Manual Transmission - Stick Shift
How to drive
a manual transmission (stick shift) car
This tutorial starts with the
assumption that you already have experience driving an
automatic transmission car. In today's day and age, with the
easy availability of automatic transmission cars, it is much
easier to learn on an automatic. There are so many things to
get used to when learning to drive, that trying to master a
clutch and gearshift while trying to remember to stop in front
of the stop sign or back into a parallel parking space seems a
Read through the WHOLE tutorial
first. Some things are hard to explain before others, but you
need to see the whole picture before you first turn the key...
Obviously, you will need a stick-shift
car. Your best bet is a car that is not new, nor one that has
had the clutch recently replaced. Clutches are much
"stickier" when new, and this makes learning more difficult.
It's also better to learn in a smaller car, with a smaller
engine. They are much easier to get going and to stop.
Finally, choose a car with a floor-mount stick shift. Don't
try to learn on a car that has the shifter on the steering
column. Floor mounted stick shifts are more intuitive and
easier to use.
You'll also want a couple good, safe
places to practice. The first should be a large FLAT parking
lot, preferably one with few lamp-posts so you don't have to
concentrate so much on the "where you're going" while you are
getting comfortable with shifting. The second should be a
long straight section of low traffic roadway.
Practice on a a day where neither bad
weather nor darkness are going to cause problems. If you are
borrowing the car and the owner wants to come along, work out
in advance that you might ask them questions, but your intent
is to learn, and that you will be learning from a few mistakes
along the way. In other words, they should keep quiet unless
you ask for help. (I wish my grandfather followed those rules
when he was trying to teach me to bowl!)
Let your friend (you don't think
they're really going to let you borrow their car to learn
without coming along do you?) drive the car to the middle of
the parking lot, and have them shut it off in first with the
parking brake on. Trade places and climb into the driver's
The drivers seat - Getting a feel for
Three pedals and a stick shift. And a
parking brake. We'll get to the parking brake later - let's
concentrate on the pedals and stick shift.
You already know two of the pedals - the gas and the brake.
They work the same as they do in an automatic. So let's skip
to the clutch. What the clutch pedal (far left) does is
control the distance between two discs or "plates." One plate
is connected to the engine, and has a big, flat surface. The
other plate is connected to the transmission and is made of a
material like fine sandpaper. The clutch pulls them apart
when you press it in, and lets them touch each other when the
pedal is up. So when you press in the clutch you separate the
engine from the transmission. Since the pedal is not an
on-off switch, you can control how quickly the two come
together, letting one slip against the other for a bit, as you
let the clutch pedal up. This "letting out the clutch" is the
key to getting the car moving from a stop.
So, with the car still turned off, put
your right foot on the brake pedal, and with your left, push
the clutch to the floor. On some cars it is hard to press in,
but most modern cars have a "light" clutch. A light clutch is
usually what you want, because you're going to be pressing it
in and slowly letting it out a lot. Practice pressing it to
the floor somewhat quickly, then letting it back up slowly.
It's not that hard to get used to.
Watch your hands - the gearshift:
Now check out the gearshift. In
general, the gears are laid out like an H, with first in the
upper left, second directly below it, third is to the right of
first, fourth below it, and if there is a fifth, it is up to
the right of third. Reverse is usually on the left side of
the H, sometimes up, sometimes down. Usually you have to push
the gear lever down into the floor before it will let you go
into reverse. The pattern is usually marked on the top of the
knob as well.
Now, with the car still off, your foot
on the brake only, and the gearshift in first, try to pull it
straight down into second. It probably won't budge. This is
because when the clutch pedal is up, there is usually internal
pressure against the gears that keep you from taking it out of
a gear, as well as putting it in a gear. While we're on the
topic, why did I suggest leaving the car in first gear when it
was turned off at the beginning? The answer is that manual
transmission cars don't have a "Park" gear. Instead, you
leave the car in first gear, and the fact that the
transmission is connected to the engine means that it can't
turn while the engine is off. First gear is the best gear to
do this in because higher gears could let the car move a bit
if the engine turns just a tiny bit - first gear creates the
greatest resistance. You may also ask why you need the
parking brake as well? If you ever watched the Tom Cruise
movie Risky Business, you'll know. Yes, in spite of all I've
said above, it is possible to knock the lever out of first and
into neutral, at which point the car can roll away. Down a
hill. Out a dock. Into the lake. Very expensive.
