Not my finest hour: Driving a manual transmission

Date:July 17, 2007 / year-entry #259
Orig Link:
Comments:    81
Summary:Sara Ford messed up her leg last month; you can see her on ScooterCam-1 at TechEd 2007. The best part of the name ScooterCam-1 isn't the ScooterCam; it's the 1. That just gives it that extra little kitchy space technology feel that turns a good name into a great name. Anyway, she asked around if somebody...

Sara Ford messed up her leg last month; you can see her on ScooterCam-1 at TechEd 2007. The best part of the name ScooterCam-1 isn't the ScooterCam; it's the 1. That just gives it that extra little kitchy space technology feel that turns a good name into a great name.

Anyway, she asked around if somebody with a car with an automatic transmission would be willing to swap with her manual transmission car until her leg got better. To me, driving a stick shift is like changing a flat tire: It's something that everybody should know how to do, but it's not something that anybody is expected to enjoy doing. I offered my car and (long boring part of story deleted) we met at her place and exchanged keys. I got into her car, backed out of the parking space, and... stalled right in front of her.

Great job there. I really know how to instill confidence.

Comments (81)
  1. gkdada says:

    I do slightly better than stalling, but can’t say I have mastered manual transmission. At least not as much as (let us say) riding a motorbike – where you change gears without thinking.

    My personal worst spot of driving a manual is changing from first to second – either too early or too late.

  2. Gabe says:

    Don’t feel bad, Raymond. My past four cars have been stick-shifts, and every different model requires a little bit of time to get used to the clutch. Almost everybody stalls their first couple minutes in a car with a different clutch.

  3. Adam says:

    What Gabe said. As a UKian who’s only ever driven manu^H^H^H^Hstick shifts, getting used to a new clutch and reliably not stalling or overrevving can take a couple of days.

  4. bramster says:

    I’ve always been surprised that being able to point a car in the right direction and stepping on the accelerator gives some people the impression that they know how to drive.

    I think only Manual Transmission vehicles should be used in the Driver’s Practical Examination.

    Personally, I love my 6-speed Hurst Shifter!

  5. Sven Groot says:

    Same here as Gabe and Adam said. I’ve never driven an automatic in my life, and I can still stall the engine when I get into an "unknown" car.

    My dad’s car (Nissan Primera Estate) always gets a few stalls when I haven’t driven it for a while. It has a very peculiar clutch distance that always gets me. It also has six gears so I frequently forget to use the sixth gear if I’ve been driving other cars for a while. Which still isn’t nearly as bad as trying to put a 4-gear car in reverse while searching for a non-existant fifth.

    Fortunately pretty much all cars will block reverse gear if you’re going more than ~5kph forward. Only really old cars don’t. This particular problem applies to old automatics too; some old DAF automatics would let you set it in reverse when doing 80kph, which naturally would wreak havoc with the engine and gearbox.

  6. Dan Brodsky says:

    I learned how to drive stick in driver’s ed.  My mom drove a stick at the time, and the first time I drove her car, I stalled in my first attempt to get into first gear.

    The twist is that, right before I got in the car, I told her I learned stick in driver’s ed. and I wouldn’t have a problem with her car.


    Anyway, I’ve driven stick for years, and I usually have trouble driving my wife’s automatic transmission car.  Stupid thing thinks it knows when to shift better than I do.  Give me a stick any day.

  7. Mike Dimmick says:

    I drive a 2001 (European) Ford Focus, and before that a Ford Escort. My sister used to drive a Peugeot 306. The Ford clutch has a simple spring arrangement – the resistance to pressing the clutch pedal increases the further you press it. The Peugeot seems to increase the resistance down to the bite point – at which point the resistance disappears and the pedal goes right to the floor.

    This makes slipping the clutch quite tricky on the Peugeot for someone used to the Ford. Recently we hired a Peugeot 206 in Portugal – my first time driving a left-hand-drive car, in the UK the driver sits on the right – and that took a bit of getting used to.

    The weakness of the Focus gearbox, that it seems to have inherited from the Escort, is that reverse gear can be difficult to select. The synchromesh mechanism doesn’t quite mesh, and it can be necessary to double-declutch to get it in. The Focus gearbox is a lot more positive than the Escort, though (indeed a bit harsh), which was a bit rubbery and sometimes difficult to tell if you’d got it in properly or not.

    The worst gearbox I’ve ever used was on an LDV minibus we had at university. Even more wooly than the Escort, and with a two-foot-long gearstick to boot, making the problem even worse. The springs were pretty weak, making it hard to tell whether you’d selected first, third or fifth (at least they’re in the opposite direction from second, fourth and reverse).

  8. Grant says:

    Someone’s nitpicking the fact that you thing ‘1’ sounds cool?

