How to Drive a Car With a Manual Transmission

Need some help driving a stick shift?

I won't get into the mechanics of how a manual transmission works. I'm just going to tell you about a trick I learned AFTER I learned how to drive my first car that had a stick shift. I had driven a car with a manual transmission (barely) a couple of times before I bought one, but I was still terrible at it! Hills scared the heck out of me, I stalled it a lot and jerked forward a lot, but I knew that for me, the only way to learn was to just jump in and do it!

For the first few days, I gave myself extra time to get to work because I took as may back roads, and those with the fewest hills as possible, LOL.

When I got my second car with a manual transmission, I knew by then how to figure out at what point when letting my foot off the clutch that the gears were engaged and I needed to put my foot on the gas so I wouldn't stall. I have a little 'cheat' in my instructions below to teach you how to learn your own clutch before you start driving your car on the road.

Now I'd prefer to drive a manual transmission. I've always felt that a car that has a manual transmission is way more fun, better on gas, and better in the snow. And around here, we get a lot of snow! It's great to be able to slow the car down without always having to hit the brakes.

BTW, this tutorial covers a manual transmission with the shift between the driver's seat and the passenger's seat. I've never driven one with the shift on the column.

What the clutch is for

When you're driving a manual transmission, the point is to coordinate taking your foot off of the clutch with pushing on the gas pedal to move forward. This is the trickiest part of driving a manual transmission, and this is where most people stall the car. This is the only technical part I'm going to get into...and it's going to be in very layman's terms!

Place our hands in front of you, palms facing you with your fingers spread apart. Now slowly bring your fingers together, not tip to tip, but weaved. These are your gears. When your fingers are weaved together you're in gear - or rather your gears are engaged (is this the technical term...I don't know...but I'm going to go with it!). When your fingers aren't weaved, you're gears aren't engaged. The gears of your car are different from your fingers, they are moving, and when you let the clutch out, you're moving the gears closer together so they can be engaged. There's a point while you're letting the clutch out where the gears become engaged. It is at this point where you put your foot on the gas and the car can move forward, speed up, etc. This is what you're trying to coordinate:

  • Clutch in
  • First gear
  • Slowly let clutch out
  • Gears engage
  • Foot on gas and accelerate
  • Reach a higher RPM
  • Clutch in
  • Second gear
  • Slowly let the clutch out
  • gears engage
  • foot on gas and accelerate
  • reach a higher RPM
  • clutch in

And so on.

When you slow down, you're putting our foot on the brake and going down in numbers - 5th gear, 4th gear, 3rd gear, etc..

As mentioned, my instructions below that will walk you through how to drive a manual transmission have a little cheat trick that will help you learn at what point while letting the clutch out that your gears become engaged. It's different in every car. I had a car where the gears became engaged while the clutch was nearly pushed to the floor still, and another that didn't engage until my foot was almost all the way off the clutch.

Practice in a level driveway or level parking lot first!

It's a good idea to practice driving a car with a manual transmission on level ground, preferably in a parking lot first. If this isn't possible, at least practice going back and forth in your driveway. It's very easy to stall a car with a manual transmission, and you most likely will when you first start out.

Follow the instructions below, on level ground! Read this whole tutorial before you even begin, please.

