SharQ's guide to using a manual transmission
Having driven quite a few cars that have manual transmission (I am from Europe, after all), including a few street legal and almost legal racing cars (and having only recently gotten my first automatic transmission car*), I think I have a few things that might be worth pointing out on this topic.
Short introduction to the way a transmission works, and some of the terminology we will be using
I really should shut up about this, because transmissions mean very little to me. You can find some info in transmission, but in very basic terms, the power goes from the engine via the clutch via the transmission to your drive wheels (in the US or if you have an older car: probably your rear wheels. Everywhere else: Probably your front wheels. Possibly: All four wheels. ).
This means that if you disengage the clutch, your transmission and your wheels are not in connection with the power source (your engine). When driving a manual transmission car, engaging the clutch fully is the same as being in neutral.
Worth noting, however, is that if you half-way engage the clutch, the clutch will be slipping. This means that some of the energy from the engine goes to the transmission. This is important when you are trying to change between gears.
For more info, see clutch and transmission
All clutches and clutch pedal systems are different. This is important, because even if you have driven stick for ten years, getting into a new car means that you are still likely to choke the engine (i.e stall because of too low RPM), or, if you are used to very swift gear changes, you are likely to grind your transmission to shreds by letting the clutch go too early.
Some clutces, particularly the ones built into newer, sportier cars (think a high-powered Golf GTI or a particularly sporty riceburner) will have very short clutches. This allows for faster gear changes, but because the movement between "off" and "on" is so short, you only have a short distance to slip your clutch.
Other clutches, particularly on older cars (if you buy a used car, this usually applies to you) are what I would describe as floppy. The movement in the clutch pedal will be looong, but the clutch will only slip on part of this movement. The reason for this is that you are likely to sit there holding your clutch for a while, so you will want to depress it all the way. That way, you can rest your foot on the floor while holding your clutch depressed, and not get tired.
your transmission will normally have 4 or 5 gears plus a reverse, arranged in an H shape. If you are driving a specially adapted car with racing modifications, chances are you have 6 gears. If you are driving a trailer truck, you will have up to 16 gears, but that is outside the scope of this writeup (if you have one of those trailers, you should probably know what you are doing, rather than reading this writeup anyway)
The H shape goes something like this:
1 3 5
| | |
| | |
| | |
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2 4 R
Variations on the theme is possible: If the car has four gears, chances are that the reverse is where the 5 is on my example. The reverse may also be to the left of the 1 or 2. Usually, this is marked on the gearstick, so if you are in doubt, have a quick look.
When in neutral, the gearstick will default to the spot marked with an N above. This is useful for many reasons, as we will come back to later
Starting your engine
When you want to start your engine, put your gearstick in neutral, and make sure you check it is in neutral. This can be done by pushing the gearstick to the left. It should move a significant distance, signifying it is not caught in gear. If you feel resistance, try and see if it is in 3rd gear or something.
Note: A good point from a fellow noder is: "Floor the clutch when turning the ignition. Then you are 100% sure you don't go anywhere unexpectedly when starting your car." - andersa. In fact, upon starting a car again 10 minutes ago, I noticed that I do this myself, by reflex, without noticing. Go figure.
Now, if you have a reasonably new car, you shouldn't have to worry about the choke: just turn the ignition and touch your gas pedal, and you should be running. If your car does have a choke, read more about them here.
Getting the car moving
This is where the fun begins.
You should have three pedals in front of you. From the left, they are your clutch pedal, your brake pedal and your gas pedal. You operate your brake and gas with your right foot, and your clutch with your left. If you are used to driving automatic transmission, you should be used to using one foot for your gas and break, so that shouldn't be too difficult.
Getting started is pretty easy. Pull your hand brake so it stops the car from rolling: You have to take your foot away from the brake to touch the gas pedal, you see.
Right, you should now have your hand brake engaged, your clutch fully depressed and a foot near your gas pedal. Move your gear stick to the first gear, then rev your engine up to about 2000 rpm and keep it there (this varies from car to car, but 2000 is a good rule. if it ain't working for you, try a little higher). Now, SLOWLY start releasing your clutch. What is happening inside your clutch is that two plates are connecting. At first, they will be slipping, allowing you to accelerate steadily (with the engine running at a steady 2000 rpm). When you notice the car is pulling on the hand brake, let go of it, and you should be rolling. When the clutch pedal is fully out, move your foot away from the clutch, as you do not want to keep the clutch slipping. This wears it out and means you will have to have it replaced later.
