How best to learn manual transmission shifting?
February 25, 2005 9:37 AM   Subscribe

How quickly should I be able to learn to drive a manual transmission vehicle well enough to manage some tricky conditions (large van, driving from Berlin to Brussels)? What are some tips and tricks? How often (and in what conditions) should I be practicing before I get there? Tips specific to German driving are welcome too.

And as far as tips go, I may need more help than average... I had a driving phobia till my late 20s and even now (early 30s) I haven't encountered a full range of driving experiences. Just last night I drove in a snowstorm for the first time.
posted by xo to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total)
Two things really helped me learn how to drive stick when I was younger: understanding what it is I'm doing every time I shift, and lots of practice. Howstuffworks has pretty good articles on manual transmissions and clutches that you might want to read before you head out. As for the practice, well, that's the easy part, really. It'll come.
When I was 13, my dad made me give him a lecture on how a manual transmission worked, then gave me the keys to his old Toyota truck and let me teach myself. By the end of the day, having never driven before, I could drive that old hunk pretty well. I'm sure you'll do fine.

Good luck!
posted by saladin at 9:49 AM on February 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

Are you totally new to driving manual? Or have you just not driven manual in a large vehicle? Just want to clarify.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 9:50 AM on February 25, 2005

get a friend to take you in hers, go to a parking lot and drive around.
You could test drive cars if access to a car is a problem (after you kinda have the trick but need some practice). But having the salesperson in the car won't help with the phobia i imagine.
As for the driving -- as long as you're on the freeway its pretty easy. The thing that is a killer in europe is the cities. if you can avoid it, stay out of cities. You'll get lost and the streets can get real tiny real quick. If you have to drive into brussels or berlin, just make sure you have exact directions. DON'T GET LOST.
posted by alkupe at 9:51 AM on February 25, 2005

The main "tricky" areas you should focus on are (1) pulling out of a stop without stalling the car, and (2) doing this on a slope without rolling backwards (e.g. stop signs on a hill). I really recommend spending an hour on this in an empty parking lot before you leave Berlin. If you expect snowy roads, it could get a lot trickier and maybe too much so.
posted by rolypolyman at 9:51 AM on February 25, 2005

1. Get somebody who know how, to drive around with you for an hour, starting out in an empty parking lot. Before heading into traffic, get the hang of just starting up in first gear, and figure out where all the gears are on the stick.
2. Understand the mechanics of it so you understand when to use higher or lower gears, ie., lower gears when accelerating, higher when cruising, lower going down hills and around corners. (Read tutorial here.)
3. Practice until comfortable. For some, an hour does it. For you, maybe a couple of days. The issue is not your driving phobia but whether you're reasonably coordinated.
4. Good luck!
posted by beagle at 9:55 AM on February 25, 2005

Response by poster: clarifications:

I am entirely new to driving manual.

I have access to a manual VW golf, a manual pickup truck, and a large automatic van as far as US practice goes.

I have to pick up the van in central Berlin and drive it to the Brussels airport. I can avoid other cities, but not those two.
posted by xo at 9:56 AM on February 25, 2005

Go with the pickup truck.
posted by beagle at 10:05 AM on February 25, 2005

See also this thread from earlier this month on learning to drive a manual.
posted by Handcoding at 10:14 AM on February 25, 2005

Dang, Alex, you beat me!
posted by matildaben at 10:15 AM on February 25, 2005

Excellent advice all around. However, I'll contribute my three strongest memories of learning to drive standard:

1. Practice, practice, practice.
2. Don't be scared to death of riding the clutch a bit when you're coming out of first gear. You'll need to at first, in order to get a feel for the engine. It won't kill the car. (This was the hump for me.)
3. Practice some more.

Good luck!
posted by DrJohnEvans at 10:31 AM on February 25, 2005

I'd echo a lot of what other folks have said, and practice practice practice every spare moment you have until you're sick of it. At the minumum, drive for an hour every day. Do not leave long gaps between your practicing. Ideally you should make shifting something that's second nature, that you don't even think about. If you're not confident, start practicing where you won't hit things/people.

Some things to feel comfortable about:
- basic pulling away (from lights, etc.)
- pulling away on hills
- reversing/parking
all of which deal with controlling the clutch without stalling.
- shifting while flying along at high speeds in lots of traffic
which involves taking your hand of the wheel and fiddling about.

I'd practice on the manual pick-up, and be prepared for the German truck to be very different in terms of how sensitive the clutch is.

A good tip: drive slowly and to anticipate road condiitions as far ahead as possible, and to shift up/down with plenty of time to spare. That way you won't have to panic. Don't feel hassled by tailgaters or people who think you are in the way.
posted by carter at 10:35 AM on February 25, 2005

Also, it sounds like you're in the US now. If you haven't driven in Europe before, check out the traffic signage over there, which mostly use symbols rather than words, or you'll find yourself going the wrong way on a one way street, or something.
posted by beagle at 10:48 AM on February 25, 2005

Ditto all that's been said. Additionally, definitely take some time and make an effort to learn the German rules of the road and get as much knowledge as you can with regard to German driving etiquette. Driving in Germany is mostly a pleasure, but the Germans can be sticklers for the rules, and driving carelessly (passing on the right, for example) can wreak havoc. As a van driver, I doubt very much you'll be spending any time in the passing lane, but you'd do well to educate yourself to the laws and customs as best you can.
posted by psmealey at 11:05 AM on February 25, 2005

If you ever feel out of control, remember to always shift down. This will give you more grip on the road. It will also help you accelerate quicker out of a sticky situation. And if you're on a slope, again it will help more.

