it out at your onw pace.
Practice in Parking Lots
We strongly recommend learning the basics of stick shift in big parking lots, especially when you're first starting out. Below are some of the general types of areas we recommend according to when you go for the lesson. We recommend finding out the schedules of activities at these facilities so that you can be sure you're going to practice when few other people are around.
Weekdays: Churches and recreation facilities
Most churches host services on weekends and some weeknights, so they're a great place to learn stick shift when nobody is around.
Recreation facilities like public parks, ice skating rinks, and stadiums are make for relatively unpopulated stick shift practice areas during weekdays. The only exception might be the ice rinks, which we recommend going to a little later in the morning after all of the kids and amateur teams have finished practicing.
Weeknights & Weekends: Local High Schools, Colleges, office parks
High schools tend to have larger parking lots to accommodate students who drive to school, so you'll have more space for learning how to drive a manual transmission. Just make sure there are no games or other school events happening that night
Colleges often have empty parking lots at night because most classes happen during the day. If it’s a community college, it will likely have some empty parking lots during the weekend, especially if the school does not have any sporting teams.
Office parks tend to be great spots for learning stick shift at night during the week and all weekend because everyone has gone home for the evening.
Stall the car on purpose
First, stall the car on purpose. Yes. Really. No, I’m not joking. Why? Simple. It’s important that you see that stalling the car is not the end of the world. Angels don’t lose their wings. The sky doesn’t fall. The engine doesn’t die forever, it just gets turned off. All you need to do to get it running again is… wait for it... turn the key. Yep, that’s it. Cars are much more resilient and robust than we often give them credit for. You’re far from the first person to ever stall a car. When engineers design cars, they expect a certain amount of misuse. So, they design the engines to be able to withstand stalling out. Now, I don’t recommend making a regular practice of stalling the engine every day, but it’s important that you see that stalling out is really not that big of a deal when taking a manual transmission driving lesson.
Quickly Get into 1st gear
There’s a lot that can cause stress when you want to learn how to drive a manual transmission, but there’s one stress that just about everyone I know (myself included) feels when driving a stick shift car- stalling out with someone behind your car. Its. The. Worst. Whether you’re at a stop light, intersection, or even just in a parking lot, knowing that someone is behind you and you need to get into gear can be nerve wracking. Because of that, I strongly recommend you practice getting good at quickly going from your car being off to on and driving in first gear. Kind of like how emergency responders practice their techniques so that they don’t have to think too much when the situation arises, you want to be able to quickly and automatically (pun intended) shift into gear without giving it much thought. This has two benefits. The first, of course, is that you’ll have the skill and cool handling when you need it. But the other is that you’ll feel more confident and relaxed knowing that you’re prepared for one of the most nerve-wracking things that could happen to you when you are learning how to drive a manual transmission.
Which Car to Learn On
Generally speaking, once you learn how to drive a manual transmission, you can pretty much drive any stick shift car you get your hands on. But which kind of car you learn on can actually have an effect on your experience learning to drive stick shift. If you have some options for the car you either learn stick shift in or practice on after taking a manual transmission lesson, here are our recommendations on which kind of car will give you the best experience.
Diesel Cars - Diesel vehicles are great for practicing on after you learn to drive a manual transmission because their engines put more power to the wheels than comparably-equiped gasoline cars. If you think about tractor trailer trucks, they’re all diesels because diesel fuel produces more low-end torque than gasoline cars. In non-technical language, what that means is that when you’re at low speeds or when you’re trying to get into first gear, a diesel engine is going to tolerate you taking your foot off of the clutch pedal better than a comparable gasoline engined vehicle. As a result, you’re less likely to stall out.
Pickup Trucks - Ask any of your friends or family who own a pickup truck and they’ll likely tell you about all of the times they’ve been asked to help haul something. But there’s another benefit to having a pickup truck- teaching stick shift. Learning to drive on a manual transmission truck can be great because you barely need to press the gas to put enough power into the drivetrain to get the truck moving. Being able to focus first on just getting into gear and then on power later is going to help you be more relaxed while taking a stick shift lesson.
Sportier Cars - Now, I’m not advocating for learning stick shift in a Ferrari, though if you have someone who wants to teach you how to drive a manual transmission in a Ferrari, well, you have an amazing friend. But, sportier cars like, say, a Mustang, Camaro, or even a Porsche can be advantageous because those cars have a lot of power and are going to be less likely to stall out if you release the clutch too quickly. Only exception would be if the car has a modified transmission, engine, or something else in the drivetrain. As cars get performance upgrades to their drivetrains, they become much more sensitive. If you are at the beginning stages of taking a stick shift driving lesson, you’re not yet going to have the finely-tuned foot control to handle a stage 2 or greater transmission and are therefore more likely to stall out.
Cars you don’t care about too much - If you’re driving a newer or nicer car, you’re going to be too worried about the car itself and whether you’re damaging the car by stalling out or grinding the gears. In reality, the car is way tougher than you might think, but being in an old car is going to put your mind at ease.
Get into 1st gear...100 times
It Might seem excessive, but if you’re going to feel comfortable and confident about getting on the road after a manual transmission driving lesson, you’re going to want to practice getting into 1st gear at least 100 times. Yes, really. I’m not exaggerating. The goal here is to get you to the point that you’re not even thinking about it. In the education world, they call this unconscious competence. By the time you’ve gotten to the car into gear 100 times, you’ll be driving stick shift like it is second nature. Each time you practice getting the car into gear, see if you can do it just a little bit faster. Going faster will push you to hone your skills. Setting a goal of 100 also sets an expectation. If you’re not yet up to 100, you have no reason to expect that anything should go smoothly. Stall out at attempt #43? Totally normal. Feeling uncomfortable at attempt #58? Join the club. Expecting things to feel a little uncomfortable for the first 100 attempts will help prevent you from beating yourself up.