Learning Stick Shift

Here are my own thoughts about learning stick shift. Kelsey learned from me, though there’s no true teacher aside from experience. I think there are two essential tricks to learning a stick shift:

1. Practice Makes Perfect.

It’s muscle and reflex training, not head training. It takes time to get the feel of the clutch, especially from a dead stop. Take advantage of opportunities to practice stop-and-go with the clutch. Be sure to do it on hills, too.

2. Listen To The Engine

The tachometer and speedometer tell you interesting things, but the sound of the engine really tells you when to shift gears. If it’s high-pitched, you need to shift. For improved gas mileage, you want to shift sooner rather than later.

[This has been revised since first posted 7/31/10]

To learn the engine’s sound, you’ll want to sit in the car, put the shift in neutral, and rev the engine by gently pumping the gas pedal. Listen to the sound change. The lower pitch means the engine turns more slowly. As it speeds up, the pitch increases.

You start in first gear with a sort of “medium” pitch. It takes practice to figure this out, and it varies from one car to the next.

When shifting to higher gears, you want to shift when the pitch goes high, but not too high.

If you shift too soon, the motor might stall and sputter to a stop. If this happens, remember how the engine sounded – it wasn’t at a high enough pitch to shift.

If you rev the engine to a really high pitch, you’re shifting too late. If you rev the engine too high, you may red line it, as described below. This is best avoided.

Also related to Listen To The Engine is to know when to down-shift: if you’re going up a hill and slowing down while pushing the gas pedal, the engine’s working too hard. Downshift so the engine actually has the torque to push the vehicle.

Learning Stick

My dad tried to teach me stick shift when I was 16. It was not successful. The car was a 3-on-the-tree Plymouth in the late ’60s. I was trying to shift and turn the wheel while pulling out onto Old Dominion Drive, the “paved road” off our street. I wandered towards the center line and Dad grabbed the wheel. We didn’t exactly fight for it, but I got back into my lane. It was a short driving lesson.

After that, I limited my driving to automatic transmission cars, with one exception. My summer job was at Wolf Trap Farm and my supervisor wanted me to be able to drive trucks. He patiently taught me how to use the truck, stick shift and all, going up hills. But he forgot to tell me how to drive down hills. When I demo’ed my driving for the Ranger In Charge Of Issuing Government Driving Licenses, I free-wheeled the truck down the hill. Fortunately it was empty, except for the two of us. So I was restricted to automatic transmission vehicles.

When my ’64 Impala (automatic transmission, A/C, power windows – a sweet ride) finally had broken down enough, I replaced it with a brand new Saab 99 with four-on-the-floor. The nice lady at the Saab dealership was perfectly happy to spend a half hour driving around with me to get the hang of the stick shift.

After that, it was pretty much trial-and-error. I did take an all-day course in performance driving, which was enlightening, but that had more to do with controlling speed in turns and handling skids with ABS.

The Downhill Problem

In case you don’t get the story about free-wheeling, here’s what was going on.

To free wheel a stick shift is to go into neutral and just let the vehicle’s mass pull you down a hill. You are trusting that the brakes, all by themselves, will be able to stop you if you need to stop.

This is probably OK for most small cars. I never had trouble free-wheeling the sedans and hatchbacks I’ve driven. The brakes on a typical passenger car are designed to stop the vehicle even if the transmission is disconnected.

On the other hand, if you keep the car in gear, the engine itself can slow the car down. This is engine braking.

Trucks rely a lot on engine braking. Usually the brakes aren’t enough by themselves to stop the beast, especially if you’re carrying a load of something or other. When I went free wheeling down the hill with a government truck, The Ranger no doubt imagined me doing the same thing with a truckload of stage lights or manure or something. That would have been a Bad Thing. The truck’s mass would have been too much for the brakes to stop. The brakes would burn out, leaving no way to stop the truck.

Red Lining

Every engine has a red line – a maximum rotational speed. The tachometer (“tach”) tells you the engine speed in revolutions per minute – RPM. Every tach has a red line that marks the engine’s maximum RPM.

If car engine doesn’t have a tach, but does have a shift (VW bugs, for example) then the instruction manual should list the speed ranges for different gears. The engine should make similar noises (a low-pitched growl or high-pitched whine) at the gears’ minimum and maximum speeds. In other words, the minimum and maximum RPMs will be about the same for most gears.

Trucks and cheaper cars have lower red lines – that is, they top out at lower RPMs. Sporty cars tend to have higher red lines. Here are some red lines, mostly from memory:

  • Park Service trucks – 4000
  • My old Saab 99 – 6000
  • Our two old Tercels – 5500
  • My old Volvo – 6500
  • My “like new” Acura – 7000

In any case, you can quickly overheat and damage the engine by red-lining it too much. Newer, computer-controlled engines may actually shut off the fuel if you red line. At least, my late Volvo seemed to do that.

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