Driving Stick: A Learner's Perspective

Learning to drive a manual isn't as hard as I thought.

By Rss | October 21, 2013
Like many people in their early twenties, I didn't learn how to drive a stick shift when learning to drive. I grew up in an age where manual transmission vehicles are all but forgotten. You don't see many people under 25 driving a stick shift, unless it's a classic car or an expensive sports car. Buying a brand new car just for a manual transmission, like a Mazda2 or a Toyota Yaris, isn't normal. That said, I started my journey of mastering the stick shift when I was about nine or ten. I would drive with my stepdad in his Mazda pickup, and shift the gears for him from the passenger seat. I had the pattern engrained in my head by twelve years old, and to this day, I still kind of want to shift with my left hand. It wasn't until I was 18, the summer after my freshman year at college, when I tried it from the driver's seat. My stepdad wanted me to try driving his beloved 1968 Chevrolet Camaro SS. Talk about intimidating. I knew if I damaged that car in any way, I'd be paying for it the rest of my life. But I surprised myself, and my parents who were with me, by not stalling once. I got up to second gear without any problems, and decided to end on a good note. I just wish I would've ended it before I scraped the underbelly when entering a parking lot. I didn't step back behind the wheel of a stick shift until the summer before my senior year of college. Again, it was in a classic, this time my friend's 1971 Datsun 240Z. It was easier to drive, and I learned what was holding me back. It wasn't my lack of ability, but my lack of confidence. I only drove it for five or ten minutes, but I was scared the entire time.
So the first lesson is simple: If you're going to learn to drive stick, don't do it in a car that's more expensive than you can afford to fix. Instead of concentrating on feathering the clutch and smoothly shifting gears, you worry the whole time about stalling, paying to fix something, and so-on. It's stressful, draining, and negatively impacts your ability to drive properly. This didn't deter me, though. I wanted to drive a stick shift, but not on cars that were so valuable. It wasn't until I got this job that I actively started trying to learn again. My stepdad and I took the Camaro back out and started practicing where I left off. I was able to change gears no problem, stop no problem, but rolling away from a stop eluded me. I just couldn't figure out how to get moving without stalling or jerking until I was up to speed. We worked at it for more than an hour, and I finally got it down--somewhat. The next day, I felt like I forgot everything I learned the previous day. I didn't remember how to slow down while going around a corner without stopping completely. I stalled twice. It just wasn't my day and I was getting more stressed as the minutes ticked by. I knew the basics of driving a stick shift, but for some reason, I just couldn't apply that knowledge to save my life. That Camaro has to be one of the most difficult manual transmission cars to drive in the world. I don't know how my stepdad can make it look so effortless. It drives me insane. Shortly after starting here at Automotive.com, Keith Buglewicz, my new boss, decided to help me out. We received a 2013 Mazda2 and started practicing as soon as it arrived. Since I had the basics down, and my main problems being starting and confidence, it was easier. I thought I would feel more nervous than I was. After all, this was for my job. I felt like I did nothing but stall that first day, and I thought I was doing horrible. But Keith said I was doing better than I thought. I had the Mazda2 for a week, so I had some give on when I needed to be driving it. The next day we went back out to the same little parking lot by the beach in El Segundo to practice. Although I was improved from the day before and had no real issues when on even ground, I was having issues on a hill. It took me a while, but I was finally able to get the car going forward on the steep incline. I didn't even need to use the parking brake. I had to start and stop successfully three times before I went out on the road. The first time I stalled, but the next three attempts were successful. I sucked it up and went to the light. When I was moving, it all clicked and I was just driving. It wasn't until I came across stop signs that issues arose. I stalled left and right, and at one point, three times in a row. In spite of all this, we made it back to the office in one piece. I had successfully, more or less, driven a stick shift on the road. That night I would be driving it home, and that had me worried. Thankfully, Keith followed me home. I felt like I struggled, but I made it home in one piece. The next morning on my own was riddled with trouble. It seemed like all I did was stall. I got so stressed out I almost turned around and went home or called someone to get me. I knew what I was supposed to do. I knew how to shift gears, to gently feather the acceleration and clutch until I was moving, but it just wasn't happening. but I knew I needed to get to work, so I sucked it up and managed to make it work. That day driving home was worse, if possible. I couldn't calm down enough to focus on what I needed to do, which was partly due to the fact that I was sick. That wasn't my best idea. Stall after stall, I eventually made it to my garage, but not after stalling right when the gate opened. I didn’t want to take it out again after that. I was convinced that this just wasn't for me. Even if I knew how to do it in theory, it seemed like I couldn't actually do it in practice. After sleeping on it, I drove to work the next morning with absolutely no issues, if you don't count stalling in the garage and in the parking lot when I got to work. I couldn't believe it. I had a smile on my face the entire day. I think that just taking deep breath every time the light turned green, resigned myself to the fact that I may stall did the trick. Without so much to worry about and just accepting what I was dealt with, I was able to get my head into it and do what I knew how to do. The last test to overcome, to prove that I could handle driving any stick shift thrown my way was taking my stepdad's Camaro back out. This may not seem daunting to you, but to me, I thought it was one of the hardest things I've done on my journey so far. My stepdad and I found a neighborhood for me to test it out again before going on any roads. I was doing fine, and I didn't stall once. It was time to take the Camaro on the road. After practicing starting and stopping for a few minutes, we set out to drive home. And…I had no issues, whether at stoplights, stop signs, or right turns. I kept up with the traffic, and didn't even get honked at. I thought it was a job well done, and something that I had been dreaming about since I first laid my eyes on the Camaro. It was official. I had done what I thought was impossible. The advice I would give to anyone trying to learn how to drive a manual would first be to start on a car that you won't worry about damaging. That right there will settle your mind and give you more room to make mistakes without freaking out. The next thing I would say is find a patient teacher - or two. It never hurts to hear more than one opinion. The last thing someone learning to drive a stick shift should do is never give up. It may be hard. It may be stressful. But at the end of the day, when everything clicks and you're cruising down the road, it's worth it. The sense of accomplishment alone is enough reason to follow it through.

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Awesome article - not many people talk about this. My whole family drives manual. It's always a good laugh when the older members try pressing down on the break in an automatic forgetting they don't have to shift.

My mum taught me one rule - drive it like you stole it - it takes the edge off of shifting too gently and stalling out.

My favorite thing to do is see how fast I can take a corner in 3rd. That and the track.

Great article. Brought back memories.

Rich Lomanto
Rich Lomanto

Great article Megan, I can so relate since I had to teach 2 teenage boys how to drive sticks, a "must" in my house. 1 can do it with his eyes closed, the other is still learning how.  But girl if you can master a Muncie 4-SPD in an early Camaro you can master any car.

Man I love that car!