Learn to drive stick-filter
June 12, 2012 4:55 PM   Subscribe

Help me get over anxiety from learning to drive stick on surface streets in a moderately hilly town, please?

HALP. I am 43 years old and have tried, multiple times over my adult lifetime, to learn how to drive a manual. Earlier efforts involved my frantic overbearing mother and my asshole ex. My husband has been unfailingly, incredibly patient, and I'm still not managing to get it. I've been "sort of" learning on our 2005 Outback, but O Dear Lord I Have Issues, not the least of which it's just too damned easy in this town to just say "fuck it", avoid the whole mess entirely, and ride my bike.

This, however, is not going to be a negotiable solution forever, and I'm getting really pissed off with myself and my anxiety surrounding this issue. It would also be really nice if I could drive to work on days I really need to. Or drive to things I would like to do myself, like bike races, help out driving on road trips for my husband, etc. I do partial shifts when we go to Albuquerque to visit his folks, but so far it really has to involve very long, open stretches of freeway with virtually no potential for having to actually, you know, use the gears much (meaning: the stretch between Trinidad and Santa Fe and that's pretty much it).

One compounding issue is that we live in a dense small city (Boulder, Colorado) which has some of the worst traffic congestion for a community its size that I've ever seen. The trip from my house on the southwest end of town to my workplace (central east side) is fraught with roughly a million stop lights, hill starts and large, busy arterials. There is no route out of my neighborhood without facing an extremely aggravating series of lights. The "easiest" way out of the maze involves a hill start, and hill starts absolutely terrify me. This car does not have "hill assist" btw.

Another compounding issue is that our car has a pretty heavy clutch. Replacing it (the clutch or the car) is really not an option. I'm beginning to regret having sold my pathetic old Volvo in fact, if only because it was an automatic and didn't make me feel like a failure at life. And the irony of it is, I'm a pretty decent driver otherwise.

I know other people have learned how to do this - it cannot possibly be as hard as I'm making it.

What tips or suggestions does the hive mind have to get me past the mental blocks with driving stick in traffic? I recently spent a humiliating ten minutes weeping in rage just trying to back up and pull out from behind a friend's house four blocks away because I kept stalling the damn thing.
posted by lonefrontranger to Travel & Transportation around Boulder, CO (44 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Stalling is just part of the learning process, and those who honk when you do simply don't know the joy (and well, the frustration) of driving a manual transmission. Forgive them.

As for practical advice, practice early in the morning or late a night when there are fewer cars on the road. When stopped driving up hill, set your parking brake. Slowly let out the clutch until the feel it engage, then release the brake and tap the gas.

You can do it!
posted by ikaruga at 5:04 PM on June 12, 2012

the way i learned to drive a stick was to go, by myself, to a residential area, find a deserted street with a hill, and just keep going up it. circle back around and just keep doing it. this is a muscle memory thing as well as getting used to your own car. try finding a rural neighborhood or maybe a development that is unfinished to minimize traffic and street parking.

have someone drive you there and drop you off. i bet you will be able to drive home alone.
posted by virginia_clemm at 5:04 PM on June 12, 2012

Driving school? Practicing in a parking lot? (We had an ideally hilly parking lot fairly near our house.)

I mean, is it just that you freak out about having to shift in traffic? Do you feel 100% confident about shifting when there's no traffic?
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:05 PM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: The thing it took me a long time to get was, I had to give it WAY more gas than seemed right when attempting to get into first gear from a stop on a hill, while letting the clutch out more slowly than I wanted to.
posted by thelonius at 5:08 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have someone teach you the foot patterns without actually driving the car. Have them say 'gear 1 go' and pretend to lift the clutch while applying gas. Have them 'stop' you and learn to clutch-brake.

These patterns are the tricky bit of driving to master. Someone watching your feet can help you smooth things out and then you can tool around an empty parking lot.

Shifting is easy. It's getting going from a dead stop and returning to a stop when you need to engage all your feet.
posted by bprater at 5:20 PM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: Hi! I was you! I was 16 when I was you, but it still feels like yesterday, and I turn 30 this year. If it helps, I'll start at present day, which is: all my cars have been manuals except one, and I HATED the one that was automatic, BECAUSE it wasn't manual. I am car shopping right now, and am still stubborn about driving a manual, because it took me so damn long to learn!

I bought a $500 1986 Honda Civic from my mom's friend when I was in high school. It was a manual and I had no idea how to drive it. I tried to learn, and I sucked so bad that I let the car just sit in front of my parents' house for MONTHS. I would have dreams in which my car magically transformed into an automatic, and wake up so sad that it wasn't true.

