How to Drive Stick

Manual transmission vehicles are more efficient, cheaper to produce, and put the driver in full control, and best of all are way more fun to drive. Yet, a large number of men now have know idea how. I’m going to teach you how to in theory, but you’re going to need to practice too. 

Disclaimer: I’m operating on the assumption that you’ll be driving a typical North American car. You may find slight differences in other countries. 

Getting In

When you first get into a manual transmission vehicle you’ll notice two major differences; the shifter and the pedals. A stick shift has a third pedal to the left of the other two which controls the clutch. The clutch is a mechanism positioned between the engine and transmission that allows the energy flow through the powertrain, and functionally puts the car in neutral. The shifter is typically a metal stick protruding from the floor or centre console with a ball on the end. The shift pattern, the pattern of movement needed to select gears, is usually printed or engraved on the top of the shifter. 

Typical 5-speed shift pattern.


To start the car, you’ll need to depress the clutch pedal before you turn the key. That’s a safety feature so the car won’t accidentally lurch forward. It’s a good idea to check that the car’s in neutral, especially if you’re not the only driver. If it moves to both sides easily, it’s in neutral. You’ll also want to check the tachometer, which shows engine speed, if you’ve never drive that specific car before. Whatever it reads now is the lowest you ever want it to until you’re parked again, probably 500 to 1000 rpm.

Tachometer

Getting Moving

Before you start driving you’ll probably need to release the parking brake. Most auto drivers know how to work a parking brake but don’t use, so tend to forget about them. Getting moving from a dead stop requires careful pedal control and excellent situational awareness. Start by depressing the clutch and putting the shifter into first, then comes the hard part. You’ll need to gradually release the clutch and gently press the gas  at the same time. If you can’t keep the engine speed at or above an idle, release the gas and depress the clutch then try again. When you feel the clutch “catch,” release the clutch entirely. Until the clutch catches it’ll feel a little like you’re trying to drive through molasses.

Shifting

You can’t keep your car in first forever at several points you’ll need to shift. Again, pedal control is key. You’ll need to move though the following steps as quickly as you can:

  1. Release the gas
  2. Depress the clutch 
  3. Move the shifter into the desired gear
  4. Release the clutch 
  5. Hit the gas

How hard you hit the gas depends on the situation. If you’re shifting into a higher gear you probably want to hit the gas fairly hard, but if you’re shifting down you’ll need a lighter touch. There’s also a technique called “engine braking” but that should wait until you have some more practice. 

Unfortunately, I can’t give you much help with when to shift, every car is different. A lower gear will give better acceleration and torque, but a higher gear will give better fuel economy and speed.

Stopping & Parking

The brakes do the same job regardless of what kind of transmission you have but, once you reach the point of stopping, stick shifts are a little different. You need to either depress the clutch or shift into neutral before you try to stop, or your engine will stall. If you depress the clutch by the time you get down to about 10 km/h, you should be fine. Personally, I usually shift into neutral anytime I’m slowing to stop or expect to need a lower gear when I hit the gas again. 

The only thing you need to remember when parking a stick is that there’s no park gear. You’ll need to leave it in gear, fully engage the parking brake, or both.

A Couple Final Points

There are some things you’ll need to know that aren’t really instructions. First, you will stall, there’s no way around it. Just restart the engine and keep trying. Second, if it doesn’t want to go into gear, just release the clutch and put it back in, that’s called “double clutching” and it should help. 

Finally, if you hear a grinding or squealing when you try to shift, for the love of all that’s good and holy, stop trying. You’re doing irreparable damage to the transmission, which can cost thousands of dollars to replace. Just leave the shifter in neutral, double clutch, and try again.

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