The first time you get behind the steering wheel of a manual transmission vehicle, it can be a humbling experience. While some people take to driving a stick shift right away, others struggle. The car jerks, the engine races, the car stalls. Just about everybody gets it sooner or later, though. The key to smoothly operating a manual car is clutch control.
What do we mean by clutch control? The answer: it’s controlling the car by partially engaging the clutch, that is, by holding the clutch pedal part way down. You can do this as you work the gas pedal, and you can also do it without using the throttle.
Wait a minute, you might say. Isn’t pushing the clutch pedal partway hard on the transmission? Isn’t that what’s called “riding the clutch?”
Up to a point, you’re right. You don’t want to hold the clutch pedal part way when changing gears at highway speeds. Once you’re moving in gear, even 1st gear, you need to take your foot off the clutch pedal. However, to smoothly take the vehicle from a standstill to movement in first gear, you have to partially engage the clutch. It’s a proper and necessary use of the equipment.
More than that, this clutch control helps you master the feel of the clutch pedal. What you learn as you start off in first gear translates for making a smooth change from, say, fourth gear to fifth gear.
You can learn to drive a manual vehicle by taking it up through all the gears right away. However, there are some advantages to first mastering clutch control in the lowest gear. The skills you develop will put you ahead of the game when you get out on the road and start shifting in the higher gears. Moreover, you can practice your clutch control in a quiet spot where you don’t have to deal with other traffic, such as a deserted road or an empty section of a parking lot.
How To Properly Position the Driver Seat in a Manual Transmission Car
When you set your seat position in an automatic transmission car, you have to be able to comfortably reach the gas pedal, the brake pedal and the steering wheel. You need to see out the windows and with the mirrors. You have to be able to read the speedometer.
With a stick shift car, proper seat position is even more important. You also need to be to reach the clutch pedal and the gear shifter. You may also want a view of the tachometer, particularly when you’re first learning.
You need to do more than just reach the clutch pedal with your left foot. You’ll have to push it completely to the floor and hold it there without straining. Here’s one way to test that: can you push the pedal all the way to the floor with your right foot? If you can do that, then you’ll be able to use your left leg and foot with adequate leverage.
As to the gear box, you not only must reach it, you need to shift into the gear farthest from you without reaching or stretching. To test this, push the clutch pedal all the way down and shift through all the gears. Does your torso move? In the distant gears, is your arm stretched so far you can feel it in your elbow? In the near gears, does your elbow touch your ribs? Does your elbow bend more than 90 degrees? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you’re not in an ideal position.
How To Familiarize Yourself With the Clutch Pedal in a Manual Transmission Car
The simplest way to think of a clutch is as consisting of two metal plates. One is connected to the engine and the other to the wheels. When one clutch plate is connected to the other, the engine and the wheels are connected, and the engine sends power to the wheels to move the car. In this case it’s said that the clutch is engaged.
When you depress the clutch pedal, you separate the two plates and the engine no longer powers the wheels. Now the clutch is disengaged. When you change gears in a manual car, you press the clutch pedal long enough to prevent the engine from sending power to the wheels while you change the gear ratio.
Sometimes the language is a little confusing. If somebody asks if you’re using the clutch, what do they mean? If you use the clutch pedal by pressing it, you disengage the clutch and you’re temporarily not using the clutch. So: clutch pedal not in use, clutch engaged, and clutch pedal pushed down, clutch disengaged.
And, of course, when the clutch pedal is partway down, the clutch is partially engaged, or partially disengaged. You’re going to partially disengage the clutch when you master clutch control and learn how to get the car rolling in first gear.
Before you start the car, work the clutch pedal a few times to get the feel of it. When you disengage the clutch, push the pedal all the way to the floor. Don’t stop short. When you engage the clutch, take your left foot completely off the pedal and rest it on the floorboard. A partially engaged clutch is a necessity when starting smoothly from a motionless position, but partial engagement of the clutch causes unneeded wear on the clutch and transmission. Partially engage the clutch only when you need to.