What finally changed me? Just stupid, annoying, hard, practice. Practicing on hills, a lot. Actually driving somewhere, and just dealing with it. I used to have so much anxiety about it, but when I finally mastered it I felt like a genius, and I still kind of do.

Every car is different. When I bought my current car, I felt like a brand new driver all over again, because the clutch was so light and the gas was so sensitive, but now, 8 years later, driving it feels like home.

I think (and I HOPE) one day you will be like me, and love driving a stick shift. It make me feel cool, and powerful. I know that's SO CORNY, but 16-year-old flailing around and crying Alison would be so proud of 29-year-old, drive any car Alison. Good luck!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 5:21 PM on June 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Learning to do a hill hold with the clutch and accelerator (no brake) was the proudest accomplishment of my young driving life - but it took a lot of practice. Seconding the empty parking lots and friends with hilly driveways.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:23 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When learning a new skill like this, it's best to practice for small chunks of time (say 10 minutes) and then stop. Your brain will keep working on it while you're not in the car. Also, you want to have a defined goal to work towards: like, "Go around the block without the as few stalls or peel outs possible." This is different than, "Learn how to drive a stick, dammit."

So I would suggest calmly driving around your (hopefully flat) block 5 times, coming to a complete stop at each corner. Then go do something else for at least an hour. Do two or three sessions a day, trying to minimize stalls and peel outs. Continue practice sessions on a nearby hill (that you can now confidently drive to) when you are ready.
posted by huckit at 5:23 PM on June 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

My first driving instructor sat me down before I ever drove a car and explained to me exactly what happened when I pushed the clutch and changed gears so I understood why I was doing what I was doing which helped me make the movements flow more and seem less random pushing of pedals and the like. I found it much easier when I started to think of it all as a dance and less and as operating a huge machine in busy traffic. Once you get the rhythm of the movements happening it all falls to muscle memory, and it will become muscle memory you just need to practice.

Best places to practice are car parks or deserted back streets, if you can find someone to drive you there and just drive around and practice hill starts and shifting up and down gears while they go off and have a coffee or something and leave you to quietly work it out yourself.
posted by wwax at 5:29 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: i'm 37 and finally learned to drive a stick a couple years ago. like you, i'm also a cyclist. i'd gone without a car for a few years and was super tired of the misery of getting everywhere by bike in the winter. so when someone gave me a FREE CAR that was a stick, i had a ton of motivation to finally learn. i think that motivation was what got me driving in downtown Portland, OR on my first day of driving that FREE CAR. if you have other options that are attractive, it's easy to put it away and not traverse any hurdles.

the one thing i had trouble with was not killing it in first when starting from a stop. just like thelonius said, the key is to give it more gas than you think you should have to before letting the clutch all the way out. once you master that, the rest is pretty simple. it also helped me to think about the car's gearbox like i do shifting my bike. that simplified it a lot.
posted by hollisimo at 5:31 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tripling the point about the gas - don't be afraid to rev that mofo.. It will be less harmful than riding the clutch and going through jerking stalls anyway. Everyone I have taught had a huge "ah-ha" moment once I got them to not be afraid of the gas pedal.

Also - on completely flat ground, practice letting just the clutch in and out so you really learn exactly where your clutch engages, which is key.

Don't ride the clutch!
posted by mbatch at 5:36 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Use the parking brake to start on hills.
posted by 200burritos at 6:01 PM on June 12, 2012

Response by poster: thanks everyone, this is all helpful.

haha masquesoporfavor - this is exactly me. I've been putting off / procrastinating really learning for almost two years now... we bought this car in fall of 2010. I know, I suck. It's just SO EASY to throw up my hands in frustration and get on my bike instead.

I shall see what I can do about finding a place to practice hill starts. a challenge is that I live in a mostly-flat neighborhood but to get to a quiet residential hilly area requires crossing a (very scary) main arterial. It's really tough finding streets that are honestly quiet around here. I've been practicing around the block(s) in my neighborhood but there is a lot of street parking and honestly it's not all that quiet.

Along with a stiff clutch I should probably note this is a 2.5 XT turbo Legacy that's been chipped/modified, so romping on the gas is a little... exciting. Probably a bit too much car for a learner, but it's all I've got.

The really annoying thing is that I love driving, and I'm super into learning for various reasons (I'd like to do track days!) but it is So. Frustrating. I honestly don't know why I have built up such a HUGE anxiety block around this.

Every time I promise myself I'll go practice seems like I have some negative reward loop, so that's a problem too.

Husband has been unbelievably kind, is a patient teacher, and has done everything from trying to teach me the no-gas method, to just leaving me alone altogether to figure it out for myself (when I tried driving over to my friend's house which led to the episode I mentioned above).

