When it comes to learning to drive a manual transmission car, there are two aspects. The first is the technical elements of what you do with your hands and feet. The second is how you decide to orient yourself emotionally to the experience of learning to drive a manual transmission so that it is a relatively painless.
Get into Driving Position
How you sit in your manual transmission car will have a bigger impact on your driving experience than how you sit in an automatic car. You’re going to engage more parts of your body, and more actively, so you’ll need to position yourself more mindfully. Adjust your seat so that you can easily rest your foot on the clutch pedal and easily press it all the way to the floor. Also, adjust your mirrors so that you can see correctly.
Find Your Center
The odds are pretty high that your transmission is likely self-centering. What this means is that if you’re not engaged in a specific gear, and you let go of the shift lever, the transmission will bring itself to the center of the shift pattern.
In this photo, you see that the gear shifter is in the “center” of the transmission pattern, between gears 3 and 4. This is where the gear selector wants to go on its own, which is vital to know if you get lost in selecting a gear. You can use this as the reference point for knowing where you are in the shift. When you come out of gear, feel where the knob wants to go. If you just pulled down and it wants to go hard to the right, you probably came out of 1st gear. If you pull down and it doesn’t want to go anywhere, you likely just came out of third gear. Because the shifter always wants to go back to dead center, feeling how it is pulling will tell you where you are in the shift pattern. If you ever get lost and you’re not sure which gear you’re in when you learn to drive a manual transmission
Feeling the shifter for position
The best stick shift drivers are those who know which gear they’re in without looking at the shift knob. The first step is to memorize the pattern of the shifter in your car. Different cars have different shift patterns. 1st gear can be in a few different places so it’s important first just to memorize the pattern.
To get comfortable with the range of gears and to help you memorize their locations, practice moving shift knob around, up through the gears, and then down through the gears. Start by practicing while looking at the knob and once you think you’ve memorized the pattern of the gear selector, practice while not looking at knob. See if you can just “know” which gear the car is in simply by how your hand feels on the knob. Challenge yourself to call out different gear numbers and then shift into that gear without looking. 1, 4, 2, 5, 3, 5, 1, 3, 4, 2, and so on. Start slowly and build speed as your confidence increases.
Introduction to the clutch
Your clutch has three states of being:
All the way on the floor - You’ve pressed the clutch pedal as far as it can go. At this point, the drivetrain is completely disconnected from the engine and no power can go to the wheels.
All of the way up - You’ve released the clutch pedal completely and the engine is connected to the drivetrain 100%, transferring whatever power the engine produces to the wheels.
In Between, AKA The Friction Zone - The clutch is partially engaged, allowing some power to transfer from the engine to the drivetrain. If you’ve ever gently pressed on the brake pedal while your car is moving down a hill, this is similar. While there is some friction, it’s not enough to bring the car to a full stop. Until you completely press the brake pedal, or in this case until you completely take your foot off the clutch pedal, there will be some friction rub between the engine spinning and the wheels standing still. The friction zone is where you’re going to spend a lot of time practicing. In most normal situations, it’s best not to ride the clutch. You should either have the clutch pedal pressed all of the way out or not pressed at all. But while you’re learning stick shift, don’t worry too much about getting this perfectly right off of the bat. You don’t know how much is too much or too little until you do it a few times.
Practice Clutch Release and Brakes
Generally speaking, if you’re pressing the brake pedal, you should be pressing or have fully pressed the clutch pedal. If your foot is off the clutch pedal, you’re very likely going to want your other foot off the brake pedal. If you ever go to press your brakes, you should first press the clutch pedal before pressing the brake pedal. The reason you do this is that if you just pressed the brake pedal, the engine would slow down to match the revolutions of the wheels. If your wheels have stopped moving and you’ve not pressed the clutch pedal, your engine will stop completely. Because of this, when you learn to drive a manual transmission, you should practice pressing the clutch pedal first and then the brake pedal to get yourself in the habit of always pressing these pedals in this order.
Slow Release in First Gear - No Acceleration
Of all the techniques I recommend during a stick shift driving lesson, this is the one that has the most impact and surprises customers the most. Unlike when I was taught how to drive a manual transmission, you don’t need to press the gas to get the car into gear. Customers are often surprised by this. The easiest way to get the car into gear and moving is to turn the car on, press the clutch pedal down, shift into first gear, and then slowly, very slowly, release the clutch pedal. Give it about 10 seconds. As you gradually release the clutch pedal, the clutch will start to catch. If you release it slowly enough, the engine will put enough power to the drivetrain to get the car going without stalling out. Yes, really. Once the car gets moving, press the clutch pedal and then the brake to bring the car to a stop. Then, do it again and again, each time getting slightly faster with pulling your foot off of the clutch pedal. You’ll reach a point where you’re pulling it off too quickly and you stall out. That’s completely normal. You’ve found out how fast is too fast.
