How to teach someone to drive a manual transmissionS

I've seen this question posted more than once on Oppositelock: "How do I learn how to drive a manual transmission?" Kudos to the driver looking to come in to the One True Faith, but I've never felt that I had any worthy advice.

...and then my daughter turned 17 years old. That's her in the picture, holding her 2-day-old driver's license.

I spent six months teaching her safe and practical driving techniques on our Daily Drivers (a Volvo XC70 and a Ford Taurus SHO). Both are automatic transmission with all the ModCons. But I swore to myself that no child of mine was going to be ignorant of manual transmission, and the day would come when I would have to step up and put a teenager in my FunCar... a supercharged 2007 Lotus Elise Type 72D. The reaction from my motorhead friends ranged from a sharp intake of breath through clenched teeth all the way to "are you INSANE?" But if we are going to truly teach the children well, sometimes we must take some risks.

I resolved to do this thing correctly (for my daughter's sake, and the sake of the clutch on my car). I've been a ski instructor for almost two decades, and I've learned the value of taking physical tasks and breaking them into bite-sized actions that are easier for the brain and muscles to assimilate. So before I took her out to sling gears, I came up with a progression to follow. I'm hoping this might help some of those Oppos who are contemplating the move to The Stick. Here they are:

Step One: What is this "transmission" thing anyway?

It occurred to me that my daughter (and others new to The Stick) might not even know exactly why there is a transmission, and what all those gears do in the first place. So the first step is to educate the newby as to what they are going to be doing. As the old proverb says: "I remember none of what I hear, half of what I see, and all of what I do" (or something like that), I figured that the best learning is by actually doing and feeling what a transmission is all about.

Originally I planned to take her out on her bicycle, which has 18 gears. I was going to have her shift the bike up and down in the gears and feel how that changed the effort of pedaling. I'd have her shift into a low gear while moving fast and see how she had to pedal frantically, and shift into high gear at low speed to see how hard it was to accellerate.

Unfortunately, I am lazy and it was cold so I went with Plan B: Both of the family DDs have manuamatic modes in their automatic transmissions. The Taurus has paddle shifters and the Volvo has an autostick. I chose to use the Volvo because it would give her a better muscle memory of reaching to the stick to shift.

Executing this step of the Stick Training was simple: we went driving with the car stuck in manumatic mode. I had my padawan listen closely to the engine, feel how the action of the throttle changes in different gears while driving at the same speed. We drove at 40 mph on a county road and she shifted up and down from third gear to see how the car behaved differently. She accelerated onto the highway holding each gear a bit longer than necessary to understand about power bands. It would have been nice to experiment with slowing the car down to see what "lugging" is, but sadly the Volvo is overprotective and won't let that happen; it automatically downshifts, even in "manual" mode (Swedish bastards!)

Step Two: Standing Start, With Training Wheels

After about an hour playing with the manumatic, it was time to move up to the real thing. I drove the Lotus to a pre-selected training location. In ski teaching, proper terrain is critically important, so I took some time to find the right road for a manual transmission newbie. I chose a suburban development that consists of a single half-mile loop with only one entrance, so that we could drive without worrying about other traffic or turns (keep the task limited to the single thing you are teaching). More importantly, the loop was gently tilted so that there was about 15-20 feet of elevation change between the highest and lowest spots. And here is why:

I stopped the car at a spot where the road was gently sloping down. With your foot off the brake, the car would not even start to roll forward BUT it would add a slight set of "training wheels" to the first standing start with a clutch. Then I instructed my student to make her first clutch start using a technique stolen from The Car Talk guys. Click and Clack say to do your first few starts with the clutch only, no throttle. Here is how it went:

To recap what my dulcet voice tells her to do in the video:

  1. Make sure the car is in neutral (now is a good time to go through the shift pattern)
  2. Clutch to the floor (explain that if anything feels bad, put that clutch back to the floor)
  3. Sloooowly release the clutch until you feel the engine start to slow down. Hold the clutch there, maybe even push it in and let it out to that point several times to feel where the friction point is
  4. Finally, Sloooowly release the clutch into the friction zone, gently passing through the friction zone as the car begins to roll.

If all goes well, the student will have made their first standing start with a clutch at this point. Great! Now do it again. And again. And again. My rule is "get it right three times before moving on to the next step."

Now might be the time to address the question: "Isn't this destroying the transmission on that beautiful Lotus?" Nope. It is not. You may be able to tell from the video, or you may not, but the start is actually quite gentle. Even when my daughter stalled the car (and she did, several times) it was not horrible. That car has been to track days three times this year, and one lap of Summit Point WV is much much more violent than any of the abuse given by my new driver. The key thing is that she was practicing under supervision, with coaching on what to do and no panic situations.

Step Three: Standing Start, With Throttle

Once she had become comfortable with the Training Wheel starts (note that I did NOT make her do it on the uphill part; I had her drive around in first gear back to the downhill section), it was time to add a new skill into the mix: Throttle.

If all goes well, this stage is easy. Instead of just releasing the clutch, I had my student feed in throttle as she started. This is where the stalls started to happen, but only a few of those occurred and they make for a good learning experience. For this stage we moved to the flat part of the loop. It looked like this:

Step Four: Standing Start, Slight Uphill

Continuing to ramp up the tasks, without telling her I moved our start location to the slightly uphill section of the loop. No video for this one because she didn't realize anything had changed and so she just kept making clean starts.

Step Five: Upshifts

Once she had the standing starts clean, I had her drive around the loop with a single standing start and an upshift into second as her speed increased. The clutch action for this stage came very naturally; it's much easier than a standing start due to the momentum of the car. We did not do downshifts (remember, one task at a time). Instead, I had her put it back into neutral as she was stopping.

She practiced going from first to second while standing still with the clutch in. A simple task, but by doing it in isolation before moving, it gave her a picture of what she had to do. While moving, the task is simple: clutch in (fast!), pull stick back into second (most manual transmissions will make the movement directly), release clutch smoothly (note that I did not say "sloooowly" like before; you can be pretty sloppy with this and cause no jerking, as long as you are moving at the right speed).

Step Six: Upshifts, Downshifts

Now the training wheels really came off. Our training loop was too small to get into 3rd gear, so we moved out of the enclosed development and onto less-travelled county roads. I had the loop picked out; it was the same one I used to teach her safe driving with the Daily Drivers. Very little traffic and only right hand turns.

The technique for learning the downshift goes like this:

  1. Starting at a comfortable speed in 3rd gear...
  2. Allow the car to slow to the low end of the rpm range that is comfortable for 3rd (the instructor needs to give verbal cues to the student for this)
  3. At the appropriate time, clutch in, downshift, clutch out smoothly (just like on the upshift, but in reverse)
  4. Note that for the Lotus, the downshift requires the student to actively push the stick to the left to find second; remember that manual transmissions are usually designed to guide the stick into the next higher gear, not lower. Make sure the student tries this out while stopped before they do it while moving.

Step Seven: Drive Around

That's it for lesson one! But as I've learned from teaching skiers, you need to repeat a skill a few hundred times before you can claim to have created a muscle memory. So I had my daughter drive around the street loop for about 20 minutes to gain some repetition of the skills. Only then did we go in for Victory Cappucino.

Next Steps

Do the whole thing over again. This will help lock in the muscle memory. After that we will try standing starts on steeper hills. That will be a lesson all by itself, and worthy of it's own blog post.