First gear is really only to get your car moving, and it will have your engine screaming before you hit 10 mph. Once it is rolling, you really want to be in 2nd gear. To do this, let go of your gas pedal, depress your clutch fully (do this in a single motion, no point in going slow here, but don't kick it down either. Fast but calm.). You should notice that the car has lost all the power to the wheels. Effectively, you are now in neutral - if you rev the car, you won't notice any difference in its speed. Now, pull the gear lever straight down. You should feel it coming out of one gear and into another, as you go through two small clicks of resistance. This is normal.
Now, let go of the clutch SLOWLY, and apply gas slowly as well. You should now have managed to do a perfectly smooth gear change.
From second to third can be a bit more difficult: After all, you now need to move the stick sideways as well, and how do you know how far to move it?
Most cars should prevent you from putting the car into first gear again, and if you manage to put it in fourth by accident, this should not really harm anything, so do not be worried about breaking anything.
What you want to do is to push the gear stick out of second gear, and let go of it completely. The stick should spring to the right, to the neutral position. Guess what? It is now perfectly aligned with third and fourth gear. So, grab a hold of it again, and push it straight up. Let go of the clutch (slowly...) and you are now in third!
Fourth is as easy as from first to second - pull straight down. Fifth is also easy: Push it all the way to the right, and up (or down, according to where your fifth gear is.) If you have six gears, your sixth will be straight down from your fifth, and your reverse will be on the right side of the 5 or on the left side of the 1, but no worries, as reverse is usually protected:
Putting your car in reverse can be a little tricky. Some manual transmissions have a latch you need to pull up to manage to put your car in reverse. Some transmissions require your car to be standing perfectly still, and others need you to push a button in order to put it in gear. These contingencies are there for a reason: You REALLY do not want to put the car in reverse while driving forward, as this will change your transmission from Metal Gear Solid into Metal Shred Soup within seconds. If you cannot figure out how to get your car into reverse, check the users manual.
Braking on the engine
Manual transmission cars are great because they save your brake pads. If you are driving in fourth gear and are approaching a stoplight, for example, put your car into third gear and let go of the clutch SLOWLY. Now, your engine should rev, but because you are not pressing the gas, your engine will cause your car to lose speed. This works because your gear ratio is higher than the wheel speed. Because of this, the wheels cause the engine to turn over, not the other way round, which causes the car to slow down. (thanks 409) When you reach 2000 rpm or so, you can do the same thing again, for 2nd gear: The car will rev again, and you lose more speed. Do not attempt to brake on your first gear: Use the brake for the last few MPHs.
By using this technique, you can increase the life span of your brake components significantly (my parent's car is 8 years old and has never had new brake pads. In regular driving, noone in our family use the brakes except for the last few mphs before an intersection or for emergencies).
This is also great for driving in the mountains. The rule of the thumb is: Drive down the mountain in the same gear as you would drive up. This way, you can go down fairly steep declines without ever having to touch your brakes. This means they won't get overheated, and you can save your brakes until you REALLY need them.
mfk notes: "Maybe it's just me, but I think it'd be a REALLY BAD IDEA to rely on engine braking, no brake = no tail lights lighting up".
I see the point, but there are many reasons for why this is not really an issue. Primarily, when you let go of the gas in any vehicle, the vehicle loses speed. The only difference using your manual transmission actively in braking, is that you lose speed a lot faster than you would by letting go of the gas pedal in an AT vehicle. Also, usually there is a reason for why you brake: An intersection, traffic congestion, or whatever: Drivers in general read the traffic, and will be able to tell before any braking occurs that the traffic is - or will be - slowing down.
It might be a point, however, in countries where AT cars are prevalent: People will be less used to MT drivers who brake on the engine. If you live in such a country, you might want to tap your brakes to make your brakelights come on as well. Alternatively - this is quite common in Germany, on the Autobahn, when traffic congestions occur, it is possible to flick on your hazard lights for a few blinks to signal to traffic coming from behind that something is going on.
It is - at least in europe - reasonably safe to use the engine only for braking, although it is advisable to keep an eye on your rear view mirror. If swift (emergency-) braking is necessary, using your brakes is obviously the only option. It is also possible to brake with the brakes and engine simultaneously.
Being able to brake on the engine effectively means that you have to be a very good driver. Not good in the sense of being able to corner sharply or drive fast, but to plan ahead. Look at least 7-8 cars ahead in traffic, and keep extra safety distance. The safety distance works as a buffer, and allows you to stay off your brakes and use the engine for speed control instead. Not only is it better for your brakepads, but it also causes a smoother ride.
Another great thing about manual transmission is that it allows for another failsafe when parking: Leave your car in 1st gear or reverse in addition to the hand brake, and you are guaranteed it will not roll away if parked on a hill: Because the engine is on 0 revs, the transmission works as a brake. In some cars (I have only noticed this in upmarked Saabs, but other cars may do this, too), it is actually impossible to take the key out of the ignition if the gear stick is not in reverse.
