Just 4 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. today come with manual transmissions. But 90 percent of worthwhile cars come with a stick shift (okay, that’s an unofficial stat).
The decline of the true manual—thanks to the ease of automatics and the future-tech of paddle shifters in fancy cars—means that fewer Americans are exposed to stick-shift cars. Which means fewer and fewer people outside of the Fast and the Furious franchise know how to drive stick. That’s a shame. You may never own a manual, but you should add this skill to your repertoire.
Some Things You Should Know
This will be frustrating. Changing gears is a skill that get takes some getting used to, and you’ll inevitably kill the engine a few times. (That’s what happens when you let off the clutch without giving the car enough gas. The car lurches, then dies, then you feel embarrassed for a second and restart it.)
If possible, you’ll want an experienced stick-shift driver in the passenger seat to help out, but we’ll walk you through the basics here. One thing to know: A stick-shift car doesn’t just go when you let off the brake the way an automatic does. So if you’re on a hill and let off the brake, the car will start rolling down the hill. We’re telling you this now so you’re not taken aback the first time this happens.
Counting from the left, you have the clutch pedal, brake pedal, and accelerator. You work the clutch with your left foot and the other two with your right. (If you drive a manual in the U.K. someday, the pedals in a right-hand drive car will be in the same order from left to right, though you’ll obviously shift with your left hand instead of your right.)
Pay attention to your tachometer. This engine RPM gauge has been there staring you in the face all these years. But there’s not much need to watch it in an automatic, so you probably forgot about it while you were fiddling with the radio. In a manual, the tachometer reading will help you to know when to change gears.
If you want to learn how to drive three pedals, your first step is to find a suitable car to learn on, since transmissions differ from car to car. A Mazda Miata or Honda Civic will have a light and forgiving clutch, while a big-block Chevy Camaro will have an aggressive and heavy clutch that works a side gig as a leg press. So borrow a plain-Jane family car, find an empty parking lot, and do the following. You’ll be puttering around on your first day.
Before you touch the ignition, check which gear the transmission is in. If it’s anything other than neutral, hold the clutch pedal all the way in, put the car in neutral, and let go of the clutch pedal. Starting a car in gear will rocket it forward, or backward if it’s in reverse. Release the parking brake, and start the car with your foot holding down the brake pedal.
Note: If you’ve driven only automatics, you might be confused by the fact that the stick shifter has no “N” on it. Basically, if you’re not in any of the numbered gears or reverse, the car’s not in gear and you’re in neutral.
Feel for the Friction Point
Okay, so the car’s on and you’re ready to drive. Once you release the parking brake (more about this later), push the clutch all the way in and hold it there. Keep your right foot on the brake, and move the shifter into first gear. Lift the clutch pedal—slowly. This is called letting out the clutch.
The engine’s RPM will drop, and through the clutch pedal you’ll feel the friction of the transmission’s clutch disc starting to grab the engine’s flywheel. Experiment with this for a while. As you let more clutch out, the revs will steadily drop. If you go too far the engine will stall out, but the world won’t end.
Up With the Left Foot, Down With the Right
The friction point is when you want to start applying the accelerator. What this means for you as the driver is that your feet are going to move in opposite directions at the same time, pushing the gas as you’re letting out the clutch. Imagine they’re riding a seesaw together. If you let out the clutch too fast or don’t give it enough throttle, the car will buck like a gassy horse.
Drill this mantra into your brain:
– Clutch pedal all the way in.
– Move shifter to next gear.
– Begin letting out clutch to feel for friction point.
– At the friction point, apply accelerator (gently) as you lift off the clutch (gently). Feel it grab and settle in.
– Take your foot completely off the pedal.
– Now you’re in gear. Drive, but keep your foot off the pedal. Even the light pressure of resting your foot on the pedal wears the clutch.
Going from 1st to 2nd, and so on, requires the same set of steps. Downshifting works the same way. You might downshift from 5th to 4th if traffic slows you down on the highway and the engine is revving low—say, at 1,200 RPM. When you downshift, the revs will jump a lot higher, so you’ll need to use more accelerator pedal than when you upshift. You’ll learn that it varies from car to car, but you want to give it enough gas at the friction point to turn 3,000-4,000 RPM as you let out the clutch. Don’t give it enough accelerator and the car will decelerate hard.
When you’re coming up to a stop, push in the clutch in, flick the shifter to neutral, and let the clutch out. When going to neutral, you don’t need to feel for a friction point or apply gas. Just let the pedal go.
How to Park
This is important. A manual transmission car doesn’t have a gear called “park” like an automatic does. That means you must but the parking brake on when you park the car.
To park a manual, turn the engine off and keep holding the brake pedal in. If you’re on a hill, put the clutch in and move the shifter into reverse gear. Once you put the parking brake on, you can let up on the brake pedal.
Finally, to escape that hilly parking spot, you’ll need one more trick in your repertoire. Most of us don’t have three feet, which poses a challenge: The moment your right foot comes off the brake to go for the gas, you’ll start rolling (unless you’re lucky enough to have a car with a hill-holder clutch, which won’t roll backward with the clutch depressed). So you’ve got to have lightning quick feet or rely on another tool at your disposal: the parking brake. Get your steering wheel positioned to leave the spot and, with the parking brake engaged, start releasing the clutch and adding throttle. As you feel the car start to struggle against the parking brake, release the brake and fully engage the clutch. That trick allows you to engage the clutch at your leisure without rolling back into the row of Hell’s Angels choppers parked immediately behind you.
Don’t get discouraged or embarrassed. Remember, everyone who can drive stick was once in the same boat learning as you are, and everyone who can’t drive stick has no credibility to judge. Plus, you’re in a car, and you can just duck down and drive away from them.