  1. Learn the gears! You need to know when the car is in neutral and where reverse, first, second, etc. are located. The shift should have letters and numbers for the gears: R=reverse, 1=first and so on. I don't think Neutral is marked, but I could be wrong. It's simply right in the middle of them all, going from left to right. If you're not sure if the car is in neutral or not, try pushing the shift back and forth (left to right). It might be a little tight on newer cars (doesn't move super easy), but if you had the car in gear, you wouldn't be able to push the shift from right to left. While you practice learning the gears, pretend you're actually driving. Start in first, shift to second, and so on. There's a picture to the right that shows a sample of where the gears might be. Your car could be different. See the red lines? This is how you move the shift - in the shape of the letter H. You cannot shift diagonally. Practice with the car turned off, and left foot pushing the clutch all the way in. Don't take your foot off the clutch while you practice, just keep shifting!
  2. Put the car in neutral. The vehicle doesn't have to be in neutral when you start it, but it's a good idea to have it in neutral so that you won't jerk forward (or backwards if it's in reverse) if your foot slips off the clutch before you're ready to start driving.
  3. Push in the clutch with your left foot. I'm not sure about cars that have the drivers seat on the right side of the car, but here in the United States where we sit on the left, the clutch is the third pedal from the right. Gas pedal, brake, clutch...you might also have a pedal for the parking break all the way to the left, or you might have a parking break that you pull up in in between the driver's seat and passenger's seat.
  4. Start the car, keeping the clutch pushed all the way in still. Don't take your foot off the clutch until I tell you to! If it doesn't start, make sure you really have the clutch all the way to the floor.
  5. Put your right foot on the brake. Don't take your foot off the break until I say.
  6. Make sure that your parking brake is off.
  7. Put the car in first gear.
  8. Now take your foot off the brake
  9. Here's my little cheat for learning how high up the clutch needs to be before the gears are engaged. You don't use this technique for regular driving. Just while practicing on level ground: rev up the gas a just little tiny bit. Not a lot - we're not going to try to peel out or blow the motor, just rev it up so that you can hear the motor get a little bit louder. If you stall when following the next step, don't panic - it's better to rev it up too little than too much. Just rev it up a little bit more the second time.
  10. While you can still hear the motor revved up, slowly, but not too slow, let the clutch out. Because the engine is going fast from revving it up, your car will move forward and not stall as soon as the gears are engaged - without having to put your foot on the gas. This is how you find how high up the clutch needs to be before it's engaged. You'll actually feel it happen in the foot that's on the clutch. If you let the clutch out too slow, the motor will slow down too much before the gears are engaged and you'll stall.
  11. As soon as you begin to move forward, put the clutch all the way back in again and repeat the cheat! Clutch in, rev up, clutch out, move forward, clutch in, rev up, clutch out, move forward and so on. Do this over and over again until you think you've figured out the height your clutch needs to be at before the gears engage.
  12. When you've figured out the height, instead of revving up the motor, slowly let off the clutch. When you're just about to get to the height you clutch needs to be at for your gears to be engaged, slowly push on the gas while you let the clutch out the rest of the way.
  13. If you did it right, you'll now be driving in first gear. If you didn't do it right, you stalled. Try it again until you get it right.
  14. Now listen to the engine. It's going to get louder as you go faster just like any car. You might have a tachometer on your dash showing you the RPM's. Around 2500 - 3000 RMP is where you'll push the clutch back in and shift to second, but learn to listen to the sound of the motor. You're not always going to be able to look at your dash while driving and shifting.
  15. When you hit the proper RPM, push the clutch in and shift to second. Slowly let the clutch out to the point that the gears engage before you put your foot back on the gas. This is what you're trying to coordinate...clutch, shift, engage, gas, speed up, clutch, shift, engage, gas... If you're practicing in a big enough parking lot, practice going as high as third gear - or about 30-35 mph. DON'T stop the car unless the clutch is IN or it will stall. This is true for all driving conditions :)

Now you need to know how to slow down.

You shouldn't just push the clutch in and slow the car down to a stop. It's not a big deal to do this while you're in an empty parking lot and only in second gear. And sometimes it's appropriate to do this while driving and you're only in second gear and you'll be stopping quickly. But to do this while you are driving on the road and above second gear is a very bad idea. Think of driving an automatic and it suddenly being in neutral while you're trying to drive. You'd have no control over the car other than steering and using the brake. Not a good idea. And if you do this while taking a driver's test to get your license - guess what? You'll fail because it's not safe. Learn to downshift!

So practice slowing down in the parking lot. You're going to do the opposite of speeding up. Go from third to second to first, using the brake instead of the gas, lower RMP instead of higher. Slow down, clutch, shift. Slow down, clutch, shift. If the RPM's go too low before you downshift, you'll stall. Don't get panic, you'll be in an empty parking lot and have plenty of time to learn. And always remember push the clutch in all the way and keep it there until the car is either in neutral or turned off before you come to a complete stop so that you don't stall the car.

Always use your parking brake when parked

Cars with a manual transmission should always be parked with the parking brake on. I'm not going to say to keep in first gear or in reverse when parked, because I've had people tell me both options are right. Google it or ask your mechanic because I can't say for sure which is the proper gear to park in. All I know is that you should always have the parking brake on.

Interesting fact...

Is it possible to drive a manual transmission without a clutch?

Yes it is! My clutch broke once (defective piece of crap newer car) and my husband drove it about 10 miles to the dealer without using the clutch to have it fixed. How'd he do it? I have no idea how he actually got it started without the clutch. Something to Google I guess. But to shift without using the clutch, you have to match the engine output RPM with the rotational speed of the vehicle's transmission output. In other words, by shifting at exactly the right moment :). You do this by taking the car out of gear at the point that you would normally shift, put very little pressure into the gear that you want to shift into, and when the speeds match, you'll be able to slip into that gear. Not something that I would try unless you don't mind grinding gears and possibly ruining your car - which obviously isn't a good thing. I'd save driving without a clutch for an emergency situation only. Seems the clutch is there for a reason...

That being said, many truckers shift gears without a clutch all the time. Not from park, but while while they're already rolling they do. I know this because again, my husband has his class A license and used to drive a big rig. He would shift without the clutch all the time, and said lots of truckers do. Not sure if it's a wonderful idea to drive this way, but I can say that my husband is a natural born driver, can and has built a truck from the frame up, and completely understands the inner workings of a motor and transmission.

He can drive without a clutch, I won't.

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Comments 1 comment

donnainmt 6 years ago

You give very good instruction here! I remember when I drove a stick shift (on the column), we had a synchronized transmission and could save wear and tear on the clutch by tuning your ear to the sound of the engine and shift without the clutch!

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