I just want to be able to make a run to the goddamn grocery store without having a major meltdown. But it's across from a six lane major street/intersection with a hill start left turn entrance into the place. ARGH.
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:07 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I learned to drive a stick a few years ago I remember sitting on inclines at red lights thinking I should have put a sign in my rear window because people were stopping TOO CLOSE TO ME and I figured I would roll back into them when trying to go. Not sure if anyone has ever put a sign in their window to warn people, but no one ever actually ran into me either. Some people will honk when you stall out. I guess I got lucky because I got laughed at more than anything.

I would find a relatively flat area to just drive around a bit and learn things before attempting the steeper hills. Driving in traffic was terrifying for me at first but I kept telling myself that I had never heard of anyone getting killed in a traffic accident while learning to drive a stick so obviously many other people make it through this alive (seriously that is what I told myself.)

My mom taught me to drive and I remember a few instances of us screaming at each other and me storming out of the car - I'm normally a pretty calm person too. I always tell people that learning to drive a stick isn't so much difficult as it can be extremely frustrating.

I also attempted to learn to drive a manual when I was 16, on a honda accord that was almost 20 years old. I gave up after a few times of not being able to make the thing move. 10 years later when I got a new car I got a stick shift, even when the dealer tried to talk me out of it, and I had to drive to work so I simply had to learn...and I did and now I prefer a stick.
posted by fromageball at 6:15 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have been driving stick all my life (well, not literally -- I think I learned when I was 10 or 11, I'm not really sure). On the one hand, that means that I definitely know how to drive stick. On the other hand, that also means that I'm the worst manual transmission instructor in the world, because it's so natural to me that I have trouble breaking down the process into steps that make sense to a learner.

So my suggestion is two-fold. First, get a good instructor. Not just a patient husband, but someone who knows the pedagogy of car driving -- how to actual explain things, what makes sense to practice, things like that. Paying for a few lessons is cheap in the grand scheme of things.

Second, there's no replacement for simply putting in hours behind the wheel (and not on the highway, where you aren't doing anything other than staying awake). I'd suggest super low-pressure times, like getting up at 5 am on a Saturday and driving around side streets for an hour when no one is around to honk at you or care if you screw up a few times. Seriously, you can't leapfrog your way to the muscle memory that comes from hours and hours of driving around -- that's how you get good, period.

Lastly, there's no good reason for the clutch in your Outback to be heavy. I've had a couple of Subarus and have driven plenty of others, and the clutches have always been quite light. I know you said a new clutch is not on the table (nor do I think it is necessary), but taking the time, or paying a mechanic, to make sure that everything is lubricated and moving freely would be time/money well-spent.

And ultra-lastly, the right decision, if this just keeps adding stress to your life, might well be to say that your next car has to be an automatic. Automatics work better for a lot of people, and there's no shame in being realistic and adding pleasure and utility to your life.
posted by Forktine at 6:16 PM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: Plenty of good advice on techniques but your ability to improve starts between the ears.

Every time out, get a bit better at it. You'll be impressed at the rate of improvement you make once you get over failing gathering feedback. The vehicle's response to your actions isn't a judgement, it is simply information.

The thing that got me over the hump was needing to get somewhere.

Necessity is a mother, so get it working in your favor. Commit to driving someplace a bit more challenging than last time. Bring all your determination to bear on the notion that, one way or another, you will arrive at your destination.
posted by trinity8-director at 6:16 PM on June 12, 2012

Ok, one more thing: most Subarus have had, for many years now, hill-hold features (meaning that if the clutch is pushed in, you won't roll backwards when you take your foot off the brake). If your car has that, it makes hill starts much, much easier.
posted by Forktine at 6:19 PM on June 12, 2012

Response by poster: When I learned to drive a stick a few years ago I remember sitting on inclines at red lights thinking I should have put a sign in my rear window because people were stopping TOO CLOSE TO ME

omg yes THIS. Boulder is full of the impatient, the oblivious, and the distracted. And they all converge on the roads.

Thanks Forktine, Saturday at 5AM is something I'd not considered for some reason; I'll definitely work on this.
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:22 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: sadly no, Forktine. like I said this car has been pretty heavily modified. I think along with chipping/debadging and putting on an aftermarket exhaust, the prior owner also replaced the clutch with a heavy racing clutch and it DEFINITELY does not have a hill hold feature. At all.

it has cool tuner plates on the engine mounts tho... that counts for something, right?
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:25 PM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: Hill hold is for wussies, anyway. Although, if you insist on it, you can use the handbrake.

I think it is better to just learn the hard way, though.

I grew up in a hilly town and had to learn on a POS ford with three on the tree. What others have said is true - practice, practice, practice. Take some deep breaths, and don't sweat the other cars - let them get annoyed - you're cooler than them with their automatics anyway.

