Whether you recently bought a new vehicle with a stick shift, or you just want to be prepared for an emergency, it's a great idea to learn to drive a manual car. Knowing how to shift gears and use a clutch will give you greater freedom when it comes to renting a car, buying a new vehicle, or borrowing a friend's car. Manual transmissions are often more fuel efficient, better for towing, and even more fun to drive. With the following handy printable instructions, a supportive friend, and a bit of patience, anyone can learn this useful skill.
Before You Start Driving
Before you get behind the wheel, it's important to understand a few basic facts and terms related to manual transmissions. Unlike an automatic transmission, a manual requires the driver to shift gears during driving. For the most part, the interior of a car with a manual transmission looks the same as the interior of an automatic, but there are a few subtle and important differences.
On most manual cars, there is a gauge on the dashboard called the tachometer. You can use the tachometer to determine the current RPM of the engine. In general, higher RPMs mean more power, but there's a limit to this rule. The red area of the gauge, called the "red line," signifies RPMs that are too high for your engine. Shifting gears allows you to keep the RPMs from reaching this level.
This pedal is located on the driver's left, and it is operated with the left foot. Pushing in the clutch pedal allows you to disengage the current gear and change to a new gear.
The knob located in your car's center console area is the gear shifter. When driving a manual car, you need to use this knob to change gears or put your vehicle in neutral. You'll notice that the shifter has a diagram on the top of it. This is sometimes called the "shift pattern" and tells you the location of each gear. Note the position of each gear, including reverse or "R."
Now that you understand the basics, it's time to learn to drive a manual car. Find a place without a lot of obstacles, such as a flat, empty parking lot or a back road with no hills and very low traffic.
Print the Guide
Download this handy printable guide, which features diagrams of foot positions, clear step-by-step instructions, and other important concepts. You can print it out and keep it with you as you learn. If you need help downloading the printable instructions, check out these helpful tips.
Get Familiar with the Car
Before you even turn the key, it's a great idea to get familiar with the car you're about to drive. Sit in the driver's seat and make sure the seat is adjusted so you can easily push the clutch pedal all the way to the floor. Try pushing the clutch pedal in a couple of times, keeping your right foot on the brake to make sure the car doesn't move. Take a look at the shift pattern on the gear shifter knob and be sure the shifter is in neutral.
Start the Vehicle
Now it's time to start the vehicle. Follow these steps:
- With your left foot, press the clutch pedal all the way down to the floor.
- With your right foot, step on the brake.
- Release the emergency brake, and once again, confirm that the gear shifter is in the neutral position.
- Turn the key in the ignition. The car should start up.
Shift Into First Gear
Keep your left foot on the clutch and your right foot on the break. Shift into first gear, moving the gear shifter to the left and up. Once the car is in gear, you can take your foot off the brake.
You're ready to roll! Here's how you drive forward:
- Move your right foot so it is hovering over the gas pedal.
- Very slowly, begin to lift your left foot off the clutch as you press down on the gas pedal with your right foot. This is called "slipping the clutch," and it can take some practice. You'll notice that the tachometer reads higher the more gas you give the car. Do not give the car too much gas; the tachometer should read under 2,000 RPM. Ideally, this will be a gradual, smooth movement, and it will result in the car gently rolling forward. In reality, you can expect to stall the car a few times or lurch forward suddenly as you learn this step. All it takes is practice. If the car stalls, return to "Start the Vehicle" to restart it.
- Remove your left foot from the clutch and continue driving until the tachometer indicates that it's time to shift to second gear.
When the tachometer indicates that the engine is operating at approximately 3,000 RPM, it's time to shift gears. You may find that your car is geared to shift at a lower or higher RPM, but while you're learning, 3,000 is a good benchmark. Listen to the engine. You'll hear it roar louder as you get closer to needing to shift. Here's how you shift up:
- Take your right foot off the gas pedal.
- With your left foot, press the clutch pedal all the way to the floor.
- Use the gear shifter to select the next gear. If you're currently in first gear, then you'll need to select second gear. Move the shifter out of its current position and into the next one.
- Slowly lift your left foot off the clutch as your depress the gas pedal with your right foot. Take your foot completely off the clutch once the car is moving smoothly forward.
- Repeat this process for each gear.
If you need to slow down, it's important to remember that you need to shift down as well. If you don't, the car will stall. Here's how to down shift:
- Step on the brake with your right foot until the tachometer reaches about 2,000 RPM.
- With your right foot still on the brake, use your left foot to push the clutch pedal all the way to the floor.
- Move the gear shifter out of its current gear and into the next gear down.
- Take your right foot off the brake and move it over the gas. Slowly press down on the gas pedal while letting up on the clutch. The car will slow down.
- To continue slowing the car gradually, keep down shifting.
Stopping the Car
Stopping is a little more complicated in a manual car than it is in an automatic. Just like slowing down, you'll need to depress the clutch pedal to keep from stalling the car. Here's how you can stop without stalling:
- Remove your right foot from the gas pedal.