  9. Mr Shifty says:

    I stalled a stick-shift car once.  I had talked this nice-looking girl I was very interested in to let me try her car out.  I felt like my balls had fallen off.

    After that, I learned a strict procedure for the first drive in an unfamiliar car.  

    1. Check out the shifter.  Try a few dry-shifts.  Make sure you know how many gears there are.
    2. Let the clutch out s-l-o-w-ly, while giving it some decent revs (1500+).  This is where you learn where the clutch picks up, and how quick.    

    3. After that, just go with the flow.  

    I sometimes think automatic transmissions should be banned.  When you have to do your own shifting, you have to pay attention to driving.

  10. Brian says:

    After you have mastered the manual transmission, I guess you will never want to get back to an automatic one (hey, I am from Germany, almost no automatic transmissions here. Germans know how to build the best cars …).

    Manual is so much

    – better

    – gives me the feeling of having control

    – more economic (ok, guys from US usually don’t care about that part)

    – feels much more sportive, agile

    Automatic transmissions are usually so slow in their reactions, the whole gear shifting takes longer than with manual ones, so why automatic?

    [You assume that I value those qualities the same as you. An automatic transmission gets me 90% of the benefit of a car with only 10% of the effort. The last 10% isn’t worth it to me. For other people, that last 10% is the reason for driving. I didn’t say that people who enjoy driving a manual transmission are wrong. It was my opinion; that’s why I wrote “To me…” -Raymond]
  11. Geo says:

    I live in Europe, I just can not drive a manual transmission car (I just can’t synchronize with it…) and buying an automatic one is very expensive in my country (since everybody use manual ones) – so I do not have a car and I have to do everything by Bus, Taxi or feet :-(

    You in the USA are so lucky with automatic transmission!

  12. JeffCurless says:

    People stall different manual transmission cars when they get into them?  Come on, I never stall.  Ever.  If you know how to drive a standard, driving a new one is cake.  The problem is you people probably "think" you know how to drive standard well, but are most likely purveyors of bumpy rides and grinding gears.  Driving a manual should be smooth like butter.

  13. e.thermal says:

    from canada here, and I agree with many comments about shifting.  here the cell phone rules and even people who like manual shifting have given it up so they can drive and talk on the phone at the same time.  Outside of the safety concerns of that I think the largest barrier to people buying manual transmissions is how people teach others to drive stick.  Many people who are so used to driving stick use that magical balance point between revs and clutch, they then try to teach this to a newb.  They forget it took them many months of learning to find that natural point. Instead new drivers should be taught to keep revs higher and be taught to feather the clutch smoothly.  Walk before running.

  14. Wolf Logan says:

    We recently purchased a hybrid-engine 4WD. It’s the first automatic transimission I’ve owned in many years. What makes it particularly unnerving, though, is that it’s a CVT (continuously-variable transmission): there are no "gears" to shift. The drive ratio changes smoothly to keep the engine (when it’s running) in its peak powerband. It makes acceleration a whole new experience — you step on the pedal, the engine revs, and stays at approximately the same RPMs while the vehicle accelerates smoothly.


  15. Sebastian Redl says:

    “with only 10% of the effort”

    I think you’re way overrating the complexity of stick shifts here. The main complexity of driving is still situational awareness. Once you’re used to a stick shift (and let’s face it, the time of your life you spend learning to drive is completely insignificant compared to the time you spend driving, even for stick), the additional effort is negligible. 90% of the effort perhaps. 95% sounds more like it.

    [Negligible for you, maybe, but not for me. Managing a manual transmission occupies a huge chunk of my mental processing and actually detracts from my situational awareness since I’m worrying about “Should I downshift now? Maybe that red light up ahead will turn green soon.” It tires me out mentally, and I derive zero enjoyment from it.-Raymond]
  16. JohnGalt says:

    If everyone had to take their road test on a manual I’m sure that driving would be MUCH safer.

    The number of people I know that can’t drive stick because they can’t manage the dexterity to be able to shift and concentrate on traffic at the same time is terrifying. If you can’t manage to shift and steer at the same time, then god help us on the road with your cell phone and anything else that you might be doing at the time…

    Everyone, plese do the world a favour and learn how to drive stick, and do it well. You may drive an auto, but once you’ve learned the control of a stick (nothing like a stick to get you out of a snow bank!) and what it takes to make your brain handle it, then you’ll be a much better driver! (not conincidence that Europeans have much higher speed limits and much lower accident rates… they predominantly drive stick!)

  17. Mihai says:

    I also prefer the manual (even after 10 years in US).

    But (I think) I can identify false arguments when I see them:

    • better = now, how subjective is that :-D

    • gives me the feeling of having control = agree, that’s why I like manual

    • feels much more sportive = double of the above argument

    • more economic = this one deserve more attention. In theory the automatic is more economic, because the "smarts" of the automatic are nicely tuned for what the engine can do. Sporty driving increases the fuel consumption, and this is what you (and I) appreciate. To reduce consumption of a manual below an automatic one (if possible) you will have to give up sporty driving (the only benefit of a manual :-)

  18. Miles Archer says:

    I perfer a stick, but have an automatic in my commuter car because clutching in stop and go traffic sucks.

