How to drive a manual car - a dummy’s guide

How to drive a manual car - a dummy’s guide
Although manual gearboxes are commonplace, automatic gearboxes are increasingly popular –and the art of driving a stick shift (as the Americans would say) might be in danger of dying out.

If you’re new to driving a manual – or just want to refresh your skills – read through our guide to driving a manual car.

The basics

Typically, manual cars will have three pedals: clutch, brake and accelerator (in that order, left to right).

The brake and accelerator pedals are pretty simple - press the brake to slow down (the firmer you press it, the quicker you’ll lose speed), while using the accelerator increases the engine’s revs and causes you to speed up (the firmer you press it, the quicker you will speed up).

The clutch pedal is the one that makes driving a manual car more difficult than an auto.

Without going into too much detail, the clutch is essentially two metal plates that connect the engine to the drive wheels.

So by pressing down on the clutch pedal, you’re disconnecting the engine from the wheels.

Getting the car moving 

To move off in a manual car, you need to put the clutch down, select first gear, use your right foot to increase the engine’s revs very slightly using the accelerator pedal, and slowly lift the clutch pedal using your left foot until it starts to vibrate gently.

This vibration is known as the car’s “bite point” - this is where the clutch plates start to come together. At this point the car should start to move slowly, so you need to increase the revs while completely raising your foot off the clutch unitl you are accelerating with only the use of the accelerator.

If you’re too quick lifting your foot off the clutch, or don’t give it enough revs, the car will stall: that’s where the engine cuts out and the red lights glow on the dashboard.

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If you stall then apply the brakes, turn the engine off, return the gearstick to neutral and begin the process again.

How to avoid damaging the clutch

Over time, you’ll get used to a car’s clutch and have a good understanding of where its bite point is, as well as how many revs you need to give it to move off. It sounds complicated but you’ll develop a natural feel for it with practice.

If you’re not careful, though, it can be easy to wear the clutch out prematurely – and that’s likely to cost at least £300, rising well into four figures for some cars. Follow these tips and your clutch should easily last for well over 100,000 miles:

Don’t use the clutch to hold the car on hills or creep forward at junction

If you’re waiting at a junction, in traffic or at a roundabout, it’s tempting to hold the car at the clutch’s bite point, allowing you a quick getaway when you can move. But this can cause unnecessary wear, especially if you do it often. Stop, put the handbrake on, and only use the clutch when you’re ready to pull away.

Don’t hold the clutch down when you’re stopped

Again, it’s tempting to leave your car in gear and keep your foot on the clutch when you’re stopped in traffic. This puts a lot of pressure on the clutch release bearing, however, which could wear out quickly if you do it regularly.

Keep the revs to a minimum

To avoid stalling, especially during hilly manoeuvres, many drivers are too heavy with the accelerator. This can cause unnecessary wear on the clutch plates. You need a minimum amount of revs to get the car to move – and if you’re gentle enough, most cars can move without using the accelerator at all.

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How many gears do manual cars have?

Years ago, was normal for manual cars to have just four gears. In theory, this would make them easier to drive than the cars of today, but back then you’d also have to learn old-fashioned techniques such as double declutching as they didn’t have synchromesh gearboxes. Gearboxes were also much vaguer than today, making it more difficult to find gears.

Today, most cars have at least five gears, although six gears are becoming increasingly common. By having an extra-high sixth gear, the engine can run at little more than tickover during motorway cruising, helping reduce fuel consumption.

Seven-speed manual gearboxes are rare but they do exist – you can get one in supercars such as the Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette.

What are the advantages of manual gearboxes?

Whether you prefer manual or automatic gearboxes will come down to personal preference, but there are some clear advantages to driving a manual.

For a start, they’re generally cheaper to buy and better on fuel than automatics.

There are a number of reasons for this – automatic gearboxes are usually heavier than manuals, and traditional torque-converter auto ’boxes would waste energy building the resistance of hydraulic fluid to transfer drive from the engine to the wheels.

Manual gearboxes are generally better for those who like to feel in control, too.

If you’re planning an overtake, for example, in a manual you can drop down a gear in advance for a quick reaction when you need the acceleration. In an automatic, there might be slight hesitation when you floor the accelerator. Today, many automatics come with manual or sport modes for this situation, however.

The same applies in poor conditions such as driving across a muddy field or in the snow.

An automatic gearbox might get confused and select the wrong gear, spinning the wheels or struggling to maintain momentum.

In a manual, you can select a higher gear to increase torque, or slow down using the gears rather than the brakes, helping the driver remain in control.

How to 'heel-and-toe'

When you get used to driving a manual, you may wish to learn more advanced driving techniques such as how to “heel-and-toe”. The name of this is actually a bit misleading – the pedal setup of cars used to mean you could increase the revs of the engine by toe-ing the brake pedal and blipping the throttle with your heel.

Today, it’s easier to rest the left of your right foot on the brake and blip the accelerator with the right half of your foot. The benefit of this, when slowing down, is to enable you to rev match as you work down through the gearbox as you brake.

In truth, it’s a little unnecessary – during normal road driving, there’s little to be gained by doing this rather than slowing down using the brake before disengaging the clutch and selecting an appropriate gear, rather than overlapping braking and changing gear.

Once you’ve learned how to do it, however, it’s a satisfying skill – and if you ever take your car on a track day, it could shave seconds from your lap times. If you’re thinking about doing it for the first time, it’s best to try it on private land without any other cars about and also read our step by step guide to attending your first track day.

For more information on learning to drive, visit our learing to drive section.

Do you prefer driving a manual or an automatic car

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