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    How to Drive a Stick Shift

    Written by

    Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant

    There's nothing to be afraid of. Via Jordan Griffith/Flickr

    Being an adult is hard. And in our vast techno-digital landscape, we've no one to guide us, to tell us what we need to learn to be proper, respectable grown-ups. To try and figure things out, Motherboard has partnered with the smart minds at the Stuff You Should Know blog to bring you a weekly column about real life.

    When it comes to being a proper grown adult and functioning as such in today’s world, there are a few things you should genuinely know how to do: perform CPR, pick up a check, give a proper toast. We’re gonna go ahead and throw “learn to drive a stick shift” on that list.

    If you’re asking yourself why you should have to learn to drive a stick shift when there are plenty of automatic transmission cars, just imagine this scenario: You’re with your buddy in his new standard transmission car heading home from a weekend camping trip. Your friend doesn’t feel well and pulls the car over, then begins seizing and convulsing before passing out, unresponsive. You look up and see a sign that indicates the hospital waiting a just five miles ahead. Since you can’t operate the vehicle, your friend dies in your arms. And... scene.

    Sure, that's pretty extreme, but how about this less dramatic situation: your significant other had too much to drink at a wedding and you can’t drive her car home because it’s a stick shift. What a shame. 

    Given these terrifying and embarrassing examples, let’s learn to drive a stick shift, shall we? First thing you need is a standard transmission car to practice with. Let’s hope you have patient and forgiving friends or relatives. Try to learn on a newer model car, or one that’s at least “modern." Manual transmissions have come a long way over the years and trying to learn in that ’67 VW Beetle isn’t the best idea.

    Next thing you need is a nice open area, like an empty parking lot. Then you need someone with some experience to help you along. Once you have all of these things, strap on your seatbelt and get ready to venture into proper adulthood.

    The key to driving a stick shift is understanding the balance between the play of the clutch (that new pedal on the far left) and the gas (the same pedal you’re used to on the right). To shift the gear you must fully depress the clutch, which is the same thing as having the car in neutral. When the clutch is engaged, the car will not move. In order to make the car move, you have to slowly remove your left foot from the clutch (after you have it in the proper gear) and engage the gas pedal. This interplay of clutch to gas is the key, and honestly, the only way to learn it with proficiency is to practice it.

    Try to be smooth, or you'll end up like this guy.

    Your car, and perhaps even the stick shift itself, should have a little diagram indicating how these mysterious gears are oriented, but lucky for you it’s pretty much the same on all cars. First gear is forward and to the left, second is just below that, third is back up and slightly right of first, fourth is just below that, and finally, fifth gear is up and all the way to the right. Reverse can vary some depending on which make of car, but it’s generally all the way to the right and down, pretty much below your fifth gear.

    Now that you have the layout and a primer on the clutch to gas relationship, it’s time to hit that (level) parking lot. Before you even start the car, practice pushing in the clutch and finding your various gears. Once you feel brave, it’s time to start the engine and try it for real. To start most modern manual transmission cars, you need to have the clutch pushed all the way in. This is a safeguard against starting a car that’s already in gear, which can make you look silly and can be dangerous.

    So with the clutch pushed all the way in, start your engine. Take the car out of gear, which is that middle zone that’s not up, down, left or right, and then sit there for a second. Push the clutch in a few times without doing anything else to get used to the feel—clutches differ greatly from car to car.

    Once you have a good handle on that, push the clutch in and slide the shifter forward and to the left. If you’ve done this correctly then you’re in first gear. Very gently, remove your right foot from the brake and give it a little gas as you begin to take your foot off the clutch. You will feel your car moving forward, and you will likely give it way too much gas and abandon the clutch far too fast. Your car will then stall out and the engine will cease to run. Do not let this get you down. Like we said, it takes practice and is all about feeling just how much gas and just how much clutch your car needs to move forward in one smooth motion.

    Shift patterns vary, so you'll want to confirm before starting out in a new car. Via

    Now that you’ve mastered first gear and you’re moving forward, it’s time for second, then third, fourth and fifth. The good news is that the toughest part to master is starting out. Once you’re moving forward the other gears will feel much more natural. You can always keep on eye on the tachometer for when to shift to the next highest gear, somewhere in the 3000 RPM range, but our advice is to go by feel. If you hear your engine whining and struggling, it’s time to shift up. If you’re slowing down too much in a high gear, your car will chug and stutter, telling you to please shift down, or take it out of gear and coast in neutral until you can figure it out.

    Common problems you will face include grinding the gears (your clutch isn’t all the way in), stalling out (you’re in the wrong gear) or going backward instead of forward (you need to start from scratch). With a little time and patience, you should be shifting smoothly in no time.

    Unfortunately this isn’t the end of your journey. You can’t call yourself stick shift certified until you’ve gone to the scariest hill you can find and start from a dead stop without rolling backward into the car behind you. It’s terrifying, but an absolute necessity. The only advice we can give here is to try and practice this bit without any cars behind you until you get the hang of it.  The big problem is shifting your foot from the brake to the gas while smoothly letting out the clutch. You can cheat a bit by holding the handbrake, but if you car doesn't have one, letting the clutch out halfway before moving from brake to gas can help, although don't do this for long or you'll burn out your clutch.

    So there’s your head start on how to drive a stick shift car. Don’t be intimidated—just expect the worst and you should be fine. And congratulations, you are now one step closer to becoming a proper adult.


    Stuff You Should Know is the brainchild of Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant. Along with the original podcast, the pair has now expanded into a TV show and blog, all packed with—what else?—stuff you need to know.

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