One other note: some people use both legs to operate an automatic transmission vehicle, with their right foot on the accelerator pedal and their left foot close to the brake. You can’t do that in your manual car. There’s no place next to the brake for your left foot, and you need to reserve your left leg for clutching.
How To Familiarize Yourself With the Shifter in a Manual Transmission Car
Any standard transmission car you’re likely to be driving will have the gearbox on the center console, in reach of your right arm. If you find yourself behind the steering wheel of a manual transmission 1961 Buick, the gear shift is on the steering column, but you’re likely to see that only at an antique show.
Most stick shift cars today have five or six speeds, so the gears are labeled 1 through 5 or 6. In the middle there’s N for neutral. There’s also an R for reverse, usually in a corner next to 5 or 6.
If it’s your first time behind the wheel of a manual transmission, exercise the gears before you start the car. If the last driver used best practices, you’ll find the shifter in first gear. If it’s not, press the clutch pedal, move the shift knob there and release the clutch pedal.
Now take the manual gearbox through the gears. Push the clutch pedal, move the shift lever from first, through neutral and into second. Be sure to push the clutch pedal all the way to the floor. Push it briskly but don’t stomp it. Likewise, release it briskly but don’t yank your foot off. Push the clutch pedal all the way down before you move the shifter, and move the shifter all the way into the new gear before you release the pedal.
When you’re actually driving, you’ll release the pedal more gradually when you’re starting in 1st gear, but you’ll want the quicker action when you move between higher gears. It’s a good habit to take your foot off the clutch and rest it on the floorboard between clutchings, and to remove your hand completely from the shifter between changing gear. Resting your foot on the clutch pedal or your hand on the shifter both can cause slight but unnecessary wear.
Continue shifting, going one gear at a time all the way to the highest gear then back down again. Then, use the same technique to move the stick between first gear and reverse gear. In a few models, such as some Volkswagens, you have to push the shifter down to get into reverse.
Any time you get behind the steering wheel of a manual transmission vehicle you’re not familiar with, take the time to learn where the gears are. Since manual cars are different from one another in their gearbox setup, you can’t rely on muscle memory.
How To Find the Bite Point in a Manual Transmission Car
Once you’re comfortable working the clutch pedal and the gearbox, it’s time to actually start driving the car. Finding the bite point is a critical skill you’ll need to master in order to move off smoothly in first gear without jerking, over revving or stalling.
So what is the bite point? You’ll remember that the clutch consists of two plates that are apart when the clutch is disengaged but come together when you release the clutch pedal and engage the clutch. These plates gradually come into more contact until the clutch is fully engaged. The bite point, also called the biting point, is when the plates have just enough contract to move the car forward.
Until you reach the biting point the wheels can’t move, and pushing the gas pedal will helplessly rev the engine. If you pass the biting point without accelerating the car will jerk and may stall.
You’ll find the bite point when the clutch pedal is halfway pushed in, more or less. Every car is different, and the bite point may be higher or lower on the one you’re driving.
Here’s how to find the bite point in a manual transmission car:
How To Slip the Clutch in a Manual Transmission Car
Now that you know where the bite point is, you’re going to move the clutch past it and actually start driving. You’re going to slip the clutch.
What does it mean to slip the clutch in a standard transmission car, and why is it an essential skill for the stick shift driver? Slipping the clutch is the gradual release of the clutch pedal so that the engine smoothly engages the wheels and moves the vehicle forward. If you don’t slip the clutch you won’t move the car at all, and if you don’t do it well the vehicle will hesitate, jerk or stall.
Here’s a good practice technique for learning how to slip the clutch in a manual car: On level pavement, with the vehicle in 1st gear, the parking brake off and your foot off the brake pedal, find the bite point.
At first, take your time getting the car rolling. As you gain skill and confidence, you’ll be able to go from a standstill to moving in first gear in about a second. Even better, you’ll reach the point where you can do this without thinking much about it, so you can concentrate on traffic and the road around you.
To build your clutch control skill even further, try starting out in 2nd gear. In first gear you can get away with a little roughness in your transition, but in second gear you’ll have to slip the clutch quite smoothly to be successful. In some manual cars you can even get rolling in third gear.