If it makes you feel any better, learning on a challenging car is better. When you get a new/different car, you'll have much more confidence.

But you can do it. I promise! Go forth and practice.

and maybe someday when I finally talk her into moving there, you can teach my wife. :-)
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:36 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Practice as much as you can. When I first started it seemed so easy to stall it. Now, if I feel a stall coming on I can recover before it happens.

Start somewhere flat. Foot on brake, and clutch pressed in. 1st gear.

Release brake.

Gently release clutch until the car starts moving without any gas. (I spent too long trying to find a happy space where the gas and the clutch had to be but the car can move without the gas, albeit quite slowly).

Slowly press on gas while continuing to release the clutch.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:50 PM on June 12, 2012

Recently learned stick myself after many years of driving an auto, maybe just two things I found out.

1. Hill Starts.
I'm sure every driver has done this, started driving off and then only realised later the handbrake was still on. My point is, your engine has way more power than the puny handbrake. I wasn't really up to learning how to do a "perfect" Hill Start when I first started so what I did was put the handbrake on - just enough to stop car slipping back - and when the light turned green, started letting out the clutch and pressing on the accelerator as if I was starting on a flat surface.

At some point you'll feel the weight of your car shift as your car starts to strain forward against the handbrake (as opposed to being in the rest position, where the car is resting back on the handbrake). Now release the handbrake and off you go. My point is, most people seem too concerned about exactly "when" to release the handbrake and getting the timing is tricky, I'm of the impression that even if you never release the handbrake you will actually get the car to start moving up the hill anyway.

2. Above all, take your time and relax. It's not a race. You're learning to drive a stick. There is no hard limit on a road rule specifying how long you can take to accelerate off a traffic light, turn into traffic, restart from a stall. You are perfectly within your rights to take as long as you need, within reason of course - but yeah, just pretend all those other drivers don't exist. They may get annoyed, but so what? They were all learner drivers once too. It's not like they're going to call a police officer down on you for stalling on the hill, and if anyone asks what's wrong you can just say the clutch is playing up today and I'm taking it to a mechanic as soon as possible. I spent a good month doing really slow and smooth takeoffs from traffic lights and corners, and I've noticed drivers getting impatient with me, but man this has done absolute wonders for my fuel economy, and even after getting comfortable with the stick I'm reluctant to zoom off at the lights.
posted by xdvesper at 7:09 PM on June 12, 2012

So you feel like a failure for not being able to drive a stick? I learned on a 1948 Chevy, then drove a Scout to get brakes for my car. I've driven unforgiven Hondas and a Mazda pickup that you could just...not use the clutch. I've driven a Ferrari, a 1930 tractor, and a 24' box truck.

I still stall once in a while. Don't sweat it.
posted by notsnot at 7:12 PM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: You can do this.

You will do this.

You are doing this, actually.


Learning things is hard, some things harder than others. You're having a tough time with this one, but you'd kick our butt on something else. Cool. We are all just other kids, out here in The People Store, different strengths, all learning stuff each day, or that is the plan anyhoo.

You're doing great.

Remember this: You can burn up a clutch if you use it to "hold your place" on a hill, on an incline. It's very tempting to do -- was to me anyways -- because to shove the clutch in and hold with the brake, and then start off again with someone behind you, well, it's tempting to hold with the dang clutch. Don't give in more than you have to, though; only use the clutch as to engage, not to hold. I bet you know what I'm talking about, being in Boulder, lots of inclines there.

You can do this.

You will do this.

You are doing this, and you are doing it right on time.

The old saying "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well!" was dreamed up and is used thoughtlessly, carelessly. The *real* way of saying it is "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly!" Because how in the hell can you learn to do something unless you're willing to do it poorly at the first? Man.

My mother had to borrow my older brothers car for some reason, for a few days, and she was not particularly good at driving a stick, there at the first. His car was a 1965 Chevelle, which weighs about the same as a lunch-box, and in that car he had a screaming 365 horsepower 327 cubic inch motor; an extraordinarily fast car, one of the fastest I've ever been in. My mother, when she had trouble leaving an intersection, burned rubber a long, long way -- too much gas. It was too funny -- here's this old gal blasting off like a rocket ship, then at the next traffic signal people were looking at here like "Hey, wtf lady?" Too funny. Though the fact is that I know my mother does love speed -- we've driven over 100 mph more than a few times, back in an old Buick we had, just her and I coming back to the Chicago burbs from downstate visiting her sister, when I was a kid, plus also in a Chevy wagon coming back from Florida. So she loved speed, I suspect she dug driving his car -- I know my father did, and I'd give a hundred bucks to drive the damn thing for an hour this very minute -- but she was embarrassed about tearing out at intersections.

