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Learning To Fly

Posted in Cool Stuff, driving, Featured, How To, Rants & Raves by Kurt Ernst | February 22nd, 2011 | 16 Responses |

The Holy Grail: a six speed manual, waiting to be mastered.

I spent a few hours last Sunday morning teaching a friend how to drive a manual transmission. What follows is my version of the story, interspersed with her version of the story. I’d say that the names have been changed to protect the innocent, but you already know my name and you’ll meet Jen Stadler soon enough. She knows cars and she’s got a wicked sense of humor, so I though she’d fit right in with the rest of us at RideLust. Consider this her debut article, and expect to see more from her in the not-too-distant future.

Kurt: There’s a good chance that Jen Stadler knows more about cars than you do. In fact, she knows more about cars than most people I’ve met, which made her inability to drive a manual transmission even stranger. So strange, in fact, I feared the balance of the universe would be upset if I didn’t right this horrific wrong, on par with Ted Nugent rejecting the NRA to become a Buddhist monk. The manual transmission is dying, and those of us who’ve mastered the shift have a sacred duty to pass that knowledge along. I volunteered my time and my clutch to teach Jen the art of the shift, and she agreed with little hesitation.

Jen: In fairness, I’ve attempted to learn to row my own three times before. The first was actually my first time behind the wheel at all, in my dad’s ’92 Nissan beater pickup (complete with blank space on the dash for a tach, but no actual gauge). I was actually more concerned with the fact the truck was moving and what to do afterwards, than learning the intricacies of flywheels and clutch discs. In the interest of preserving my old man’s transmission (and sanity), I called it a day and quit. The other two attempts were fairly similar, though with my husband. Trust me, I felt just as awkward as you’d think, loving cars but not being able to drive half of them.

Kurt: Before we even headed out on the street, I spent some time covering the basics. Things like clutch engagement point, gearshift position, shift pattern and even how much effort it takes to slide into a shift gate are second nature to those of us who’ve been doing it for a while, but they’re still a mystery to anyone who hasn’t been successful in learning to drive a manual transmission. The basics covered (call it “Clutchology 101”), I headed out on the roads to show Jen the proper way to row up and down a gearbox, demonstrating technique with some enthusiasm. Questions were encouraged, because what was second nature to me was something of a mystery to her.

Jen: Having grown up around an ’84 300zx and the aforementioned pickup, Kurt’s lesson wasn’t completely foreign. I still had to pipe up though, when he started in on “blipping the throttle” and “rev-matching down-shifts” – terms I’d read more times than I could count, but had never (knowingly) experienced in real life. Things were starting to make more sense. At least, they were when I wasn’t concentrating on the fact that he was rocketing the Miata through tiny two-lane roads flanked by 100-year-old oak trees. [Kurt’s note: That’s not ENTIRELY true. The trees are older than that.]

Kurt: Demonstration over, we headed back to the quiet streets of the swamp that I call home. We shifted seats, and my brain temporarily locked; explaining the process of driving a manual from start to finish is a lot like explaining the process of eating. What seems simple (chew, swallow, repeat) really isn’t, because you need to supply a lot more information than you initially thought or risk disaster. I decided to have Jen get the car rolling without giving it any gas, since the MX-5 is light and we live on a flat stretch of road. Besides, the Duratec four makes a decent amount of torque down low, and it would teach her exactly where the engagement point of the clutch was. Under my direction, Jen put the car in gear, released the handbrake and slipped the clutch as smoothly as possible. We were off and rolling with zero drama.

Jen: I had to mentally shake myself to realize I made the car actually go forward – rather than stall – on my very first attempt. This had always been the sticking point in my past endeavors, so I was feeling pretty high-on-the-horse right then (you know what they say about that, right?). We rounded a corner and I learned the next most important thing after how to make 2,500+ pounds go – how to make it stop. To my surprise it was a very boring affair and not at all as difficult as I’d feared. Unfortunately, this also led to having to launch the car again (also known as: my mental nemesis).

Kurt: I thought it would be a simple thing to teach feeding on the power while slipping the clutch, but I was wrong. It’s not that Jen didn’t get the concept; it’s just that she was thinking too hard about it. You can’t tell someone “let off the clutch at a rate of 2 millimeters per second while feeding the gas at five millimeters per second”, because driving a clutch just isn’t that scientific. I suppose it could be, given enough time and research funding, but I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. Feeding on gas while at the point of clutch engagement wasn’t working, so I had to try another tactic.

Jen: “Wasn’t working” is a kind way to put it. What actually occurred was more lurching and jerking than in a Southern Baptist Revival. I desperately wanted to exorcise my own demons and get the shift action down, but I was sure Kurt was going to throw me out at any second, Mafia-style, and say “Screw this!” Like he said though, I was way over-analyzing the process. I’d always hated when manual-owning friends told me “oh, you’ll feel it,” but I eventually found they were right, and my approach was wrong (it’s bound to happen sometimes, I suppose). Something clicked, and my feet and hands coordinated; only later did I understand that I was doing exactly what Kurt was telling me to do, but without the paralysis of analysis.

