Life Skills: How to Drive a Manual Car

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Want to master driving a stick shift? This guide will help get you started in a manual transmission vehicle.

Driving a manual car is a life skill everyone should know how to do, yet many don’t. Sure, automatic cars are the norm these days. But you may find yourself needing to drive a manual car or truck every once in a while. And more importantly, vehicles with manual transmissions are just way more fun to drive!

This article will teach you the basics of how to drive a manual car.

Let’s start with a few tips: Getting behind the wheel of a manual transmission car can be tricky the first few times. Make sure to ask an experienced manual driver to help you with the process.

Also, don’t start out in busy traffic until you have the basics under your belt.

This article is just a starting point. Once you get the hang of it, manual driving is awesome. There’s nothing like grabbing second gear after a quick acceleration onto an on-ramp. Or imagine driving a twisty mountain road, downshifting into hard corners. (But maybe not quite like Ken Block on your first go.)

Plus, learning to drive a manual will teach you a lot about how cars work and give you a broader skill set on the road.

If you’ve felt the allure of a manual transmission, read on, grab that stick shift, and get ready for the best driving of your life.

How to Drive a Manual Car

Driving A Manual Car A manual
A manual ‘stick shift’ showing gear numbering and reverse.

1. Find Somewhere to Practice

The first thing to do before you start learning to drive a manual car is to find a safe place where you can learn. A large, empty, flat parking lot is ideal. You will probably find yourself stalling often, and you do not want to risk running into anything or holding up traffic.

2. Learn the Pedals & Gear Shifter

The next thing to do is learn the parts of the car that might differ from your automatic car. The clutch is one of the key differences between an automatic and a manual vehicle.

The clutch is the third pedal on your manual car, the one on the far left. You’ll need to depress the clutch to start your car. You’ll also need to push in the clutch and then let it out slowly as you simultaneously press down on the gas pedal to engage a gear. This will make the vehicle move under its own power.

The gear shifter usually lives in the middle of the car between the passenger and driver seats. It should show you how each forward gear (usually five or six gears on modern cars) and reverse gear are laid out. The shift pattern is usually shown in a diagram on the top of the shift knob.

You will move the stick shift around based on which gear you want to be in. If it is in the middle, the gearbox is in neutral.

The brake and gas pedals will be in the same location as you would find on an automatic vehicle.

Driving Manual Car The clutch is on the left. The gas and brake pedals are in the same place you'd find them in an automatic vehicle.
The clutch is on the left. The gas and brake pedals are in the same place you’d find them in an automatic vehicle.

3. Turn on the Car

Depress the clutch fully with your left foot while depressing the brake pedal with your right foot. Then turn the key in the ignition, or press the Start/Stop button on many modern cars, to turn on the vehicle.

Put the car in first gear. Continue holding down the clutch with your left foot. Put the car in first gear by moving the gear shifter to the “1” position.

It also can be helpful while holding down the clutch to move the gear shifter to all the gears to feel where they are. Eventually, you will know where each gear is by feel. But don’t worry if it is a bit challenging to figure out at first.

4. Start to Drive

Press the gas pedal very gently until you hear the car rev a bit. Let out the clutch very slowly while you slowly press down on the gas. This is the trickiest part of driving a manual car and when most new drivers will stall. It might take some practice to find the sweet spot between engaging the clutch and gas, which is different for every vehicle.

Wait until you feel the car begin to vibrate a bit, and then press down on the gas more as you finish letting your foot off the clutch. Don’t let the clutch out too fast, or you will jerk the vehicle forward and stall. You may also stall the vehicle if you don’t give the car enough gas as you let out the clutch.

5. Change Gears

Once you get the car rolling, you will need to shift gears in order to go faster. First gear on most cars is only meant for speeds up to about 15 mph. You will hear the engine getting louder as the engine revs increase — this is a signal that you will need to shift up a gear.