Alright, let's get a bit more
productive. Ignition turned off, right foot on the brake,
push in the clutch and try moving the stick shift through the
pattern, one gear at a time until you get to fifth, then back
down again. Now try to find reverse. It is often hard to
find. If you've been quiet so far, now might be the time to
finally ask the owner something like "How the &*&$% do I get
it into reverse?" They will tell you the secret, which
depending on the make and model may involve a modified golf or
Stop it! - How to safely stop
Before you get to the part about
moving, you need to get just a bit of experience stopping,
otherwise your friend in the passenger seat will start clawing
at the dash and screaming like crazy as you try to negotiate a
hard left to avoid the one other car still parked in the lot.
At least for now, we're going to go
for the simple stop. It doesn't matter what gear you are in,
you can always use the brake pedal the way you are used to by
pushing in the clutch first. Practice. With the car turned
off and the parking brake set, rest your right foot on the gas
like you be in normal driving, and put your left foot wherever
you normally feel comfortable. Practice the panic stop - left
foot quickly pushes the clutch to the floor and the right foot
moves to the brake and presses it. You don't have to slam the
clutch, put do it quickly. Practice. Again. It has to
become somewhat natural. Later we will talk about using the
clutch as you slow down, but for starters, always push the
clutch in before touching the brake.
Let's get going: First gear
It's the moment of truth. Put your
right foot on the brake and use your left foot to push the
clutch all the way down. Put the gearshift in neutral. Make
sure it's in neutral by wiggling it. It should wiggle side to
side easily. Now turn the key and start the car. Turn off
the radio, the fan, and anything else that makes noise.
Slowly, let out the clutch. If at any point the car feels
like it wants to move, push the clutch back to the floor: you
are not in neutral. Shut down and start over.
With the engine warmed up a bit, and a
clear path ahead of you, push the clutch back in and move the
gearshift to first. WIth your right foot still on the brake
pedal, let the clutch out slowly. You will hear the engine
slow a bit and the car try to move as you let it out. You
have found the point at which the clutch "catches." Push the
clutch back in and take your foot off the brake, and try it
again. Car still doesn't move, huh? Push the clutch back in
and release the parking brake. NOW you're set.
Clutch to the floor, right foot on the
gas, give the engine just a little extra gas - not much. Now
slowly let the clutch come up. As you feel that catch point,
the RPMs will start to drop and the car will start to move
forward a bit. Slowly give it more gas to keep the RPM's
constant as you let the clutch out. This is the key to the
whole thing. Give it enough gas to keep the RPM's constant
until the pedal is all the way out. Now push in the clutch
and brake to a stop. Repeat three or four times until that
"catch" point starts to feel comfortable. Never rev the
engine while letting out the clutch - remember the sandpaper
and the disk behind this all? It you rev the engine while
letting out the clutch, you wear off the surfaces of both
disks. Likewise, it you don't give it enough gas to keep the
RPM's up, it will stall. Practice until it takes no more than
1.5 to 2 seconds to smoothly take the car from dead stop to
clutch all the way out. The faster you can smoothly get the
car going, the less wear on the clutch.
In fact, since we just mentioned
stalling, let's give it a try. Warn your passenger first.
Try letting the clutch out WITHOUT giving it more gas. The
car starts to move, then the engine dies, and the car jerks to
a start. See how effective leaving the car in first with the
engine off is? It just stops moving - hard. This is why you
always leave the car in first gear when you park (and use the
parking brake for safety's sake).
Getting up to speed
It's time to drive around a bit.
You're not going to go out of first gear, so you can stay in
the parking lot. First gear is good up to about 15 MPH on
most cars - don't exceed this or you will over-rev the
engine. Start out in first just start driving slowly around
the parking lot. Once the clutch is completely released, wind
it up to about 10 miles and hour, then pull your foot off the
gas. Whew - it almost throws you through the windshield.
This is because engine speed and car speed are directly
related, unlike in an automatic transmission where there is
more "coast" in the transmission. Once you are down around 5
MPH, give it gas pretty firmly, about 3/4 of the gas pedal.
Even on a small car, you'll jerk you head back hard. Again,
the wonderful thing about a manual transmission is that it is
directly coupled to the engine. Practice smoothly slowing
down and speeding up a bit.
