Becoming a Clutch Driver

When my father told me I should learn to drive a stick shift, I felt overwhelmed by the task he was suggesting. I knew that if you didn't use the clutch correctly, you could stall the car and get stuck in traffic; worse, in the middle of a busy intersection. Hearing others complain about how hard it is to learn only reinforced my fears. I kept insisting I didn't need to learn, since stick-shift cars are becoming more uncommon all the time.

But then my father told me, "You're not a real driver until you can drive a stick." That made it a challenge I couldn't turn down. After all, I've been into cars my whole life, collecting models and drawing pictures of SUVs and convertibles. And now that I was 17 and had my learner's permit, here was my chance to actually drive the cars I've always admired.

It's important to pick a place to practice where there is not much traffic.

It's important to pick a place to practice where there is not much traffic.

Advantages of a Standard Transmission

With all the hassle of learning this skill, you may wonder: "Why do I need to learn to do this? This is so complex, and there aren't even that many of these cars left, so why bother?"

First of all, those who really love cars — racecar drivers, driving enthusiasts, sports car fan boys — know that driving a stick-shift car provides more driving pleasure once you master it. When you are driving a stick, you are truly in touch with the car; you're connected to the road in a way that you never could be driving an automatic.

There is also a real pleasure in shifting the car yourself, perhaps because all those muscle cars of the '50s and '60s were stick shifts. Not only that, but manual-transmission cars get better fuel economy and are also cheaper to buy, roughly $700 less than a car with an automatic.

What Is a Clutch?

When you step on the clutch pedal, it disconnects the engine from the wheels. This allows you to shift gears or bring the car to a complete stop. Once stopped, you can also put the car in Neutral by moving the stick to the space between gears, called "the gate." Then, if you let the clutch out in Neutral, the car won't move or stall. Here's more information about how a clutch works with some helpful illustrations.

Getting Started

To get started, you need a good teacher, a car and the right place to drive. Pick a teacher who is patient, possibly a parent or relative, and someone who knows the car. You should also use a vehicle that has an easy clutch — one that doesn't engage too suddenly. I used our family's 2007 Honda Fit Sport because it was the only manual-shift car that was available. (Fortunately, it has a "forgiving" clutch — one that's easy to learn to drive.) Finally, you need to find a place to practice with no traffic, perhaps an empty parking lot or a deserted road.

Learning to go from standstill to about 15 mph in 1st gear is the hardest part. It requires gradually letting out the clutch while depressing the accelerator until you get moving. If you master this one move, the hardest part of the whole lesson, everything else is pretty easy.

Let's go through the process:

  1. With the car's engine running and the transmission in Neutral, step on the clutch.
  2. Move the shift lever into 1st gear (the upper-left corner of the "H" shift pattern on most cars).
  3. Rev the car engine to about 3,000 rpm as shown on the tachometer.
  4. Let the clutch out until you feel the car move forward slightly.
  5. Now, simultaneously let out the clutch all the way while giving it more gas.

If you do these steps correctly, the car will smoothly take off. While you are practicing, a lot of things might happen. The car could lurch forward and then begin to "buck" by jumping forward in little hops. Or, of course, you might just stall the car altogether.

The trick is to let the clutch out to the engagement point quickly and then more slowly from there. The only way you can know where this engagement point is, is by getting a feel for the car.

Tips for Learning To Drive a Stick

Here are some things that helped me, and can help you learn to drive a stick shift:

  • Practice a little every day rather than a lot on one day.
  • Most of your practice should be learning to get from a complete stop to about 15 mph in 1st gear. Of course you need to practice shifting into the higher gears, but you should know that this isn't as hard as getting from a complete stop to 1st gear.
  • If you frequently overrev the engine, you might find it helpful to practice just revving the engine up to 2,500 rpm and holding it there for a moment, to get a better feel for the gas pedal.
  • Practice until you are confident before driving in traffic. In the early stages, you are learning to coordinate all the motions. After practicing, the movements will become automatic (no pun intended!)

Learning to drive a stick shift is not the easiest thing in the world, and people make mistakes. Since there are many components to a stick shift, you can easily make a mistake somewhere or forget to do something.

Stumbling Blocks

Common mistakes that people make (especially me) include:

  • Once you reach the engagement point, there is a tendency to quickly let the clutch out the rest of the way, or "pop the clutch." At this point, you should continue gradually pulling your foot off the clutch as you increase pressure on the gas pedal.
  • Not giving the car enough gas as you reach the engagement point, thus stalling the car. Keep your foot on the gas and steadily increase it as the car starts to move.
  • Freaking out when you begin to roll back on a hill. Instead, put on the handbrake. As you let off the clutch and step on the gas, have the handbrake up, and when the car starts to go forward, slowly release the brake.
  • Forgetting to take your foot completely off the gas while shifting gears. Then the engine overrevs loudly.
  • And finally, not putting the clutch in as you come to a complete stop with the car in gear. This happens a lot in the beginning. When you come to a stop sign or a light, press the clutch all the way down and step on the brake to come to a complete stop to prevent the car from stalling. You can then put the gear in Neutral and take your foot off the clutch while your other foot stays on the brake.

It's important not to be discouraged if you make any of these errors while learning. You'll probably make them a lot. No worries. It happens with beginners, and even experienced drivers mess up occasionally.

More Reasons To Learn

So if saving on fuel and enjoying the pleasure of real driving aren't reasons enough for you to learn how to drive stick, consider this: Your car may not be a stick, but someone else's may be and you may have to drive it some day.

Recently, my brother took one of his friends to the train station, and the friend asked him to drive the car back home. Then the guy remembered that his car was a stick shift and asked my brother, "Can you drive a stick?" My brother proudly answered "Yes." He, too, had gone through the trouble of learning to drive a stick.

You might not encounter that kind of situation, but if you do, it would be valuable to have the proper skills to handle whatever life throws at you.

Extra Credit

For info on how not to drive stick, check out "Busting the Myths of Driving a Manual Transmission". And to learn an advance driving technique, read "How To Heel-and-Toe Downshift".