While this might not be easy just now, it is so, so worth it.

And you're doing great.

I liked what someone upthread wrote -- do it in chunks. More from upthread -- do it when no one else is around. My take, at the first anyways -- do it on level ground, lots of stop/start, upshift/downshift.

Remember to have fun -- are you remembering that this is fun? It's fun. Take a friend if you have someone you trust to be there when you are learning, by yourself if you don't have that friend. Your husband sounds like he'd be fun. Put some sparky music in the cd player, turn it up LOUD, buy some icy cokes and some chips, turn to your husband and give him a wink, maybe reach out and put your hand up high on his thigh, he'll get totally distracted so now you can scare the dogshit out of him by stomping the gas, have some fun.

You can do this.

You will do this.

You're doing great.

You're doing so well that if I was there I'd buy you a hat.

Have fun!
posted by dancestoblue at 7:20 PM on June 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Car Talk guys always suggests finding an empty parking lot and practicing just getting the car into gear ....without engaging the gas. If you can practice that and get really used to the inflection point on the clutch that gets it moving from a dead stop, that's like 4/5ths of the battle toward feeling comfortable with hill starts. The key is to learn that point until you're super-confident with it, because a hill start is just being ready to hit that point quickly.
posted by Diablevert at 7:22 PM on June 12, 2012

backwards guitar: Gently release clutch until the car starts moving without any gas. (I spent too long trying to find a happy space where the gas and the clutch had to be but the car can move without the gas, albeit quite slowly).

This was the biggest thing that helped me learn manual. When I realised the car would move without the gas, even on a hill, that took away all the fear I had about making sure I wasn't over- or under-revving while releasing the brake.

Once I figured that out I never stalled again.
posted by man down under at 8:10 PM on June 12, 2012

I learned to drive stick at age 30 in San Francisco, which is full of hills. As others have said, it's frustrating and impossible until it isn't - at some point you've crossed over and can do this. Like anything else you learn as an adult that other people seemingly can do easily (riding a bike, skiing, trapeze, etc), it is mostly about accepting that it's not going to come to you on the first (or twentieth) try, and that it's less about technique and more about making peace with not being great at something. In situations like this, I like to imagine that I'm my own parent or elder sister, and talk to myself only with the sort of encouraging words I'd want to offer a child, no criticism or exasperation. You might find this an easier way to be gentle with yourself and to believe you'll get through it.
posted by judith at 8:16 PM on June 12, 2012

One of the things I used to do at red lights was to take my foot off the gas. I would roll back a tiiiiny bit - basically showing cars behind me that I was in a manual. Once the cars behind me stopped I might pull forward a bit - but if I saw them following, I'd roll back again. I drive an automatic now, but I see people rolling back at stop lights and I'm especially careful to give them room.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 8:21 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ditto what Diablevert said. Start with just the clutch. Get somewhere completely empty with no one around, no traffic, like a big empty parking lot or field. Play with the clutch with no gas/throttle, no shifting at all. Simply practice feeling the point where the clutch begins to connect with the engine power. Do that again and again and again until it becomes like a sixth sense. Stay in 1st gear all this time. Brake when necessary to start over again. Go in circles or something. Once you really get a feel for the clutch, how that tiny 1/2" of clutch movement is the interface between no power and full engine applied to the wheels, now try applying a little accelerator. See how they interact. Try applying some throttle then coming up to the same 1/2" of clutch interface to the engine power. Feel the differences. Try it with no throttle, then a little throttle, then a lot of throttle. If you can get it into your muscle memory what those two elements are doing, the rest is much easier. The left foot and the right foot have very distinct roles to play.
posted by diode at 8:53 PM on June 12, 2012

Why would your incredibly kind, patient husband buy a manual transmission car when he knows you don't know how to drive it? There is absolutely no compelling reason to get a manual transmission car unless you are like a fanatic software engineer who insists on coding in assembly language. Modern automatic transmission cars get similar gas mileage to manual transmissions and sometimes better. There is no more reason for you to learn a manual transmission than there is to learn Morse code to talk to your grandmother across the country. This is really a safety issue. Forcing you to do something you are uncertain about is endangering your safety on the road. It is an unnecessary complication. If you don't like driving a manual, you should get a car with an automatic transmission. This is a much simpler solution than "weeping in rage."
posted by JackFlash at 9:10 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I learned at age 36 in San Francisco. You can do it! A lot of the trouble for me was that I was at an age where I generally felt like I could blow off stuff that I wasn't immediately good at. This was something I really had to force myself to work hard at and it was a such a huge mental shift to really have to work at it.

