Spannerhead Dot

Learning To Drive Stick, Part I

June 12, 2012 by Matt

6 Six Speed Shifter Stickshift Manual Trans Transmission Tranny Shift Pattern

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to teach my wife how to drive a stickshift.

The endeavor was borne out of necessity as much as any other reason; there have been more than a few times I’ve had to take the BMW when it would have been much more convenient to drive the minivan, because my wife couldn’t drive a 5-speed. And supposing I was driving the minivan and had an accident, my wife would need to at least have some basic knowledge of how to operate a manual transmission in order to be able to come to me.

She recognized those reasons too, and she’s always loved the BMW, so she was eager to learn how to drive it. Through the years, I’d given a couple of folks quick lessons in the basics, so I had a rough idea of how to approach it:

  1. Find a semi-secluded, completely open parking lot.
  2. Explain the basics of what the clutch pedal and gearshift actually do using a simple diagram, but don’t overwhelm with technical details.
  3. Practice starting off without the aid of the gas pedal in order to develop a feel for where the clutch takes up.
  4. Progress to 1-2 and 2-3 gear changes once the fundamentals of starting out are established.

And over the course of 45 minutes or so, that’s exactly what we did. She killed the car at least a dozen times, but that’s wholly expected for someone just learning the ropes. I was proud of her for always remembering to push in the clutch pedal when restarting the car; new stickshift initiates can easily forget that requirement in the midst of the other half-dozen things they need to remember to do (but are second nature to those of us who’ve been driving stick for years).

I’m most nervous about hill starts. We won’t tackle those until the next lesson or two. When I first learned to drive stick at age 17, hill starts scared me, and I still feel a slight twinge of anxiety when called upon to perform one nowadays, just knowing that a stall or worse, backing into the car behind me, is just a slip of a pedal away. All in good time.

Filed under: Car Stories, Learning To Drive Stick


  1. Mike B. says:

    Interesting read, and something I need to do eventually. Glad to hear your wife is so willing to learn. :)

    • Matt says:

      I’m glad she’s willing as well, though she did admit it wasn’t very much fun. That was an emotion I’d forgotten from my days of learning—for the first few weeks I didn’t enjoy it very much, and it took several satisfying drives with no missed shifts or lugging for me to see what everyone was on about.

  2. Ryan says:

    I tried this a few years back with my wife in a Ford Focus ZX3 for basically the same reasons you list. My wife wasn’t so eager to learn though, she more did it just to appease me. She didn’t really enjoy it. I think it is frustrating to those of us that enjoy the manual connection to the car to not understand why someone wouldn’t want to learn. I think we only did it once or twice more and I’m not sure she’s driven a stick since then… a lot of good that did us, lol. I’ve offered many times since to let her drive my Mustangs but not once has she taken me up on the offer. Oh well, lets just hope if my leg gets cut off and she needs to drive me to the hospital it’ll all come rushing back to her. I think I better prepare to bleed to death, lol.

    • Matt says:

      Yikes. Yeah, I’m lucky my wife actually likes the BMW (she’s talked me out of selling it several times, haha), and wants to learn. :)

  3. Diane says:

    What he failed to mention (kindly) was that we went to my old high school parking lot where we ventured into actual moving people territory where I froze and was completely terrified I was going to kill one of the little bouncy cheerleader-types walking out. NIGHTMARE.

    But yes, I’m eager to keep trying.

  4. K Fox says:

    I’ll say this and let you consider it. I’ve been driving for 16 years now, and of them I’ve only had 2 automatic cars, one of which is my current BMW 540. I learned how to drive in the first automatic (83 Dodge Van), then progressed to an old Audi with a 4 speed. Ever since, I can’t bring myself to drive auto cars – the amount of control you have with a manual is so beneficial, not to mention relaxing, that I just don’t like driving cars without manual tranny’s. As good as the trans in my 540 is, I still have bouts of hating it for not being in the right gear when I knew beforehand that I’d want say, 2nd gear for a particular occurrence. The worst time to have a stick is in stop and go traffic, and even that is liveable if you’re not driving a monster modified car. My take I guess is, once you learn to appreciate a manual trans, you’ll not want to drive an auto anymore. 16 years, right at 1 mil miles, and almost all of them shifting myself. It’s the way all cars should be.


    • K Fox says:

      P.S. Proof in the pudding – my 94 540(auto) is currently for sale as I also have a 95 540 with the factory 6 speed manual, so I no longer need the 94. ;)


    • Matt says:

      Good points, and I feel the same way about auto vs. manual. Before I got back into interesting cars, there was a three-year span in which I didn’t own a stickshift, and I hated it. Those were dark days. Yes, traffic can be a little tedious, but one blast down a county road and it’s all worth it again.

  5. This is a really interesting post, because we in the UK assumed most Americans drove automatics!

    Over here, manuals or “stick shifts” have always been the norm, with automatics traditionally being reserved for higher end, more luxurious cars – but this is starting to change.

    But no doubt about it, there is significantly more skilled required to drive a manual, but the upside is that you understand your car’s performance better.

    Thanks for sharing

    • Matt says:

      Well, we do mostly drive automatics, haha.

      I don’t know the exact percentage offhand, but rest assured the vast majority of us don’t row our own gears on a daily basis.

      But there is a minor, enthusiast-based “insurgency,” if you will, against the prevailing mindset… Those of us who choose to drive manuals and appreciate them are all the more passionate given our minority status here.

Leave a Reply