How to (Not) Drive Stick

Rear view mirror

Stick it to the shift.

When I applied for an internship at LendingTree Autos I knew I would be learning a lot about cars, but I didn’t expect to be driving one. As soon as my supervisor Esther heard that I didn’t know how to drive a car with manual transmission, she made it her goal to teach me. (You can check out her own stick shift story here). 

This didn’t worry me until the morning of our lesson, when it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea what I was about to do. I turned on my computer and began frantically searching the web for instructional videos when Esther dropped by my desk and asked if I was ready to hit the road. With a million questions in my head and butterflies in my stomach, I grabbed my driver’s license.

The short walk outside left us standing in front of her shiny silver Mini Cooper. Not exactly a bad car to learn in. I sank down into the passenger seat and she drove us to a nearby parking lot — completely vacant except for a man idling in his maintenance truck. 

“He’s in for an entertaining Wednesday morning,” I joked nervously. In response, Esther opened the sunroof and put down all the windows. “I’ve found that if you start screaming like crazy, people will know to jump out of the way,” she laughed.

We switched seats and before I knew it, I was sitting at the wheel of a manual transmission car. 

“Now before we get started, just get to know the vehicle,” Esther said calmly. “Can you identify the pedals?” 

Yes – a question I can actually answer. “Yeah, that one is the clutch,” I replied confidently, pointing at the far left pedal. 

“No, that’s actually a foot rest,” Esther laughed. 

Ugh.  On a second try, though, I got the answer right — the clutch and the brake pedal looked identical and the gas pedal was the long pedal on the far right.
Despite my initial slip-up, I was excited to start driving. The emergency brake was engaged and my first task was to start the car. Easy, right? Not exactly. I turned the ignition and nervously tapped the gas pedal. The Mini made a loud hum — not in a good way — and Esther called out “too much gas!” as it shuttered to a stop. Before I knew what happened, the car stalled out.

Great. Five minutes into our lesson and I already stalled the car. The only bright side was that it couldn’t get much worse — until I stalled it two more times. 

My heart beat faster as I gripped the steering wheel for the third time. I had to at least start this car. I focused at the asphalt in front of me with a look of determination (that probably seemed more like desperation from the passenger seat) and cranked the ignition again. The car rolled forward and hardly even jerked when I stepped on the gas. We were finally moving! 

Then Esther encouraged me to switch into second gear. I revved the engine feeling like a NASCAR driver as the tachometer crept towards 3,000 RPMs, signaling me to grab the gear shift. I slammed the clutch down as far as it could go and pulled until the transmission settled in to 2nd. Amazed that the car was still moving, I released the clutch and finally took a deep breath. This wasn’t so bad.

We spent the rest of our time driving loops and swerving past speed bumps in the parking lot. I felt so comfortable that I even switched into 3rd gear — crazy, I know. 

Watching the tachometer rise and fall gives a whole new meaning to ‘adrenaline rush’. I’m no speed junkie, but I left work that day with a whole new appreciation for manual cars. My trouble at the beginning only proved that sometimes the hardest part is just getting started.

Driving stick shift isn’t as hard as it seems, and no matter what, you will get better with practice. By the end of my 30-minute lesson, I felt like a pro — and that’s coming from someone who can barely manage her automatic 2010 Toyota Corolla. Before you hit the road, here are some tips to keep in mind:

•    Start in an area without much traffic like an empty parking lot or back road. 
•    Any time you need to switch gears you have to push down hard on the clutch. 
•    Release the clutch as soon as you shift gears — it can be bad for your car if you hold it down longer than you really need to.  
•    Relax. Think about what you’re doing and don’t get overwhelmed.

As a final word of advice, accept that the car will probably stall at least once during your first ride. Knowing that a stall-out is the worst thing that can happen puts everything in perspective.


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