So you have decided you want to learn how to drive stick (aka a car or truck equipped with a manual transmission)? Well you have come to the right place. Below is the learning to drive stick checklist for which I will explain each step in detail.
- Prepare yourself mentally
- Find a suitable car to learn with (You can learn on ANY car but some are *easier* than others)
- Find a suitable location to practice
1. Prepare yourself mentally
What you may ask is this step? When learning to do anything and especially an activity that can put you or other people in danger it is important to have the correct mind set. First of all, it is important to always remain calm and not panic. Most people learning to drive a manual transmission equipped car already have driven an automatic transmission equipped car. So you likely already know how to safely drive a car. Nobody was born with the innate ability to drive a stick shift, no matter what they might tell you. So everyone had to learn and everyone makes mistakes in the process. So come prepared to learn and stay calm!
2. Find a suitable car to learn with
If you are reading this you most likely already have a car in mind or have a friend or family member who you think will help teach you. Before you dive in, consider what your options are. If you have access to only a single type of stick shift car then it will do. However, if not then pick the car that is lightest in weight with the least powerful engine. It is easier to learn to drive stick shift in a compact economy car than an 18 wheeler semi or even most high powered sports cars. The repercussions *when* (not if) you make a mistake or stall the car are less when learning in a small car as well.
Smaller cars have much lighter duty clutches which translate into less pedal effort. I’ve seen people who are learning to drive stick in a sports car and sometimes their leg just gets too tired to continue! Also, everyone learning to drive stick will stall the car at some point because they let the clutch out to fast. However, in a car with a powerful engine letting that clutch out to fast with a little too much gas will instead possibly cause the car to accelerate much more quickly than anticipated and possible cause the driving wheels to lose traction.
You can learn to drive in any car with a manual; the above are just a few explanations of why small cars are easier.
3. Find a suitable location to practice
The location will often make or break a successful practice session of learning to drive a stick shift. Dealing with others cars around you, traffic conditions, pedestrians, etc will all increase the risk of an accident and quickly stress out an inexperienced driver and why deal with that stress if you don’t need to? So find the nearest level wide open paved area without active pedestrian or vehicle traffic. Most people start off in a large parking lot. These can be good IF the parking lot has minimal or no active traffic. The local mall may have a large parking lot but the middle of the day Saturday would make it a poor choice. Schools on the weekend, private roads, dirt lots, etc all work well. Bonus points if you find a nice flat dead end road or parking lot without parking curbs!
Keep in mind that picking a location to practice other than the street you live on usually means having someone help you learn and ideally they will drive the car or truck to the location. You *can* learn on your own and depending on your own facts and circumstances don’t think you HAVE to have someone help (though if you pick the right mentor or teacher it will probably lower your stress considerably).
Here is where we actually learn how to drive a stick shift car for real.
Practice with the car off!
Before you even leave the garage or driveway practice with the car off! Get comfortable with all of the controls of the vehicle you are learning to drive, seat distance from steering wheel and pedals, where the gas, brake and clutch pedals are and where the shifter itself is. Now that you are familiar with where everything is, familiarize yourself with the shift pattern of the car. Many cars have an imprint of the shift pattern on the shifter itself as shown in the pics below.
Now practice pushing in the clutch and shifting into gear. Work your way from 1st gear to top gear sequentially making sure to push the clutch in, shift, then release the clutch each time. You don’t need to spend hours practicing here but do this more than once. Five minutes spent here will really help once you are operating a running vehicle. (Note: making your own engine and tire squealing sounds is totally optional here.)
Don’t panic and remember “two feet in”
A technique taught to students in professional driving instruction for race cars they have a term called “two feet in.” If you ever get into trouble or feel yourself panicking then push the clutch in and hit the brakes. Same thing in learning to drive a stick shift; if you find yourself panicking then go two feet in and hit the brakes and clutch!
Its all about first gear – practice starting and stopping the car
If you are following this guide to a tee then you are ready to start driving the car and are at a great location with no pedestrian or vehicle traffic. The most challenging part of driving a stick shift is starting a car from a complete stand still so this is the most important part to practice and learn on your journey to learning to drive a car or truck with a manual transmission.
Let the clutch out slow in a *linear* motion. The clutch is not an on/off switch. A common mistake newbies make in learning stick is to slowly let out the clutch and as the car begins to move to then let the rest of the clutch out in a sudden motion. This is usually what caused folks to stall the car.
Most modern small cars only require a little bit of gas to initiate forward movement and if you are super carefull and slow you can even let the clutch out slow enough in 1st to not even need gas to start the car rolling at an idle.
Practice smoothly and slowly releasing the clutch while simultaneously pushing the gas pedal smoothly! Don’t be alarmed if you rev the motor a little higher than you meant too. Just continue to be smooth.
Once you have the car moving forward with the clutch all the way out accelerate slightly before applying the brakes and pushing the clutch in. Come to a complete stop and repeat the above process again. I recommend doing this at least 5 or 10 times before you attempt to drive at a faster pace of shift gears.
Shifting gears – accelerating
Think you’ve got your accelerating from a complete stop down and ready to try shifting? Most manual transmission equipped cars have a tachometer (aka tach), though not all do. If you are driving a smaller 4 or 6 cylinder equipped economy car and it has a tach plan to shift somewhere between 3 and 4 thousand RPMs. If you are driving a high powered car you can shift lower. This is just a nice comfortable zone for most motors that will allow you plenty of time to find the next gear and overcome any hiccups in your shifting.
This is where the practice shifting with the car off will come in handy as you should already be familiar with how the shifter feels moving from one gear to another. Steps involved in shifting:
- Accelerate up to speed/rpm desired for next gear/shift
- Release the throttle pedal
- Push in the clutch
- Move shifter from lower gear to higher gear
- Release clutch (you can release this much more quickly than accelerating from a stop)
- Smoothly apply throttle and continue acceleration.
Shifting gears – decelerating (braking)
When first learning to shift gears I recommend you just focus on shifting under acceleration and when you need to brake to a stop you just push the clutch in and hold it. As you get more comfortable you can experiment with downshifting. This is pretty much the opposite of shifting under acceleration except that you don’t need to use the gas pedal at all.