Once you know how to slip the clutch, all sorts of doors are open to you as a stick shift driver. You can parallel park, you can back up, you can make three-point turns. You can fluidly make the easier transitions between the higher gears.
One note: while using the clutch to vary your speed is valuable for the beginning manual car driver, it’s a practice you should avoid once you gain experience and confidence. Clutches are designed to be either fully engaged or disengaged, and partial engagement causes wear. Normally the clutch pedal should be all the way down or not depressed at all.
You have to slip the clutch in order to get rolling in first gear. You have to master clutch control in order to be a competent and confident standard transmission driver. But excessive slippage wears the clutch and shortens its life.
Driving, Slowing, and Stopping a Manual Transmission Car in 1st Gear
Once you’re confident slipping the clutch, take your foot off the clutch pedal and drive for a while in first gear. Get that left foot all the way off and set it on the floorboard. Now that you’ve learned something of how to work the accelerator and clutch together, there’s a temptation to keep doing it. But don’t. Using just the gas pedal to control your speed without racing or stalling is a valuable skill as well.
You’re going to be driving slow, which is why you want to have a stretch of pavement to yourself. Vary the throttle pressure just slightly and notice how the car reacts. If you’re glancing at the tachometer, don’t let it get above 2500. See how much you can vary speed without over revving or hesitating.
Now come to a stop. As you’ll eventually learn, you can either press the clutch pedal all the way in as soon as you start easing onto the brake pedal, or you can brake first and disengage the clutch before the car stalls.
Come to a complete stop. Then once again find the bite point, slip the clutch and move forward in 1st gear. If you absolutely can’t stand the low speed any longer, go ahead and shift into second, but we’ll talk more about that in another lesson.
How To Drive a Manual Transmission Car in Reverse
Once you’ve mastered the technique of getting your standard transmission car moving in first gear, you know most of what you need to drive it in reverse. The technique for getting it rolling is the same: find the bit point, slip the clutch, move the car. One key difference is that, depending on how far back you go, you may never take your foot completely off the clutch pedal, and you might not even use the accelerator.
As with an automatic car, the most important thing is to make sure the way is clear and to back up your stick shift vehicle under control. And, of course, not to hit anything.
It’s best to master clutch control in forward gear before you attempt it in reverse gear. While backing up, even if it’s in an empty parking lot, you’re going to need to focus a lot of attention on watching where you’re going and keeping your direction steady. You’re going to be looking around through the rear window, and the angle of your feet on the pedals will feel a little different.
The bite point will still feel about the same. However, it’s the rear of the car rather than the front that will lift slightly.
When you’re moving forward, it’s best to give the car a little gas as soon as you feel the bite point. In reverse, it’s acceptable to use the clutch to control your speed. If you’re backing up repeatedly (for example, if you’re parallel parking) your right foot will be above or on the brake pedal and you probably won’t even use the gas.
For short distances, here’s how to control the clutch in a manual transmission car in reverse:
Are you “riding the clutch” when you reverse in the way? Yes, you are. Does riding the clutch wear on the clutch? Yes, it does. However, it’s almost impossible to back up a short distance, safely and under control, without riding the clutch. In this situation, riding the clutch is not abusive. It’s making necessary use of the equipment to ensure safety. You won’t spend enough time driving in reverse to have a noticeable impact on the life of your clutch.
If you’re backing up a long way, say, halfway down the block, then go ahead and use the throttle. Employ the same technique as for moving forward, releasing the clutch pedal and taking over with the gas pedal. Keep your speed slow and steady and control it with the throttle. But be prepared to brake or to revert to the clutch to help control your speed.
Mastered Clutch Control Leads to a Confident Manual Transmission Driver
Once you have mastered clutch control, then you are on your way to being an in-control manual transmission driver. As long as you breathe before you get behind the wheel, and don't get in your head too much, you'll be set for driving smoothly and efficiently no matter what gear you are in.
So go forth, and use that clutch control that you have worked so hard to master!