If you starter motor is failing, you can start your engine using the vehicle's speed. You may want to practice this a few times with a working car first, just to get the hang of it:
Get your car to have some speed somehow. Either roll it down a hill, or have someone push it up to, say, 5-6 mph.
Now, with the car rolling, make sure the ignition is on. Put your car in 1st gear, and slowly release the clutch. when the clutch starts to catch, and the engine starts rotating, release it faster, and give some gas. If you did it correctly, your engine should be purring like a kitten, without using the starter motor the normal way. If you are rolling down a hill, start the engine with the 2nd gear instead, as this is gentler on the engine. Get it up to 10-15 mph by rolling, and let go of the clutch slowly, give some gas, and you are on!
Improving your clutch technique
Note: In the UK, "not using your handbrake when appropriate (including hill starts) will result in failing your driving test. In fact, failure to use handbrake for any prolonged stop is not likely to be looked upon kindly" - Albert Herring. It makes sense, but it all depends what you are used to. Personally, I find using the footbrake and the technique describes below works better for me, but using a handbrake is certainly safer. YMMV.
Now that you have had a taste of manual transmissions, it is time to learn some more about your own clutch. After all, using your parking brake every time you roll out of a red light is a bit lame. To practice clutch technique, find a reasonably steep hill, and point the nose of your car upwards. Try to get your car driving forward a few times, WITHOUT rolling backwards AT ALL. Do this by giving plenty of gas (3500-4000 rpm) and having the engine pull properly on your hand brake before you let the brake go. That way, you should be able to start uphill.
Now, for the ultimate test: using ONLY your gas and your clutch, get the car to stand still on the hill (I am a poet, and didn't know it). To do this, first get your car moving in the technique described above, then push the clutch in a little. By slipping the clutch like this, you should be able to make the car stand in the same spot. Try rolling backwards by depressing the clutch a little more, and try to go forward again by engaging the clutch again. When you can do this at 3000 rpm, try again at 2000 rpm (keep an eye on the rev meter) for a bit of a challenge.
When you have practiced this and can do it perfectly every time, you shouldn't ever need your p-brake when driving again. In fact, you are now perfectly comfortable with your car and your clutch. Congratulations.
Checking your clutch
If you are planning to buy a second hand car with a manual transmission - in particular in the US, where (let's face it), even many people who HAVE manual transmissions do not know how to use them properly - there is a quick test to see if the clutch has been slipping a lot:
First of all, drive the car in 2nd gear at about 3000 rpm on the engine. Now, floor your accelerator, and keep accelerating until the car redlines (i.e reaches the first red line on the rev meter). The acceleration should be smooth all the way (allowing for small fluctuations, according to the fact that your car performs differently on different RPMs.). If you suddenly lose accelerating power after you start accelerating, and your engine simultaneously revs up, this may mean that your clutch is slipping, and that you should demand a good discount on the car, as replacing the clutch is going to be necessary.
The second test: Put your car in the lowest gear (4 or 5, typically) when it is stopped. Now, rev the engine to about 3500, and SLOWLY let go of the clutch. You should be able to get the car moving on the slipping clutch. If the engine chokes before it starts moving, or if you cannot get it moving at all, even after a few tries, it means that the clutch may need replacing soon, and you should demand a good discount.
As you get better
When you have done all these thigns for a while, try new things. Try gearing faster. See what happens when you let go of the clutch faster. Eventually, your ride will be more controlled and smoother than an automatic transmission. You will not be thinking about changing gears anymore, it happens automatically. You will be able to change down to overtake (changing to a lower gear increases the rev and the car's power, allowing you to overtake people more easily. This is what the kick-down function on AT cars does) more smoothly, and you will be able to drive more economically by keeping your car in its best power band (usually between 2300-2600 rpm on older cars, 2500-3000 on newer cars, even higher on cars that have a turbo, check your user manual)
Congratulations, you have passed the SharQ Manual transmission test, and have reached a zen-like Manual Transmission Insight.
I know I have not touched on the subject of double clutching, but, honestly, if you are planning on buying a car which needs it, it is better to have it shown to you: Double clutching is a knack you have to learn from doing it. Anything I left out? Let me know!
*) I now drive a 1988 Austin Mini 998 cc with an automatic transmission. This might seem ridiculous, but it only has 4 gears, and when you make it to 30 mph, it is already in 4th gear. Effectively, having a manual transmission would be pointless, as you are in top gear 90% of the time anyway.