How to Drive a Manual Transmission

How to Drive a Manual Transmission

By Lauren Fix and Paul Fix II

stick shift gear manual

When my friend asked me how to drive a manual transmission, I realized that this was no longer taught at driver’s training school and only 6% of new cars sold today have manual transmissions.   If you decide to attend a professional driving school like Skip Barber, this would be one of the first things you will learn.

One of the joys of driving a sports car or any car you  dream to own, is the ability to drive a manual transmission.  I’m not talking about the new clutchless transmissions like the Porsche PDK or Audi’s Tip-Tronic system – I’m talking about shifting while NOT texting, talking on the phone or drinking a cup of coffee.

Driving a manual will unlock an entirely new world of driving. By the way, any real sports car shouldn’t be an automatic.  The key to driving a “stick” is smoothness, balance and paying attention.

The Basics

·      The most important part of a manual transmission is to know the shift pattern. Most cars have five or six gears and one reverse.

·      The clutch pedal is located at the far left and is pushed to the floor whenever you change gears from one to another. The clutch is disengaged when the pedal is pushed to the floor.


•       Neutral is not a gear – the car won’t move.  This “free space” actually is the absence of gear. When the engine is running in neutral, you can rev up the engine, but you won’t go anywhere. You’ll also be able to move the shifter lever back and forth – which you can’t do when your engaged in any gear.

·      Reverse gear may seem obvious, some cars require you to push down or have a lock out lever before you can get in to the reverse gear.

·      The gas pedal works with the gears to give the engine power, when releasing the clutch this is when you start applying the gas.


To Shift Or Not To Shift

Deciding when to shift is important because it can protect the engine; get the best fuel economy and performance.   Choosing the right gear and deciding when to shift is all based on rpm’s of the engine.

The shift pattern is usually printed on the gearshift know or on a plate around or near the shifter.   When shifting make sure to place the shifter all the way into gear—but don’t force it – if you are driving and the shifter isn’t all the way in gear it will let you know with a grinding noise that make you jump.  Just push in the clutch and pus h the lever all the way into gear.

To be sure you are in the appropriate gear and the car’s not making a chugging sound (this means you are in the wrong gear) or the engine isn’t revving to high (again this means you are in the wrong gear); you need to use your tachometer and the rpm’s will guide you to shift through all the gears properly.  RPM’s means revolutions per minute and this is how many times the engine is turning over in a minute.

A basic starting point is to shift around 3000 RPM on each gear or every 15 miles per hour.

1st gear 1-15 MPH

2nd gear: 15-30 MPH

3rd 30-45 MPH and so on.

This is just a general rule, but once you get this shifting down – a sportscar will have completely different shift points.  Another tip is always shift to a higher gear before you hear that loud revving of the engine.

Ready To Get Going?

Start by putting the car in neutral and start the car. Most new cars will not start without the clutch pressed down.  Alternately, you can start the car in gear with the clutch pedal pushed to the floor, release the clutch pedal, when the car is in neutral until you are ready to go.

Driving a stick shift is all about the balance of the gas and the clutch – bottom line: when the clutch comes up and the gas pedal goes down – slowly and smoothly!

This will become seamless as you learn to change shift gears, use the gas and clutch all together.

Once you get the first to second shift – the rest is EASY! Start on a flat road, place the shifter in first gear, start releasing the clutch, as you come off the clutch – add the gas.  You may add the gas quickly at first, but as you get the feel you will smooth out.

The place where the clutch pedal is to the floor and you’re off the gas is where you take the shifter from first to second. Get those feet and hands working together as a team.

So here is the pattern:

1. Revving high (around 3000 RPM or at 15 mph).

2. Clutch in and gas off.

3. Move the shifter smoothly from first to second.

4. Slowly off the clutch while pushing on the gas.

5. Completely let your foot off the clutch and gas pedal to go.

6. Same thing next gear

Clutch Tips

The clutch is the mechanism that allows the gears to transition from gear to gear. If you pull the car in or out of gear without using the clutch, or release the clutch only halfway into gear, you will hear an evil grinding sound of metal-on-metal.  This is something to avoid obviously.

It’s common to create some sort of wear and tear on the clutch when learning how to drive a stick shift. If you go slowly at first and pay close attention, your foot can feel where the clutch engages and disengages. If you feel that, you’ll put less strain on your car, clutch and transmission.

When at a stoplight, don’t get in the habit of holding the clutch in for more than a few seconds. Instead, put the transmission in neutral and use the brake.

You may have heard this term: “Popping the clutch”.  At some point you will do this by mistake, or you may miss a gear or release the clutch too quickly.  If this happens the car will lurch ahead. This is caused by the clutch being released too quickly and the car will stall. This is common and part of learning to drive a manual transmission.


What Goes Up Must Come Down – Downshifting

Downshifting is the act of moving appropriately to lower gears while slowing down the car. This is easier than you think – just don’t “over rev” the engine.  Downshifting not only helps you slow the car in speed, but it also puts you in the right gear for the speed and the rpm’s. Downshifting is for more than slowing down in speed, you can downshift to gain control in bad weather, on hills, or where immediate braking or avoiding something.

Only shift down one gear at a time, as you get to very slow speeds just apply the brakes. Again, knowing your range in each gear will help determine what’s needed.

To downshift:

1. lift off the gas,
2. push in the clutch
3. change gears
4. then slowly release the clutch slowly to avoid high revs.
5. then add a little gas
6. Next, do it again into the next lower gear before you stop
7. Don’t downshift into first – until the car is completely stopped.

This will help you slow down without revving too high between gears.

Back It Up – Going Into Reverse

We all know that when backing up to use our mirrors. Stop the car, and then place the shifter into the reverse gear.  You may need to lift collar on the shift lever or push it down it all depends on your vehicle.

Let the clutch out slowly and add a little bit of gas to move the car; push the clutch back in while using the brake to stop.  You will be able to back out of any parking spot or garage – just take it slow until you feel comfortable.


Lights and Stopping On A Hill

This is one talent that takes time to master as the pressure from traffic around you can cause you to stall or “dump the clutch” and leave tire marks behind you.  I suggest you find a hill on a side road with no traffic.   Come to a complete stop and practice “slipping“  the clutch and seeing where its start to engage so you can get the feel of where you need to be when driving in traffic.  Start in first gear, and add a little gas so you start to accelerate slowly as you release the clutch pedal, then release the clutch and add more gas and you will be moving. If you stall, put on your brake and start again.  Once you get good at this it makes driving even more fun.


Stopping and Parking

It’s important to note that the emergency brake is a very important part when parking a stick shift car, because there isn’t a “park” position to keep the car from rolling. Don’t rely 100% on the emergency brake, it maybe sufficient in most situations, but for extra safety, leave the car in gear AND use the emergency brake.


Practice – practice – practice

Driving a manual transmission is easy – the more you drive and practice it all becomes natural.  Start off in an empty parking lot, and then progress to side roads.  This may seem frustrating at first, but don’t give up!  This skill will give you control over your car, better performance, better fuel economy, a valuable life skill and the ability to drive anything.

Learning to drive a manual transmission should be mandatory for all drivers to be able to drive any car.  That’s what my father always told me – once you can drive a manual you can drive anything!

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