5 key tips for teaching the art of manual shifting

Cole Ligette

Learning to drive a manual transmission was once a pivotal rite of passage for American youth. Working the clutch and gear lever was a hurdle not only to a driver’s license, but also something far more meaningful—independence. Dads, moms, aunts and uncles, even grandparents and friends took ownership over the responsibility to pass down down the skill. Oh, how the times have gradually changed. After decades of improvements to the quality, performance, and fuel efficiency of automatic transmissions, stick-shifted vehicles are downright scarce among new cars today. As a result, most young people simply have no practical need for the skill.

We believe, as many of you do, that operating a manual transmission is a pleasurable experience that fosters a connection between human and machine. For the last decade, Hagerty has ventured to teach young drivers (and our own employees) all across the country how to drive the manual transmission. And we even do it for free, through the Hagerty Driving Experience (HDE) program.

“Being able to drive a manual transmission is the ultimate way to connect to driving,” says Hagerty’s Manager of Car Culture, Rachel Ventimiglia. “We want to offer people the chance to get behind the wheel of a cool car and experience the excitement and passion that enthusiasts know so well.”

That passion remains alive and within enthusiast circles. HDE is comprised of a growing roster of certified instructors (many of whom are Hagerty employees) that volunteer their time and expertise to eager learners. Best of all, the proverbial classroom is a wide array of cars from all different eras: Mazda Miata, Honda S2000, ’65 Ford Mustang, Shelby GT350, Volkswagen Beetle, Ford Model A, International Harvester Travelette, and plenty more.

To honor the program’s 10-year anniversary, we’d like to share several of the key insights we’ve learned about how to best teach the art of shifting gears. This isn’t a how-to, so much as a few chunks of wisdom our instructors have picked through their lessons.

Patience is a not-so-common virtue, but it should be

DeSoto Custom Convertible driving lesson
DeSoto Custom Convertible Mike Drilling

Students will commonly say, “My dad/brother/cousin tried to teach me and got frustrated so I never learned.” And after just a little time, and positivity … “This is actually really fun! I can’t believe it took me this long to learn! This is awesome!” – Mandy W.

Confidence is a two-way street. Energy is infectious. Just be sure to clear your schedule to make time for these good vibes to flow. Don’t try squeezing in lessons before work, dinner, or the ballgame. If your mind is somewhere else, theirs will be too.

Fight human error with a healthy perspective, or humor

Mazda MX-5 Miata driving lesson
Mazda MX-5 Miata Will Mederski

Before we start the car or do any briefing, just reassure them that no matter what they think, or how it goes, they aren’t going to hurt the car. Everyone stalls, even those of us that have been daily-driving stick shifts for 20 years. Sometimes, if someone seems particularly nervous, I like to remind them that the cars are pretty well insured, and we know a good shop! It at least gets a laugh out and helps break some of the nerves. – Darold M.

Nerves are enemy of confidence and focus. What makes a manually operated vehicle so special is achieving synchrony between driver and car—an impossible goal without first establishing a foundation of comfort. Every new driver is a blank slate with unique reservations. When any concerns or worries are discussed out in the open, they seem a lot less scary, and then the real learning can begin.

Find the gears before it’s go time

Hagerty Driving Education Shelby GT350
Shelby GT350 Will Mederski

First off, relax. You aren’t going to “break” it. We’re here to learn and have fun. Next (before even starting the vehicle), apply the brake, push in the clutch, and feel your way through the gears. Each car shifts differently, and it helps to get a feel for where the gears are. Now, let’s have some fun. – Hawk H.

Human nature can sometimes tempt us to jump the gun and throw away careful precaution, but those impulses are seriously counterproductive in this context. Gearboxes vary widely, so all drivers (from novices to know-it-alls) can benefit from feeling their way through the gates of any vehicle. Once in motion, knowing the pattern and being comfortable with it means one fewer distraction.

Diagnosing the clutch connection

Ford Model A driving lesson shifting
Ford Model A Mike Drilling

I find that clutch engagement is a commonly misunderstood concept when learning how to drive a manual. Rather than one fluid motion, it’s important that the driver slowly brings the clutch pedal up to the engagement zone, providing the engine and transmission time to sync up. This allows the car to smoothly roll forward and avoids the bucking motion caused by releasing the pedal too quickly. – Brett L.

How does one teach feel? Try to contextualize what is mechanically happening while letting the student apply it to a feeling as it happens. An impatient foot left foot leads to problems. Building up the learner’s mind-muscle connection, along with their mechanical understanding of what they’re feeling for, helps for smoother shifts.

Stop to move forward

Shelby GT350 driving lesson details
Shelby GT350 Will Mederski

Sometimes you have to stop to move forward. If students are struggling with treating the clutch like a light switch and releasing it completely too quickly, it is a great practice to have them stop and hold the clutch, just for a beat, the second the car starts to roll. This prevents them from letting go of it and allows them to keep releasing slowly without consciously realizing it. – Kyle S.

Manual transmissions are daunting at first. Not everyone who gives it a shot are double-bass drum kit aficionados with a command of delicate hand-eye-foot coordination. Encourage good habits by slowing everything down—way down if necessary. There’s no shame in stopping for a couple of minutes if it means properly developing the art of the release.

Teachers: have a burning clutch insight of your own to share? Freely share them below in the comments.

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    I’ve been driving manuals since 1975 and still managed to stall one of my dailies the other day. I blame the stupid BMW clutch delay valve which I need to remove.

    I taught my sons to drive a three on the tree, and they loved it! My youngest actually described it as a “total body experience.” One of the best moments I’ve ever had with them.

    Best idea I had for my 3 kids, they all drove manuals through college, and had a good excuse for not letting their car be borrowed.

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