I went to a flat residential area where there were stop signs at every intersection and just kept driving Up and down the streets, stopping at each stop sign and starting at 1st gear again. You just have to do the work. There will come a time where it all clicks, I swear. You'll hate it and hate it and hate it and then all of the sudden you'll never want to drive an automatic again. You can do it!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:30 PM on June 12, 2012

Best answer: Ok here is my Dad's Learn To Drive a Stick Up Hills secret method. It's easy and awesome.
1. Find a parking lot with speed bumps.
2. Have someone else stop the car right in front of the speed bump.
3. Get in the drivers seat and turn her on. Let off the hand brake.
4. Deep breath.
5. Foot on gas and start letting the clutch out until you just feel it engage and start feathering it a bit so you get a good idea of when it's going to bite. Then...
6. try to get the front wheels of the car up the speed bump and balanced on top without using the brakes at all. you are not going to let the clutch all the way out, you're just going to move it enough to bump the car forward and release when it goes too fast but then catch it again before it starts rolling back. It's not great for your clutch to ride it this way all the time but it's fine for an hour of learning.

It's basically a hill start without the hill and the driving away part. At first you'll stall, then you'll gun it and jump over the bump, then you'll spend a while frustratingly creeping up and sliding down the other side and then you'll be able to do it! success! And there's no pressure because if you stall or roll backwards? you're on the flat in an empty parking lot. Practice for 10 minutes every night for a week or so. if you're feeling fancy do it with the back wheels and also in reverse. Reverse is super hard.

Once you can do this in your sleep go find a short hill up from a flat bit, again in a parking lot. Ramps or short driveways are good for this. Drive halfway up the hill and stop. Put the handbrake on. Deep breath, and go ahead and release the handbrake while letting your muscle memory do the foot part.

Other good skills to practice are knowing when to shift from the engine noise (this takes a while to be second nature so it's fine to look at the tachometer for the first year or so), when to shift going around tight corners (not in the middle of the corner basically) and shifting from 3rd to 5th and vice versa and learning how to use higher revs to improve your braking power when you really need to stop. On and off ramps from freeways are a good place to do this, so are rural roads with 90 degree bends. You can just go up and down a short stretch for a while.
posted by fshgrl at 9:30 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I learned, and am still learning, to drive a manual since about 2 months ago. My previous experience with a manual was limited to maybe an hour of my life in parking lots only.

I learned a bit by watching videos on youtube, lots of them, prior to purchasing my car - but honestly, these helped me very little overall. If you know the basics - press clutch, move gear shifter into correct position, then the videos won't help much, they miss important details.

Here was the most important thing that I never once saw mentioned, but it's the technique I worked with.
First, for flat surface:
1. Figure out the travel from top to floor of your accelerator pedal, and then determine at which point is about 5-10% pressed in (this is an approximate amount, but you'll figure out how much to use). Always use this as your starting point.
2. Clutch in, off the brake, and push the accelerator to the 5-10% mark.
3. Do not move your accelerator foot, and slowly move out the clutch. If it starts to stall, press clutch in, but don't adjust your accelerator foot. Move the clutch slowly and consistently, do not suddenly move it faster, until it's 100% up. You'll learn how fast you can do this over time.

Second, for hill:
1. Based on the above, you should roughly know where your clutch "catches" and gains traction. Let the clutch out slowly till just that point - you'll feel/hear a bit of a jerk.
2. Now quickly move your foot from the brake to the accelerator pedal and go to the 5-10% point.
3. As soon as you press the accelerator, resume letting the clutch up, at a constant speed. You'll roll back slightly, just keep letting the clutch out slowly, and on bigger hills, add a little more gas.

With both these, eventually you'll improve the timing so that you're increasing the gas and letting go of the clutch simultaneously, keeping the revs fairly constant.

I agree with others that practicing your route at night is a good option - I did this a couple of times.

I used this process to survive a trip to downtown Toronto in rush hour, in hilly areas and on the highway in stop&go traffic. The trip was the 3rd drive I had ever taken with my car. I stalled about 5 times during my 2 hour trip. That was 2 months ago. Today it's been at least 3 weeks since I've stalled.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 10:00 PM on June 12, 2012

For a Brit, its pretty interesting to read this since we mostly learn and drive manuals, and hill starts are just something that comes with the package. We think nothing of them.

But practice is all. Practice hill starts, and holding the car stationary on a hill using the clutch against the gas.

I'm afraid I don't agree with those who say you should practice finding the "biting point" without applying some gas. That's just a good way to practice stalling the engine, unless American manual vehicles idle at a significantly higher flow of gas than European ones.

