Learning to Drive Stick Shift


Driving a car with a manual transmission is quite different from driving an automatic. In a sense, you’ve got more control. You get to decide when to shift gears, instead of letting the car decide for you. Once you’ve decided, you have to a move a lever that pulls apart enmeshed gears, changes the gears, and then puts the gears back into mesh. It’s fun and actually kind of exciting, but it takes some getting used to. The first step, in our humble opinion, is to get a sense of how a manual transmission functions.

So, how does a manual transmission actually work?


Well, think about what it’s like to ride a bike. When you start off from a stop, you need a lot of power to get going. You’re in low gear, and your pedals turn several times to make the wheel go around just once. Though you might not know it from bike riding, this is a great demonstration of the principle known as "mechanical advantage."

Mechanical advantage allows you to multiply the power available. That additional power, however, comes at the expense of your speed. Once you’re going, however, you may want to trade some of that power for additional speed. So, you shift gears and change the amount of mechanical advantage.

The same principle is true of a car. It takes much more power to get a car from 0 mph to 10 mph, than it does to increase a car’s speed from 10 mph to 20 mph.* Want to prove this to yourself?

engine and transmission

Just like your bicycle, your car has a number of different gears from which you can choose, depending upon your driving conditions. Unlike a bike, though, there’s no chain connecting the engine to the drive wheel. Instead, there’s a transmission.

In between the engine and the transmission is the clutch. Why is the clutch in between the engine and the transmission? Simple. You need a clutch, because you can’t mesh two gears while they’re both turning. It’s the clutch’s job to manually disengage the power from the engine to the transmission. Once that has happened, you can change gears. Try to change gears without engaging the clutch, and you’ll hear the grinding and gnashing of gears...it’s a sound your mechanic loves to hear because it means that money is about to go flying out of your pocket and into his.

Our bicycle analogy isn’t quite perfect, though. Here’s why. Instead of several gears at the engine and several at the wheel, as there are with a bicycle, there are actually pairs of gears that mesh.

gear ratios

When you press the clutch pedal, you’re separating the gear in the engine from the gear in the transmission. When you move the stick shift from, say, "1" to "2", you’re actually connecting both the engine and driveshaft to different gears. It’s remarkably simple.