To shift gears, lift your foot off the gas. Then, you will once again press in the clutch fully. While the clutch is pressed in, move the gear shifter to the “2” position, or second gear. Then, let out on the clutch while you press in the gas, just as you did to engage first gear.

Continue this process as you speed up, through all of the gears.

Coming to a Stop

As important, maybe more so, as getting the car going is bringing it to a stop. In order to keep the car running and not stall when coming to a stop, be sure to depress the clutch pedal completely as you’re braking and about to stop. When the clutch pedal is fully depressed, the gearbox is disengaged, and you are in neutral.

It can be tiring to keep the clutch pedal depressed at a lengthy stop with the car running. If you need to rest your left foot, you can put the stick shift into the neutral position between the gears and then let off the clutch pedal. When you’re in neutral, you’re out of gear and can’t stall the vehicle. Just remember to keep the brake depressed so you don’t roll into anything around you.


Downshifting is a great way to slow down the vehicle without using wear-down parts, like brakes. To downshift, the process is the same as upshifting. Push in the clutch, shift to the desired lower gear, and release the clutch. You may have to ease back on the gas. Quite often, you won’t need to give the car any more gas. Make sure you have slowed enough when you downshift that when you ease off the clutch, your engine does not over-rev.


Only put your car into reverse when at a complete stop. Once stopped, depress the clutch fully with your left foot. Move the stick shifter into the “R” position, or reverse gear. Slowly let out the clutch until you feel the gears engage. Then, fully let out the clutch pedal smoothly. When putting your car in reverse, you will need to use little to no gas and can use your right foot on the brake to control the car from going backward too quickly.


How do you start a manual car on a hill?

Starting from a stop on a hill with a manual car can be challenging. A hill can cause you to roll backward when you take your foot off the brake.

The best way to start on a steep hill is to use the hand brake to keep your car from rolling back as you press on the accelerator and take your foot off the clutch. You will need to give the car more gas than normal to get enough momentum to go up the hill.

Don’t use your clutch to hold your car in position on a hill. This can put a lot of wear on your clutch!

What should you NOT do while driving a manual car?

Rest your hand on the gear shift — this can wear out your transmission.

Accelerate too quickly when your car’s engine revs are low; instead, downshift or accelerate slowly.

Rest your foot on the clutch pedal — this can wear out the clutch.

Do you have to press the clutch and brake at the same time?

This depends on whether you are slowing down or coming to a complete stop. If you are not coming to a complete stop but just slowing down a little bit, you do not need to press in the clutch. Try downshifting instead. If you are coming to a complete stop, you will need to press in the clutch to prevent your car from stalling.

You can also shift into neutral, which basically accomplishes the same thing as if you had the clutch pressed in. But even shifting into neutral with the stick shift will require you to use the clutch pedal. This will allow you to stop your car without stalling, and you won’t have to keep the clutch in while stopped.

How do you damage/burn out your clutch?

Your clutch can get a lot of wear and tear if you are not careful. Learning to drive a manual car can put a lot of stress on your clutch. But there are a few things you can do to decrease this wear as you are learning.

Don’t spend long periods with the clutch pedal partially depressed. The clutch pedal should be fully let out, with your foot not touching it, 99.9% of the time you’re driving. When stopped or changing gears, it needs to be fully depressed and then somewhat quickly let out to engage a gear.

Also, resting your foot on the clutch or “riding the clutch” when you don’t need it can wear out your clutch. Rest your foot to the left of the clutch unless you are using it!

How long does it take to learn how to drive a manual car?

This depends, like most things, on how much you practice. It could take anywhere from thirty minutes to a few hours to get the basics down. From there, you just need time behind the wheel to learn how not to stall and how to be smooth with the clutch pedal, something you’ll have to get used to on every manual vehicle, as each has a different feel.

If you drive every day, it shouldn’t take more than a week or two to feel completely confident in your new skills driving a stick shift vehicle.

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