Kurt: Jen did really well with slipping the clutch, so I thought I’d try to reverse the order and see how that worked. Feed on the gas first, I advise, then ride the clutch out. Her first attempt was perfect, and you could tell that a circuit engaged in her brain. We did a few more laps through the neighborhood, then we headed out to the mean streets of Jacksonville to terrorize the populace. I remember that she stalled the car one more time, but that was it; by the end of the lesson, she was damn near 100% confident in her ability to drive a clutch. There’s still lots to learn (like starting on a hill, or rev-matching on the downshift), but Jen was a great student and made amazing progress in a little over an hour.

Jen: Luckily, I only terrorized a few bicyclists who were crossing at an intersection when I stalled, but the feeling of being on a (semi)open road was amazing. It was freedom, as I was finally allowed to take it up to fourth and feel the wind whoosh past, the top down and the sun shining in. Add an empty highway and some Jimi Hendrix on the radio and I think I have a recipe for speeding tickets the ultimate afternoon. I am most definitely looking forward to this spring, when my husband gets his coveted Mazdaspeed 3. If I can coerce him to hand over the keys, that is.

Kurt: So here’s today’s lesson, boys and girls: if you know how to drive a manual transmission and are fairly adept at it, you have a duty to pass that knowledge along. Don’t worry about your clutch getting worn or your engine stalling, because I can’t think of many scenarios where this would cause engine damage. It’s probably better if you don’t attempt to teach your significant other, since there’s way too much emotional baggage there (says the guy who mistakenly tried to teach his girlfriend-now-wife to ride a motorcycle on a Honda CB750F). [Jen’s note: Wait, you can teach motorcycles too?? Hmmm, I may get that Ninja one day, after all…] It’s easy enough to pass on the knowledge, and it’s time well spent. Besides, if we don’t save the manuals, who else will?

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16 Responses

  1. Jen says:

    I have to say it, yet again: THANK YOU for such an awesome experience, my life is a little more complete now

  2. […] to protect the innocent, but you already know my name and you’ll meet Jen Stadler […]Read more… Categories: Uncategorized Tags: BMW, Jen […]

  3. Joao Paulo says:


    I’m an avid brazilian reader of this blog for the last 11 months or so. I found this post particularly peculiar for here, and I imagine in any other emerging economy country, we are going the same direction but we’re some decades behind (thankfuly). My early thirties generation, and the elders, learned to drive sticks as automatics were way out of the majority budgets. Everyone knows how to manage the clutch. Nowadays with traffic jam (I live in São Paulo, a city with 13 million inhaabitants) and the stupid use of cell phones (texting and talking) more and more people are buying automatics. I’m a fan off the stick myself, being able to comand the cars, play with the downshift is the key element to fun driving. My rides are a 2006 Ford Fiesta and a 1979 Puma GTE, a VW based sports car with fiberglass body and the old and thrustworthy 4-cilinder air cooled VW engine. Search the web for some pictures. Anyway, I’d like to congratulate the writer, and now writers, for such great blog. Keep up the good work! Save the manuals!

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      Obrigado, Joao Paulo!

      In the United States, it’s hard to find someone under 30 who knows (or wants to learn) how to drive a manual transmission. There are an alarming number of people who see driving as a chore, and not as something to enjoy. Yes, driving in traffic is tedious, but the sheer joy of driving a winding road in a sports car, at the limit, just isn’t the same with an automatic transmission. You can’t know that unless you’ve experienced it, and therein lies the problem.

  4. Inthebuff says:

    I taught my significant other how to drive a manual on a 1972 Opel kadett back in the day. Good times. AND we’re still married!

  5. George Baccash says:

    Great article, I always thought that you pretty hip on driving any car. Wait until you try and drive a semi?
    Keep the articles coming.

  6. Canrith says:

    This was enjoyable to read. Definitely paralleled the thought processes going on when I was being taught as well…minus unintentional tire spin. (read: vaporized tires; and first, albeit unintentional, burnout.)

  7. turbosrt says:

    Im with you guys. Teaching all that I can. It might even prevent more accidents. (Driver awareness)

  8. eddie_357 says:

    even back in the day my wife know i was a hoon and saw me getting excited about dropping the clutch doing burn outs like a crazy nut i was.she enjoyed riding with me but i didnt want her doing what i was doing;double standard i guess.then she found YOU TUBE my wife learned to rev-match on you tube,now she drives better than me;but i dont tell her that.

  9. Taylor says:

    A gearhead that doesn’t know how to drive a standard? (Hanging my head in shame)

    But since you did try and succeed in the long run, welcome to the show.

    Great article and I look forward to your additions to the wonderful automotive poetry submitted daily by Mr. Ernst and MrAngry.

    Too much maybe?? Don’t want to give them to big a head. (kidding!!)

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      Taylor, thanks for the compliment! Don’t worry, I slapped myself in the face a few times after reading it, just to keep things real.

      You keep reading, we’ll keep writing. Promise.

    • Jen says:

      Taylor I was hanging my head in shame right alongside you. Thanks, I look forward to contributing as well!

  10. Rick Baccash says:

    Jen, I loved the article…always knew you had the talent but over analyzed the process. thanks for crossing out the “beeter” in describing my truck…lol

    Kurt, Thank you very much for taking the time and having the patience to teach Jen how to drive a manual…something I wasn’t able to accomplish…

    Keep up the good work, both of you!!