How to Drive a Stick Shift

Can you drive a stick shift? It is a question people don’t ask as often as they used to, but it is still something you might hear one of these days. You can turn away sheepishly and pretend that you didn’t understand the question. Or you can learn how to drive a stick shift and become the envy of your friends and family.

Manual Transmission Shift Pattern

Though many people now look at driving a vehicle with a manual transmission as something akin to being a piano virtuoso, it is not nearly as complicated as that. Instead, it is a skill you can acquire in the course of an afternoon as long as you approach it step by step with the support of an accomplished manual gear-changer, someone like your mom or dad, for instance.

Why Gears Need to be Changed

Without getting into the technical weeds, suffice it to say that an internal combustion engine creates power and torque in a very narrow operating range. For example, if a vehicle had just one forward gear, its top speed would be minimal. But by employing several gears in a graduated order, the engine can run in its desirable range while enabling the vehicle to reach much higher speeds. 

Before the development of automatic transmissions, everyone who drove a car had to be skilled in changing gears manually. Of course, it takes a degree of manual dexterity and footwork, but it is certainly a skill you can easily develop. And, like riding a bicycle, once you learn how, it is likely you’ll never forget. 

The Pedals

Clutch Brake Accelerator in BMW M4

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

A vehicle with an automatic transmission typically has two foot pedals. The pedal on the left controls the brakes and is named, appropriately enough, the brake pedal. The pedal on the right controls the amount of fuel injected into the engine, which controls the acceleration of the vehicle. Thus, it is called the accelerator or the “gas pedal.” 

A vehicle with a manual transmission has a third pedal to the left of the brake pedal. It actuates the clutch that engages and disengages the engine and the vehicle’s driveline. It’s called the clutch pedal, and the use of the clutch makes it possible to change gears manually without mechanical hell breaking loose.

At this time, it is instructive to count your feet. You probably have two of them. But with a manual transmission, you must manipulate three pedals. That is the most challenging part of learning to drive a stick shift, but the process is very learnable.

The Gear Lever

Manual Transmission Shifter in BMW M4

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

The shifter in a modern vehicle with an automatic transmission can take many forms. It can be a lever that moves back and forth, a rotary knob, or a series of pushbuttons. In today’s drive-by-wire cars, all three types of gear selectors work via very similar electronics. 

In contrast, a car with a manual transmission will typically have a “stick shift” gear selector. (Some vehicles have manual shifters on the steering column, but that is so uncommon that it isn’t worth discussing.) In a stick-shift car, the driver uses the lever to change gears mechanically. A set of markings on the handle of the gear shift lever will usually show the “shift pattern.” This indicates where you move the lever to engage each of the gears. 

These days a manual transmission vehicle will usually have six gears for going forward (“forward gears”) and one gear for backing up (“reverse.”) 

How to Start the Car

Manual Transmission Clutch Engaged

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

To start a car with a manual transmission, you must depress the clutch pedal with your left foot. That disengages the driveline from the engine so the car doesn’t leap forward when the electric starter motor begins to spin the crankshaft to start the car.

If you set the parking brake, the car will not roll when you depress the clutch pedal. If you don’t set the parking brake, you will need to simultaneously depress the clutch and the brake pedal to ensure the car doesn’t roll when you’re starting the engine. Once the engine is running, you need to keep the clutch pedal and brake pedal depressed until you are ready to drive. 

Do not release the clutch pedal with the engine running when the transmission is in gear until you are ready to drive. The reason is that it will leap forward or backward and then stall out. However, if the car is in “neutral” — the central space “between” all the gears — you can release the clutch pedal, and the engine will idle without propelling the car. 

How to Pull Away from a Stop

Manual Transmission Clutch Release Accelerator Press

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

To get the car in motion, you must shift from neutral into first gear (or reverse gear if you are backing up). The transmission’s shift pattern, usually shown on the shift lever’s knob, is your guide here. 