Drive around the parking lot in first
a bit more, and as you come up to a curve, slowly take your
foot off the gas while you push the clutch to the floor and
coast around the curve. On the other side of the turn, start
pressing the gas pedal to bring the RPM's back up and let out
the clutch. The first few times the car will buck, because
the engine will be going faster or slower than the
transmission. Again, this is where letting the clutch out
slowly comes in. As you let out the clutch, keep increasing
power to the engine until the two "feel" the same speed. This
takes a while to master. Your friend and owner of the car may
turn a couple shades of pale here if you over-rev or let the
clutch out too slowly so those two disks rub against each
other too long. You want to get this down so that the clutch
is completely engaged in about 1/2 a second or faster.
Just like the brake pedal, any time
you are NOT using the clutch, keep your foot off of it.
"Riding the clutch," even if you don't think you are putting
any pressure on it, ever so slightly pulls the two plates
between the engine and transmission apart. You not only get
less power, but you also increase the amount of slipping that
wears down the clutch faster. Clutches are very expensive to
replace, especially on front wheel drive cars.
If the parking lot is big enough that
you can safely drive up to 35 MPH, you can try shifting in the
lot, otherwise, let the car's owner take you to that deserted
stretch of road you picked out earlier.
The next step is going from first gear to second. This is
pretty much like when you practiced pushing in the clutch to
coast around a corner except that you are going to move the
shift lever from first straight down to second while you have
the clutch on the floor. Let out the clutch while increasing
pressure on the gas pedal just like you did earlier. Practice
this on a straight area of course. Once you get into second
gear, you can drive around the lot a bit. Remember, take your
foot off the gas when you push in the clutch. If you don't,
the engine RPM's will go way up without the load from the
At what speed should you shift to
second? It depends on the car, but in general each gear has a
First from 0 to 15 MPH tops
Second 3 to 25 MPH
Third 15 to 45 MPH
Fourth 30 to 65 MPH
Fifth 45 to ??? MPH
Usually you shift up when you are at the halfway to 3/4 point
between the two extremes. First gear is really only to get
you going. In fact, it is very easy to start the car in
second gear - although don't try this until you get a good
handle on the whole process as it is tougher on the disk
When it is time to stop, just do like
before, push in the clutch and use the brake pedal to stop.
Later on we'll talk about using the engine to slow you down.
For now, just keep working on making it second nature to press
in the clutch and using the brake pedal when you want to
stop. Always go back into first gear to start out again.
Practice 1st to 2nd quite a bit. As
you get better at judging the way the engine applies power,
you can get to smooth shifts while letting the clutch pedal
out quite quickly. This is the goal. If you have trouble
getting smooth fast shifts between 1st and 2nd, don't fret -
it gets even easier in the higher gears.
While you're waiting for change:
Imagine you are at at traffic light,
waiting for the light to change to green. What gear should
you be in? Where should your feet be? If you expect it to be
a short light, you should have your right foot on the brake,
your left foot should be holding the clutch to the floor, and
you should be in first gear. When the light changes to green,
you can just let your foot off the brake and start like
But, if the light looks like it will
be a while, or for any other reason you don't think you will
be moving, you should shift into neutral, and while still
holding the brake pedal down with your right foot, let the
clutch out. As long as the gear shift is in neutral, the car
won't move or stall, or otherwise embarrass you. You should
do this because having the clutch pushed in really stresses
some of the moving parts. In fact, often times you can hear a
whining sound when you have the clutch pushed in that goes
away when you let it out. Normally a small sound is not a
problem, but a very noticeable whine is a sign that the "throwout
bearing" may be going bad. Pay a mechanic to fix it, because
you don't want it to fail - the clutch can get quite flaky in
its operation as the throwout bearing deteriates.
Kick it in high gear:
Now repeat the process from first, to
second, to third gear. If you can master this, fourth and
fifth are just the same. Drive around in third gear for a
bit. Notice that letting off and punching the gas pedal
doesn't have the same effect as it did in first gear. But,
eventually when you let off the gas, the engine will start
going so slowly that it wants to stall - around 15 MPH on a
lot of cars. Give it some more gas so it doesn't stall.
Notice that it doesn't have the same kind of acceleration from
15 to 25 as 2nd gear did. I won't get into it too much here,
but what we're talking about is the power-band for the engine
- each engine has a "sweet spot" where it accelerates best.
This is why we have multiple gears. We're always trying to
run the engine in the sweet spot, and depending on what speed
we are going, we have to use different gears to stay within
Slow down a bit:
What if you want to go from 35 MPH in
3rd gear down to 20 MPH, and then cruise at 20? Just let your
foot off the gas and coast down to 20, or even put your foot
on the brake a bit with the clutch still all the way out. OK,
I never promised you that the brake / clutch thing was an
unbreakable rule, just a good one to start with. So, it is OK
to slow down to 20 MPH in 3rd gear and cruise - you don't have
to be in second. You won't have as much power to accelerate
again while in 3rd, but it will be just fine.
