Thursday, July 07, 2005

Learning to Drive Stick

Like most Americans, I have spent the vast majority of my driving experience with automatic transmissions. I never really wanted it this way, but because I've had to share my car with other members of my family, I've had to contend with their as well as my inability to drive stick shift. Recently, I've become determined to learn to drive stick for a couple of reasons. One, as an automotive enthusiast it just seems ridiculous that I didn't know how, and two I am moving to England later this month, and if I am to buy a car there, I'll probably be forced to buy a stickshift. So I rented a stickshift, and with help from my father who knows how to drive, I learned.

I can say after a few hours I am a capable but not perfect driver of stick. Getting the car into first gear isn't the hardest for me anymore, it's getting the car from first to second gear that was troublesome. I rented a beat up Ford Escort from a company called "Rent A Wreck" in Pasadena, California. I didn't even realize that Ford made manual transmissions in the Escort, and I was convinced that this car would be difficult to learn on because of it's broken down appearance. The transmission was very forgiving however. An hour was spent circling a suburban block by my home initially, and I was unable to easily shift into first gear. After taking a break of about half an hour, I resumed and was able to overcome this obstacle. The squeeling of tires due to a poor upshifting from neutral to first stopped, as did the stalling from a stop. There still was a bit of jerkiness while switching to second gear from first, and I didn't realize until well into the lesson that if I stop the car in third gear at a stop sign, I didn't have to cycle through the gears to first, but could just go directly to first if the clutch was depressed.

Driving in stick makes you one with the vehicle. I guess the closest thing to learning stick would be like learning a new Jedi power. I can "feel" the car talking to me, asking me to apply more gas lest it stop completely, or getting angry to the point that I must upshift to a higher gear. It's really an amazing feeling, and now I have an air of superiority over most of my fellow citizens who do not know how to drive stick, and are stuck driving bland easy to drive automatics.

I hope that I never have to drive an automatic again, I really can't see myself going back. Driving stick is safer than automatic because as a lazy society automatic transmissions promote eating while driving, talking on the cell phone while driving, applying makeup etc. Even while we are driving we are multi-tasking towards things that are much less important, while the incredibly important and dangerous task of driving is being ignored. All these things are difficult, if not impossible, while driving manual.

One final note. As I have mentioned before, and above, I am relocating to England later this month. I write this entry on the very day the terrorist attacks occurred on the London Underground subway. I hope that the British are undeterred in their daily routines by these attacks, and judging from what I have seen of the average Briton on television today, they are taking an attack on their home soil much better than we did with a great deal of stoicism. Of course that's probably natural considering the amount of bombing they suffered in World War II. If they will go on with their lives normally, then the least I can do is go on with mine as well, and not delay my move to London. Terrorism only really wins if "terror" is achieved. I wish them and us good luck in combating and dealing with a growing world wide threat. I hope cooler heads prevail in this time of troubles and the use of weapons really do become a last resort however.

Good luck with your move, but if you just learned to drive a stick and are now planning on trying it in a Right Hand Drive car, you're a brave lad. Just when you get used to driving a stick it's time to change over to the other side.

Just a couple of notes on driving a stick from someone who learned the hard way many years ago.

1 in a panic stop never disengage the clutch, this would cause you to loose compresion braking. And could possible send the car into a skid. (Happened to me the first week I drove a stick) Just leave it in gear and hit the brakes (maybe you should call them Binders like the brits.)

2 When you buy your first stick shift car, make it a junker and realize that you're going to burn through the first clutch fast.

3 Learn on a small underpowered car, and then buy the supercar of your dream. It's cheaper that way. Besides, even a Yugo or Fiat or Pinto can feel fast when you're shifting your own gears.
Excellent points. I have been in panic stops before, and had a complete mental blank several times. I've learned that anytime you think you are going to come to a complete stop, immediately apply the clutch with the brake (errr Binders).

As to buying a super car, considering that many of my skills are not translateable to a British economy (I have an American law degree), I expect my job to be low paying. However because of the strength of the pound to the dollar, even a low paying salary will seem like a great deal of dollars, and I will be able to pay off my student loans, which are in dollars, at a fast rate. I digress, but if I am even able to afford a car, it will be a small junker. Maybe someday I will be able to afford a Mustang and import it over and drive it on the weekends only. With the exchange rate, they're a steal.
Congrats on making the move to Manual!

I take issue with Anon's first point here.

Also, in regular driving, don't slow down using the gears, slow down using the brakes (gears for going; brakes for slowing my instructor said) while at the same time shifting the car into the appropriate gear for the (now slower) speed you're travelling at. You'll get the hang of it with practice.

Regarding first gear, are you trying to put the car into first on the move? It shouldn't be necessary unless 2nd is hopelessly overgeared. I've never driven a manual where 2nd->1st was necessary on the move.

I'd be interested to read of your possible car-buying exploits in the UK - my understanding is that cars older than about 5 years are pretty cheap but insurance of all kinds is expensive.
I respectfully disagree with Ben. You should always keep your car in the gear you have been in, and press the brakes. As you slow down, keep an eye on the tach; when you hit about 1000 RPM, clutch in to avoid stalling.

Since you have taken your foot off of the gas, you are using your engine vacuum to help slow you down. You will have better brake pad/disc life as a result.

As proof of this, try it two ways. First, try a gradual stop from some speed (say, 30mph in 3rd gear), doing it my way. Then, do it again, pushing the clutch in and brake at the same time. I think you will find that the braking effort his higher without engine braking than with, which proves that engine braking does help slow you down.

Also, it may depend on your car. My car (Volvo) has plenty of engine braking; some cars have very little.

Finally, unless you like replacing clutches, do not rely solely on engine braking to slow down. Race drivers, for example, frequently downshift before corners, using high RPM engine braking to help slow the car. This will eat your clutch.
AP: I agree that under normal conditions, braking effort is less when using the gears to slow down. I can move back from my absolutist stance on using the gears to slow down because in my Peugeot I frequently double-declutch and heel-and-toe for 3rd->2nd corners - but the reason I do is to be in 2nd at the right time and not as much to assist in slowing (and also because it's fun).

However, under emergency conditions, dipping the clutch will always result in a shorter stopping distance to 0mph.
YMMV as they say. I learned to drive on a standard and became proficient at it, but I hated every instant of it. I had to constantly think about the gears, the various shift points and so forth -- whereas with the oft-derided automatic, my mind was not on gears but on driving. I am convinced that switching to an automatic made me a safer driver, because I was more focused on the road, with both hands on the wheel, rather than fiddling about with the gearbox.
Ah, you have become one of us. Welcome.
I always thought automatics should come standard with a pillow, cause they're all sleeping.
When I try to tell my auto-driving friends what you described, they all scratch their head and tell me that there's too much traffic to have stick. Bah! Once you go stick, you never go back (unless you have a 60 mile commute in bumper to bumper traffic and have a mechanical clutch)
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