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Note: To see video of some of the below procedures, please visit the Standardshift.com video page: http://www.standardshift.com/videos.html
We've all seen them on the road, bucking and stalling while learning how to drive stick. This guide was designed to take some of the pain and embarrassment out of the process. However, it is no replacement for having a competent standard shifter sitting beside you who doesn't mind you wearing the clutch on his or her car just a little bit.
Knowing how to drive a car before tackling the art of operating a manual transmission is a highly recommended, but not required, idea. Having to worry about shifting and what your left foot is doing is distracting enough, being uncomfortable behind the wheel no matter what transmission the car has makes it even worse. The area where you first practice should be flat, free of obstructions and obviously have no vehicular or pedestrian traffic.
When seated in the vehicle, make sure you are sitting close enough to push the clutch, the leftmost pedal, all the way to the floor. The gear shift should be within easy reach as well. Take time to familiarize yourself with the shift pattern before you need to keep your eyes on the road. The typical domestic and Japanese manual shift pattern has five forward speeds arranged in an H pattern, with 5th being alone off to the right and up, with reverse being to the farthest right and down. A six speed would be similar except for the addition of the 6th gear directly below 5th. Some European cars have reverse down or up to the left, with a shift lock-out consisting of pulling up on the shift boot before being able to get into it. Neutral is in the middle when you can wiggle the gearshift back and forth. Similar to the N on an automatic, it disengages the engine from the wheels allowing you to rev the engine freely and the car to roll if it is on a hill.
Once you are in a comfortable seating position and are familiar with the location of the clutch and shift pattern, double-check to make sure the parking brake (lever just to the right of the driver's seat) is set and put the car into neutral by pushing down the clutch and putting the stick into neutral . You will be able to move the gearshift back in forth through its whole horizontal movement while you are in neutral, something you can notice in a couple of fairly recent VW commercials.
Push the clutch to the floor again, and start the car. Even though the engine will run in neutral, modern cars have a lockout disabling the ability to start the car unless the clutch is fully depressed. Once the car is started, let the clutch up slowly, just to make sure the car really isn't in gear.
Being on a flat surface, you can go ahead and release the parking brake at this point; there's no need to have your right foot on the brake like you normally would on the road. Now the fun begins, and opinions diverge!
The method that has been most successful here at Standardshift has been the no-gas method. Not using the gas pedal at all while engaging the clutch in first gear seems to help people clue in more quickly to the friction point of the clutch, the all important point in which most of the engine power goes from idling freely to transferring through the transmission and then to the wheels. This varies from car to car. The friction point can be felt with the car starts moving, and engine RPMs drop usually along with the noise of the engine. This is also the point that many beginners let the clutch out too quickly, resulting in the engine lugging and the car bucking. Don't worry, at such a slow speed, no serious damage will occur to the car, just a nick to your pride.
Congratulations! You just did the toughest part of driving a manual, starting from a standing stop!
Practice this a few times until you can smoothly get the car moving without the car lugging and without touching the gas pedal.
The next step is to add the gas pedal to the equation, allowing you to start from a stop at a normal rate of speed. Doing the same thing as you did before with your left foot on the clutch, when you start reaching the friction point, gently apply some gas will allow you to release the clutch more quickly until it is fully engaged. The faster you apply the gas, the faster you can release the clutch. To switch out of 1st into 2nd and to any higher gear, just hit the clutch and get smoothly on the gas as you release the clutch. You can let out the clutch very quickly in comparison to first gear, since the wheels are moving already. As for when to shift, most if not all car manuals give the recommended shift points. Most cars also have tachometers, revving within one thousand RPM to the redline and then quickly shifting into the next gear usually garners the best performance, while the best economy can be had by shifting at 3K RPM or 15 mph per gear. Best bet is to ask the individual helping you or asking others who drive the particular type of car in person or online as to what works best with your particular vehicle.
A habit that one needs to get used to is always to set the parking brake when parking, especially on hills. Unlike automatics, there is no locked parking position with a manual transmission, only the internal friction of the non-running motor. Make sure you set the parking brake first and let up on the brakes to make sure it is engaged fully, then leave the gearshift in reverse or 1st.
You'll want to downshift when heading down a steep slope to reduce riding the brakes or when greater acceleration is needed. Downshifting is much like upshifting: off the gas, press the clutch and move to a lower gear and get back on the gas as you let out the clutch. Getting back on the gas quickly is important since downshifting and not touching the gas will slow the car down as the engine compression fights the turning of the wheels ,which is what you want while going down a hill but not when you need to pass somebody. If you are already revving high in your current gear, downshifting may spin the motor beyond its rev limit, and you might throw belts or worse, throw a rod or valve which means it would be time for a major overhaul or engine replacement.
Downshifting without touching the brakes to stop is not recommended, the person behind you babbling on the phone might not notice you without your brake lights on, especially at night. You can stay in your current gear down to around 5-15 mph quite easily; at that point, put the car in neutral and use the brakes to come to a complete stop or you can downshift and apply the brakes as well. Downshifting into first is not recommended. For safety reasons, you shouldn't keep the gar in gear while waiting at a light. If a car hits you from behind, you foot will be off the clutch, which means your car would jump forward and possibly end up in the middle of an intersection.
If there's one thing other than stalling the car in the middle of traffic that scares a newbie, it's starting from a stop on a hill. Make sure you are comfortable with flat terrain before attempting an incline, and it is best to start with a minimal slope that will allow the car to roll backwards slowly if in neutral. The key to learning how to start on a hill is the parking brake. It will allow you to remain in place and not roll backwards while you practice reaching the friction point quickly. And quickly is the key for starting on a hill to prevent rolling backwards. With the parking brake fully set, practice quickly releasing the clutch until the friction point is reached and then back off. Next, quickly reach the friction point and then partially release the parking brake as you give the car gas and release the clutch some more. The idea is to give the car just enough power to overcome the brake and gravity, which will allow you start smoothly without rolling back. As you get better, you will be able to reduce the amount and time that the parking brake is set, until you won't need it at all.