Hill start. First, stop on a hill: brake, depress the clutch as you come to a stop and then put her in neutral, clutch pedal up, apply handbrake. To start, apply gas until you hear the revs pick up a bit. Don't make it scream. Depress the clutch, engage first gear. Hand on the handbrake; don't release yet. Slowly bring the clutch up, keeping the gas going gently. You will feel the clutch start to bite. At that point hold everything steady. Release handbrake. The next bit is where feel and practice comes in. Depending on how the car reacts you adjust the gas level as you let the clutch pedal come right up. If the car doesn't move immediately then gently increase the gas as you come off the clutch. Accelerate until it's time to shift into second.

If you haven't let the clutch bite hard enough you may roll backwards as you release the handbrake. If that happens put more gas on and bring the clutch up a bit more (or, in egregiously misjudged cases immediately depress the clutch and foot brake simultaneously to stop the roll. Start again!). If you have the clutch biting too hard you may, assuming you haven't stalled the poor beast, enjoy the supremely embarrassing experience of the "kangaroo", in which your car leaps forward in a series of juddering jerks. Oh dear. Deal with as for the previous misjudgement - by stopping and starting again.

Hill hold: just as above but you don't fully raise the clutch pedal, you just hold it at that biting point as you release the handbrake, keeping the clutch and the gas at a level that simply holds your vehicle steady on the hill. This is useful for the quick getaway at lights and so on. You'll never see anyone quicker away from lights than a London driver in a manual car, by the way. Fearsome, we are.

This is one of those "feel" things that you just have to practice. Once you get it you'll wonder how you ever found it difficult.
posted by Decani at 12:31 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

> Not sure if anyone has ever put a sign in their window to warn people

I've seen this. Someone put a home-made sign saying "new stick driver, please be patient" in the rear window.

If I ever endeavored to learn stick, I'd do this too.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 3:20 AM on June 13, 2012

Clutch control. That's all.

+N on everyone who said find an uphill, and practice. Get to the point where you can hold the car still by balancing the throttle and clutch. You can start with handbrake engaged and manipulating the clutch so that the engine goes from idle (say 1000 rpm) to almost stalling (say 700 rpm) and back... once you know where that point is, it becomes easier.

People say it's bad for the clutch, but I. Don't. Care. I hardly ever pull up the handbrake, I'll be in the queue up a hill waiting for a traffic light balanced on the clutch. And this is (also) in my Series II Land Rover, which has a rather stiff clutch. If you're keeping the car in place with clutch and throttle, pulling away is a piece of cake.
posted by wrm at 5:05 AM on June 13, 2012

take some time to really understand how the car works. If you can get a picture in your minds eye of how the handbrake is used to hold the car on a hill (because it locks the back tires) and how the clutch pedal bites and why you need to gas it... well... it all sounds a little complicated, but when you know why you are doing all this magical stuff, it becomes a lot simpler.
posted by Frasermoo at 5:51 AM on June 13, 2012

Response by poster: hi again and thank you to everyone for all your suggestions! There has been so much helpful advice in this thread... I think the only other thing I should point out is that I WANTED this car; I asked for this, and voluntarily sold my automatic. I have seriously been meaning to learn to drive a manual since I was 15 years old in fact, but for a variety of reasons it just never happened, and since I have spent 80% of my adult life without a car and using a bike to go everywhere, that kind of compounds things in a way, especially since the bike culture and infrastructure in Boulder is so strong.

it is just before 7AM MDT and we actually got up stupid early this AM, husband drove me over to the high school parking lot on Shanahan Ridge where it is hilly, and then he went for a run in the park while I practiced hill starts for about half an hour, and just drove around and around in a quiet residential area. It was... lumpy, but promising, and I stalled less than I thought I would. The no-gas, all-clutch method sorta actually works with this car in fact, because it has so much torque that you can feather the clutch and toddle it off the line at ~800 rpm. I actually walked it out in third once without stalling it. My clutch foot is still weak, I need to learn to let up slower. I do definitely have a tendency to panic and yank my foot off the clutch; trying to overcome that now.

So we'll do this routine a few more times before I work up the courage to face the Table Mesa & Broadway intersection, which puts the fear of god into me, but this too shall pass.

It's a mental block, and probably has to do with being old enough to be good at everything I choose to do. Someone upthread pointed this out, and I hadn't really thought about it. I guess teenagers don't care as much about sucking at things, because they're still learning so much, but I agree that here in my mid-40s, I am just used to being competent at stuff, and it annoys me to have to practice so much at something many other people do instinctively.