One of the many things that customers often struggle with for a bit when taking a stick shift lesson is controlling how much power they lay down when they press the throttle. Pressing on the gas pedal in a stick shift car is different from an automatic. In an automatic, you can get much more resistance when you press on the gas. But in an automatic, the gas pedal is much lighter. As a result, when people are first learning, they have a habit of over-revving the engine. So, we recommend that you learn how to be very gentle with the gas pedal. With the car parked and the parking brake on, shift the gear selector into neutral, turn the car on, and then see if you can get the engine to 1500 rpm from idle speed without going past 1500. It’s much more challenging than you think.
Throttle + clutch release
Ok, now it’s time to combine pressing on the gas and releasing the clutch pedal. Get your RPMs up to about 1500 and then release the clutch pedal over a five to ten second period. Once you have fully released the clutch pedal, press on the gas to bring the car up to speed and about 2500 RPMs. Then, press the clutch pedal to release the gear and then the brake to come to a full stop. Do it again, but this time releasing the clutch over a 4 - 9 second period. Do this over and over until you find that you’re releasing the clutch pedal too quickly and are causing the engine to struggle. You’re doing this simply to see what is an acceptable rate of speed for releasing the clutch. If you find that the engine is struggling too much as you learn to drive a manual transmission, you can either decide to release the clutch pedal more slowly or give the engine more gas.
1st to 2nd
My number one recommendation for learning how to shift from first to second gear in a stick shift car is to slow….things…..way…..down. The easiest mistake to make is to try to go Mario Andretti by quickly shifting the gear lever. That’s about the fastest way to stall out. Instead, try to shift so incredibly slowly that any companions with you wonder if you’re ever going to shift at all. In order to do this, give your self a nice, long, straight line of pavement. I’m talking maybe 500 feet at least. Get the car up to speed in first gear, cruise for a bit, and then press on the clutch pedal all the way to the ground. Wait a few seconds. Then bring the RPMs down to 1500. Wait a few seconds. Now shift to 2nd. Wait a few seconds. Now slowly release the clutch pedal over about a 5 - 7 second period. Once you’re fully in gear, press the clutch pedal and the brake to bring yourself to a full stop. Note that this is not exactly how we would normally want you to come to a full stop. You’re doing this for learning purposes. By slowing down your movements, you’ve giving yourself the time and space to do things without error or noise or panic. Do it over and over, each time reducing the amount of time between your actions. You should be able to go from a full stop through 1st and then into second in about 10 to 15 seconds.
2nd Gear to 1st Gear
Once you’ve figured out how to quickly-ish get up to 2nd gear, now you need to learn to downshift the manual transmission. My best advice for downshifting the stick shift is pretty much the same as upshifting; slow….way….down. If you give yourself time and space between each movement, you’ll be fine. Once you get your car up to full speed in 2nd gear, you’re going to basically do everything in the opposite order of what you did to get up to 2nd gear. Once you’re in 2nd gear traveling along at about 2000 RPMS, do the following to downshift. First, press the clutch pedal to the floor. Next, press the gas pedal so that your RPMs come up to about 2,500 to 3,000. Your car will let you know if it should be higher or lower by how it sounds. Once you’re holding steady at about 2,500 to 3,000 RPMS, downshift into 1st gear and then slowly release the clutch pedal to engage the transmission to the drivetrain. If your RPMS are too high, it’s likely that your car will speed up a little. If they are too low, the car will slow down a bit. This is completely normal. You don’t yet know what RPMs you need to be at for downshifting and the only way to learn is by practicing.
Reversing the Manual Transmission Car
Finally, the reverse. It may seem a bit simplistic to talk about reversing for a stick shift driving lesson, but I include how to reverse in a manual transmission car because there are a few quirks to the experience that you’ll want to keep in mind. When you reverse in a stick shift, you’re going to have to be particularly mindful of how your body’s twist affects your ability to press on the clutch pedal. When you twist your body to the right to look out the rearview mirror, your left hip and leg are going to pull away from the clutch pedal. Therefore, in order to be able to press the clutch, you’ll need to shift your hips and extend your left leg downward. Additionally, you’ll need to be mindful of how you’re pressing on the clutch pedal. This twisted position is going to throw off your natural movement in pressing on the clutch pedal. As a result, it is extremely easy to press the pedal too much or not enough at all. Likewise, pressing the gas pedal can also be tricky. When you practice reversing in your stick shift car, make sure you give yourself a ton of room to practice. There’s a risk that you’ll go lurching backwards because of the tricky footwork, so extra space is your insurance policy against collisions. When you go backward, see if you can get the car moving with the engine on idle speed. This will allow you to only need to think about one pedal instead of two. If you’re in a situation where you do need some gas, try to hold the revs steady before engaging the clutch. The steadier you can keep the revs, the smoother your car’s movements will be. Finally, try turning your wheel while doing all of this. Coordinating all of your feet, arms, and hands, all while turned around, can be a bit challenging. Remember though all of this to be kind and forgiving to yourself.
There are many other things to focus on and refine when you learn to drive a manual transmission, but these basic tips should help you get into gear in no time.