All vehicles have their own "feel" for how much feedback the pedals are, and how slick the gearbox is. Understand your vehicle very well before you take it on a longer trip.

If you have to deal with big slopes, I suggest you get a LOT of practice or the results could be nasty.

And lastly, you should never ever have to look at your gearbox to change them. If you feel that need, you're not ready yet. Practise on low-traffic roads more.
posted by madman at 11:05 AM on February 25, 2005

Practice on a hill should be a priority. It can be very tricky manipulating the clutch and throttle in just the right way to keep it from rolling back into the car behind you. You can't use the brake. This is only really an issue when you are heading uphill.
posted by wsg at 11:07 AM on February 25, 2005

Driving a large van is different from driving a golf or a pickup. Aside from the handling, large vehicles just don't shift as smoothly. My recommendations:

1) As everyone else has mentioned, practice with a manual tranmission as much as possible.

2) Learn to downshift smoothly. You can't count on a large vehicle to have a syncromesh transmission; you might want to get someone to show you how to double-clutch.

3) Spend some time driving the large automatic van to get a feel for how large vehicles handle.

Oh: buy the optional insurance. :o)
posted by Daddio at 11:38 AM on February 25, 2005

Finding your way onto the autobahn in Berlin city traffic will probably be the hardest part of the whole journey. After that you will be able to stay on the autobahn the whole way to Brussels airport.

On the German autobahn, keep on the right and pass on the left. You will encounter sections without a posted speed limit, but depending on the maximum allowed weight of your van, it may still be subject to a speed limit. IIRC, the limit is 80 km/h for all vehicles over 3.5 tons max. weight, but better check with the owner. These speed limits may differ in Belgium and the Netherlands.

On Sundays and federal holidays, most trucks with a max. weight over 7.5 tons are banned from driving between midnight and 10pm. This could make driving on the autobahn slightly less stressful, if the date of your journey is flexible.

Directions on the autobahn are usually indicated by the next major cities, not by the points of the compass. Autobahns with even numbers usually go east-west, odd numbers go north-south. All direction signs for the autobahn are white text on blue background.

Off the autobahn, if you hit an intersection without traffic signs indicating the right of way, the default rule applies that anybody entering the intersection from your right has the right of way.

Roundabouts have become more common over here in recent years, but they still seem to frighten some drivers. It's not uncommon to encounter drivers that use their turn signals only when entering the roundabout but not when exiting.

I don't think you will encounter a lot of slopes on your route, but if you need to start on an incline (going uphill), use the parking brake instead of the brake pedal.
posted by andre at 2:17 PM on February 25, 2005

One thing that helped me: don't forget that the brake has priority over the clutch. :) When learning, my attention would be so much on not stalling that I'd be slower on the brakes.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 2:55 PM on February 25, 2005

Also: practice letting out the clutch reeeeaaaaly sloooowly. The main problem that new drivers have is that they let out the clutch too fast.

On a flat surface, if you let out the clutch really really slow in first gear, the car should crawl forward without a stall and without any gas at all (because of the engine idle). Just practicing letting the clutch out slowly without any gas in 1st gear can get you comfortable with working the clutch.
posted by Mid at 3:23 PM on February 25, 2005

Mid's answer above is right on. I practiced for weeks learning how to get into first smoothly with little success until I tried that technique. The advantage that you may have over an expereinced driver is that you're not "used to" a specific car/transmission. Perhaps you could check with the person/place you are picking it up to see if there is a large parking lot nearby to get in a little practice before hitting the streets of Berlin in earnest?
posted by Rock Steady at 8:20 PM on February 25, 2005

Practice on hills, and learn to *feel* the bite point.

Park on a steep hill.
Put the Handbrake on.
With the clutch down, give it some gas. (Lots will work better, but you need to learn how to do it with as little gas as possible.)
Slowly lift the clutch until it bites. (The back of the car will dip a little bit)
Release the handbrake, and slowly pull away.

It takes a while to get the hang of it, so practice, practice, practice.
posted by seanyboy at 5:19 AM on February 26, 2005

Practice, practice, indeed - but you'll get in in hours, not days. The main thing is to adjust to the pedal tension in each new vehicle. The clutch on a power-assisted Honda, say, is completely different to the clutch on my old ex-army Land Rover.

Of course, for maximum manual respect then you need to learn heel and toe and double de-clutching. Vroom.
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 8:16 AM on February 26, 2005

the trick is smooth motion on the clutch ... no sudden motions ... and remember ... it's better to jam on the brakes and stall the car, then get confused with manipulating both and run into something

listen to the engine carefully ... eventually, you'll be able to tell by ear when the right time to shift is ... and yes, you need to learn not to look at the gearbox when you're shifting
posted by pyramid termite at 2:36 PM on February 26, 2005

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