I am going to do this. And then I am going to help my husband restore his adorable little 1971 240Z project car that's been sitting under a cover on our driveway, and we are going to go to the track with it and have so much fun!

thanks all! -- lfr
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:07 AM on June 13, 2012

Check the owner's manual for your Outback. Many models had Incline Start Assist or Hill Holder Clutch. On a hill when you put on the brake and push the clutch to the floor, the brake holds automatically until you release the clutch. You can take your foot off the brake and put it on the gas pedal without the car rolling backwards.
posted by JackFlash at 7:54 AM on June 13, 2012

Roll down your window. Turn off any other source of noise in the car. It's amazing how insulated modern cars are, nice when it's hot out but miserable when you need to hear what you're doing.

And yes, the sign. Make sure the sign says something about staying back, since many US drivers will not get the point otherwise. ("LEARNING STICK: PLEASE STAY BACK")
posted by anaelith at 9:39 AM on June 13, 2012

Best answer: I was actually coming in to suggest the Shanahan Ridge area. It is also very quiet on the "college" streets, though not super hilly. But if you get going up Emerson towards the foothills, it is definitely a hill (not steep, but that might be perfect?). If you go across LeHigh from there (say Bear Mountain Drive), and on to the side streets, they are not busy, and are hillier. Now, hopefully you don't have to go past Table Mesa and Broadway to get to those places, or the husband is willing to drive you over there.

Good luck!
posted by freezer cake at 10:24 AM on June 13, 2012

Response by poster: JackFlash - I did cover this above; no the car does not have any form of hill assist, dunno if it's because the prior owner modded it pretty heavily.

freezer cake - thanks for the recommendations! Husband is okay with driving me over there until I gain some confidence, because alas, we do indeed live on the far side of Broadway, in Martin Acres, which is near impossible to get out of without dealing with some species of traffic insanity. The only ways out are Broadway, Table Mesa or the Baseline/27th/36 junction (an unique species of horror all its own owing to the freeway interchange + student factor).
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:53 AM on June 13, 2012

Like you, I had some anxiety over driving stick, but I was determined to learn it. In addition to its other uses, it can save you a ton of money if you travel a lot overseas. In a great deal of other countries, manuals are more popular, so it's more expensive to rent automatics. My dad travels internationally a lot - both for business and pleasure - and being able to drive stick has really helped him out.

What helped me the most was practicing over and over again with smaller trips and then moving onto bigger, more hilly places once I felt comfortable. I drove as much as possible, but also gave myself a break if I thought the trip would stress me or was to an area I feared. I saved the crazy hills downtown for late at night when there was very little traffic, and people tended to not be in a hurry. Once I had done the big hills several times at night, I eased my way into day.

I also wrote 'Learning Stick' on a few sheets of paper and taped them to my back window. That way, if someone did honk at me when I stalled or got nervous going up the hill, they were the assholes, and I felt no guilt taking my time. I don't recall this happening more than once or twice. The 'Learning Stick' note also got people to leave me more room at stoplights and on hills, which I greatly appreciated.

Good luck! I remember at one point thinking I could never learn it because I just couldn't feel the engine shifting the way my husband (who learned in San Fran) and father could. I did master it, and you will too.
posted by PrimateFan at 6:37 AM on June 14, 2012

Response by poster: UPDATE: for anyone reading this thread later?

Really, go check out fshgrl's dad's awesome speed-bump trick -- this was not only my personal "ah-HA" moment for learning hill starts quickly and safely, my colleague now reports that it is the BEST TIP EVAR!! So apparently this past week he's been teaching his teenage daughter, and she was flailing with first gear in general, and hill starts specifically. He knew I'd recently learned stick and asked me if I had any Wisdom to Impart. I of course showed him this thread and told him how my imaginaryfriends here on the interwebs had helped me learn the Awesome Speed Bump Technique and he was like HOLY CRAP HOW DID I NEVER THINK OF THAT IT IS GENIUS!! He drove her out to the high school lot last night, found a friendly speed bump, and reported near-instant success with minimal agony.

Also, also: I just today had to drive from Boulder to Denver and back for a work-related project. I was a little anxious because this was my first solo flight in the Big Scary World o' Rush Hour Insanity, but then I negotiated about nine million stop lights, some major snarled arterials and not one, and not two, but THREE, count them, THREE traffic jams on the interstate (woo) with nary a blink. I'm not 100% accurate on all my shift points just yet, and still kind of casual rolling off stop lights, but the car doesn't seem to care, and no one's honking.

I hate to say this, but I kinda have to recommend traffic jams as the best way to quickly learn how and when to shift as a sorta-novice, because being forced to row back and forth from 1st/2nd/N/1st over and over and over and over and OVER again just kind of burns it in.

So yea, this one's resolved. Ask MetaFilter to the rescue again!
posted by lonefrontranger at 5:03 PM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

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