Once first gear is selected, you must simultaneously ease off the clutch pedal with your left foot while easing down on the accelerator (gas) pedal with your right. The key is to be smooth and provide enough gasoline to the engine to keep the car from stalling but not so much that the car zooms forward out of control. 

Launching a car with a stick shift takes practice and experience. So don’t be surprised if you stall the engine the first time you try it. And be ready for the chance the car might move forward much faster than you expected. 

It is wise to practice this technique in an empty parking lot. You will probably get this wrong a few times before you begin to understand how much accelerator pressure to apply and how to ease the pressure on the clutch. However, if you pay attention, you should be able to feel a vibration in your left foot on the clutch pedal as you let the clutch come up. That means the driveline is engaging with the engine. It is the clue to add more gas by continuing to depress your right foot on the accelerator pedal.

Changing Gears when Accelerating

Shifting a Manual Transmission

Photo: Liz Kim

Once underway in first gear, you can continue to add acceleration by depressing the accelerator pedal with your right foot. You will also note that the car is getting louder even though you’re not going very fast. To quiet the engine and add speed, you will need to change to “higher” gears — to second, then third, then fourth, then fifth, and finally to sixth or “top gear.” That is the gear you will typically select when you are cruising on the highway. 

To shift up to the next numerical gear, you must ease off the accelerator with your right foot and depress the clutch firmly with your left foot. At the same time, you must grasp the shift knob with your right hand and move the shift lever position to the next numerical gear, such as from first gear to second gear. You then ease out the clutch with your left foot as you simultaneously ease into the accelerator pedal with your right foot. 

To go up through the gears, you need to essentially repeat this process. First, you depress the clutch to disengage the engine from the driving wheels as you let your right foot come up on the accelerator. Next, you maneuver the shift lever from the previous gear position to the new gear position. Then you press down on the accelerator again as you release the clutch pedal.

Shifting between gears also takes practice because it is easy to choose the wrong gear. For instance, you might go from second gear to fifth gear rather than second to third by simply moving the shift lever too far to the right as you execute the shift. Each vehicle is different, and practice helps hone this skill.

Changing Gears when Slowing Down

Manual Transmission Clutch In Brake Pedal Engaged

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

At some point as you drive, you will probably want to slow down and then resume a higher speed or slow down and bring the vehicle to a stop. This action requires you to choose lower gears because the engine won’t run well at lower engine speeds (revolutions of the crankshaft per minute, or “rpm”) when the vehicle is in a higher gear. The good news is you don’t need to go down through the gears in a complete reverse of the sequence you chose them as you accelerated.

To slow down for a corner and then resume speed, you can begin braking by moving your right foot from the accelerator pedal to the brake pedal and depressing that pedal. As you approach the corner, you should select a lower gear, or “downshift.” Depress the clutch pedal with your left foot and choose a numerically lower gear — usually second gear for typical intersection corners and third gear for curves on a highway — by moving the shift lever to that gear position. You then ease your foot off the clutch pedal as you simultaneously add pressure to the accelerator pedal with your right foot.

To come to a stop, you move your right foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal and apply the necessary pressure. As the vehicle slows, depress the clutch pedal with your left foot to disengage the engine from the driving wheels. As you bring the car to a stop, you should keep the clutch pedal depressed. Once the vehicle comes to a halt, choose the next gear — typically first gear — that you will use when accelerating away from the stop. 

If you stop because you’ve reached your destination, keep the clutch pedal depressed, choose the gear you want to leave the car in when parked, turn the vehicle’s engine off and when the engine has completely stopped running, release the clutch. Set the parking brake, and you’re ready to exit the car.

Summing Up

Having done all this, you have learned how to drive a stick shift car. It might not be as fulfilling as learning to play an instrument or hitting a baseball traveling at 85 mph, but it will set you apart from others who can’t do it. Over the course of an hour or two, you can learn a practical skill, a worthwhile expenditure of time.