And if you want to go down to 10 MPH?
Simple enough, press in the clutch, use the brake pedal to
slow to your preferred speed, move the shift lever to second,
and let out the clutch as you match the engine speed with the
gas pedal. It will be jerky the first few times as the car is
often going faster than the engine, so the engine will go up
in speed as you let out the clutch, even though you don't give
it gas. This is called "engine braking," and is something you
will want to use a little later when you have the whole normal
stopping thing already mastered.
Have you ever been following a car
that suddenly slowed down without its brake lights? Chances
are that the driver changed to a lower gear and let the clutch
out quickly, which made the engine take some of the extra
momentum from the car and slowed down without the brakes. You
can't use downshifting / engine braking to bring a car to a
stop, but you can use it to slow down. Downshifting as you
come to a traffic light is particularly useful: as you use the
engine to slow you down, you are automatically in the right
gear to take off again when the light changes to green.
A word about first gear. Never
downshift from second gear to first while moving. Yes, you
can do it and you won't really cause any damage, but it is
generally not a good practice because of the potential for
over-revving the engine. When you are going that slowly, and
of course when you are coming to a full stop, push the clutch
in and use the brake pedal. Once you stop, shift to first.
And what about the downshifting in preparation for a traffic
light - wouldn't it be advantageous to be in first gear when
the light switches to green? Not really; first gear is just
to get the car moving from a dead stop. If you are moving at
all, second gear is where you want to be.
Stop and Go:
Rush hour traffic with a stick shift
can be a royal pain. Clutch in, coast, clutch out. Shift up,
shift down. You really get to build up those left-leg
muscles. If you spend a lot of time in traffic, think
seriously about whether a manual transmission car is for you.
However, all that being said, always remember second gear.
2nd gear on most cars has an incredibly wide range, from near
dead stop to almost 30 or 35 miles an hour. A lot of people
just leave the car in 2nd and use the gas pedal to not only
speed up, but also to slow down. They only use the clutch and
brake pedal when the car in front of them slows down too
quickly (you have to leave a little more room between yourself
and the car in front of you), or when things come to a
complete stop. Give it a try, it's not as hard as it sounds.
So what else do you need to know?
We've already covered starting,
stopping, upshifting, downshifting, engine braking, and
parking (don't forget - leave it in first gear with the
parking brake on!)
Revving at stop lights. This
is why you want a manual transmission, right? Just push in
the clutch and rev the engine. You can do it anywhere: stop
lights, cruising down the boulevard, anywhere.
Burning rubber. This is simply
starting in first gear like normal, except that you take the
RPM's much higher and keep them constant as you let out the
clutch more slowly than normal. When you do this you are
multiplying the power of the engine through the clutch, giving
you more power to spin the wheels - BUT - you are also burning
up clutch. Even with the multiplying effect, a chipmunk
engine isn't going to spin the tires much, but you can usually
get at least a good chirp out of them. The key is to get the
the tires to start spinning just a bit at first, then keep
giving it more power as you let out the clutch and they will
keep spinning until you have the clutch all the way released
and bit more.
Powershifting, grannyshifting, and
Powershifting is effectively shifting without fully releasing
the clutch. You keep the gas pedal down while you only use
about half the clutch travel to shift hard and fast. This is
incredibly hard on a transmission, and in fact simply will not
work on most transmissions. Without fully pushing in the
clutch on most cars, you can neither pull the shifter out of
gear nor put it into a new one (and it will grind as you
Granny shifting is when you take a slight pause in neutral
between gears when shifting. So instead of going smoothly
from 2nd to 3rd, you pull out of 2nd, stop for a moment in
neutral along the way, then go into 3rd, and let the clutch
out again. Very slow.
And double-clutching? It's like granny shifting except that
you actually let the clutch out when you're in neutral, bring
up the engine RPMs again, then push in the clutch and go into
the next gear. And you do it all VERY fast. This was
especially necessary on older cars before synchro gears
smoothed the processes of changing gears in the gearbox. It
is also a way to avoid grinding gears on transmissions that
have been damaged by powershifting too much.
Stalling at red lights. This
one is self evident. Avoid it at all costs. Nothing is more
embarrassing than calling attention to yourself with big revs
and a loud exhaust, then jerking to a stop when the lights
change. Of course if you want to find out who your friends
really are, this will certainly make them show their true