- Press the clutch all the way to the floor with your left foot.
- Depress the brake pedal with your right foot. It's important to have the clutch all the way to the floor before you step on the brake.
- Move the gear shifter into neutral and take your foot off the clutch. Wait for the car to stop.
If you need to go backwards, you'll have to shift the car into reverse:
- From a stop, press the clutch all the way to the floor with your left foot.
- Move the shifter into reverse. This gear is located all the way to the right and to the back of the gear shifter.
- Place your right foot over the gas pedal. Slowly depress the gas pedal as you let out the clutch. The car will begin to move backwards.
Parking the Car
When you're ready to park the car, make sure the vehicle is in neutral. Engage the parking or emergency brake, and remove your foot from the brake pedal. Turn off the ignition.
It's important to note that if you're parking the car on a hill, you should leave the transmission in first gear. This will ensure that the car does not roll away if the parking brake fails for some reason.
Troubleshooting Common Problems
Some new drivers liken shifting a five-speed to trying pat your head while rubbing your stomach. There are a lot of things to think about at once, and it's perfectly normal to run into a few problems. These challenges are easy to fix with practice.
Car Won't Start
If you're trying to start the car with no success, check to make sure you have the clutch pedal pressed to the floor. Most modern automobiles will not start unless the clutch is in.
Engine Is Roaring
Is the engine making a roaring noise? If the engine sounds loud and the tachometer is reading a high number, chances are good you are revving the engine. This means you're giving the car too much gas without fully engaging the gears. To fix the situation, don't press down as hard on the gas pedal and let off on the clutch a little bit.
Car Keeps Stalling
If you find that the car keeps stalling out when you try to drive forward, it's likely because you aren't giving it enough gas. Press down a bit more on the gas pedal as you let out the clutch. Remember that this part takes a lot of practice, and it's perfectly normal to stall the car a lot when you're first learning.
Car Lurches Forward
Uneven or sudden acceleration is also a common problem for many drivers. Usually this means that you're letting out the clutch too suddenly. Try to lift your foot off the pedal gradually, and you'll probably get a smoother ride.
There's a Horrible Grinding Noise
When you shift gears, you're making a series of teeth engage in a series of holes. If they don't match up quite right, you'll hear a terrible grinding noise. The key here is to relax and try again. It takes a little practice to know where the gears are and to make sure the car is fully in gear.
Car Rolls Backward on a Hill
If you have to stop at a light or a stop sign and start on a hill, you may find that the car rolls backward. This can be really scary if you're in traffic, so it's important to practice the situation as much as possible before you head out on the town. Basically, the balance between the gas and the clutch is a little different when you're starting on a hill. Give the car a bit more gas than you usually would to offset the effects of gravity. If you find yourself in this situation and have another car right on your back bumper, pull up on the emergency brake as you shift into first gear. Just remember to release the emergency brake right away once you start moving to avoid damaging your car.
Driving a Manual Transmission in Traffic
Practicing in a parking lot or on a back road is one thing, but the real world is another. When you're ready to head out on the streets with your new skills, keep these tips in mind.
Keep Your Distance
Keep some space between you and the car in front of you. It's not uncommon for the car to lurch forward when you stall, and you don't want to accidentally rear-end another vehicle.
It's tempting to multi-task when driving, but you can't really do that with a stick shift. You need both your hands for shifting and steering and both your feet for the pedals. That means no sipping on coffee or eating a snack, and it definitely means no texting or talking on a handheld phone.
In an Emergency, Use Your Parking Brake to Start on Hills
It's bad for your car to drive with the parking brake on, but you can use it to help you start on the top of a large hill if you're having trouble. Sometimes, other cars will be very close to your rear bumper, and you'll be worried you'll roll backwards into them as you try to slip the clutch. You can temporarily engage the parking brake to hold the car while you get the RPMs where they need to be. Disengage the parking brake just before you slip the clutch.
Remember You Can Depress the Clutch With the Brake
Keeping your clutch in is bad for the car, but if you need to stop suddenly, just push the clutch and brake pedals at the same time. Ideally, you will shift to neutral and let go of the clutch, but the most important thing is stopping when you need to. You can refine your technique as you get more practice.
Don't Ride the Clutch
If you find yourself in stop-and-go traffic, it's tempting just to leave the clutch in a little bit as you switch between driving and braking. This is bad for your car and will cause the clutch to wear out prematurely. Instead, make sure you are letting the clutch out all the way.
When you're first learning, driving a stick shift in real traffic can be stressful. You may stall the car, and people might even honk at you. Just remember to breathe and work through the steps to get going again. This happens to everyone, and in time, you won't worry about stalling anymore.
On the Road in No Time
Driving a car with a manual transmission doesn't have to be scary. In fact, many people enjoy the increased feel of being in control of the vehicle that comes with driving a standard. With a little practice and a good sense of humor, you'll be on the road in no time.