    Anyway, to those who say that everyone should be forced to take their license test in a stick, consider that those who could pass the test with a stick would drive anyway. It’s just like mandatory insurance. Those without insurance drive anyway. When the cops want to stop them, they are more likely to run.

  19. AGL says:

    "Almost everybody stalls their first couple minutes in a car with a different clutch."

    That might be "almost", I’ve never stalled. I have driven (not owned) a hundred different cars, or so (20 or so different brands).

    Then on the other hand, shifting to an automatic transmission, a short ride can have an abrupt stop if you happen to press the brake with the left foot. :)

  20. This would be a good time to recap how i am 3 for 3 getting injured whenever I leave Redmond to do something

  21. Scott says:

    I only get embarrassed when I drive a vehicle with an automatic, and stomp the floorboard trying to depress the clutch.  Pure unconscious habit.  Or reach for the shifter to downshift, and it’s on the steering column.  At least my passengers get some entertainment….

  22. Jonathan says:

    "In theory the automatic is more economic"

    not so; traditionally, at least, manuals have had more gears, so you can drive with a ratio closer to best efficiency more often.

  23. Tim says:

    “It tires me out mentally, and I derive zero enjoyment from it”

    That’s maybe because you haven’t driven a manual transmission very much, so gear changing hasn’t yet become an autonomous process for you.  I’ve driven a manual for years (I live in the UK), and I rarely find myself thinking about the mechanics of changing gear.  It certainly doesn’t tire me out mentally.

    Amusing though – you don’t see the point of source-level debuggers, but driving a stick shift tires you out mentally :-)

    [That’s not lost to me. Different things are important to different people. -Raymond]
  24. Gene says:

    Try driving a bike with a cable-operated clutch, then driving one with a hydraulic clutch.

    The cable clutch usually has a friction point most of the way out, with a wide gentle takeup. The hydraulic starts to engage right off the bar with a narrow lockup. Fun, for various values thereof, especially when the bike with the hydraulic has twice the HP and enough low-end torque to just spin the tire instead of stalling.

    Or heck, trying to learn to ride a bike and learn the clutch/shift thing at the same time. The one time I drove a manual car, it was almost a joke.

    Speaking of distractions, we just had 4 women get killed here, and it turns out that the driver was most probably texting at the time. "Excuse me miss, there’s a Mr. Charles Darwin wishing to see you."

  25. Charlie says:

    I’m with you, Raymond.

    I learned to drive in a stick shift, I’ve never driven an automatic, but that’s purely financial. I hate changing gear. It’s hard to learn at first, because you have to actively think about it. Anyone who says otherwise has a very short memory.

    It says a lot that virtually all executive cars in Europe have automatic transmission.

  26. Ian Argent says:

    As I just reconfirmed to myself after driving (an unfamiliar) stick for 4th of July after 4 years of automatic-only driving (my beloved Ranger got stuck in 5th gear on the Delaware Memorial bridge and the repair was more than the value of the vehicle), stick-shift is just more fun for me. But I started driving at 16 on stick and it’s gone into muscle-memory at this point. I literally don’t think about shifting, it just happens.

  27. Gabe says:

    Mike, the reason that the synchromesh mechanism doesn’t work properly when shifting into reverse is that reverse gears are never synchronized. I’ve certainly never heard of a synchronized reverse, and I’m not even sure that a traditional manual transmission design allows for it.

  28. Mack says:

    @Wolf Logan

    re: hybrid 4WD w/ eCVT. I have much the same story. For 30 years I sneered at auto trans, until the Esc*pe. After 3 years it’s still an interesting ride.

    It has a bit of the ‘stick’ in it, since you can take specific actions to optimize power usage. Or you can just forget about it and let the truck do its own thing.

    Definitely a geekmobile — it can be like driving a big computer.

  29. Michael Puff says:

    Well automaic gear shifts don’t know in advance what you want to do. If I want to overtake a car for example I shift one gear down and when I need the power I can be sure to get the power from the engine. I have also driven cars with automatic gear shift in the US. It was in ’95. Back then those automaic gear shifts weren’t so ‘clever’. And when ever I wantet to overtake someone else the car felt somewhat lethargic. ;)

    But automatic gear shifts do have one advantage if the are mounted to the column of the steering wheel: Youn can have a pretty girl sitting right next to you and put an arm around her should while driving. ;)

    @Raymond: If you drive a car with a manual gear shift just long enough and regularly, you don’t need to pay attention to shifting gears. And you know ‘automatic’ when to shift gears. It becomes like readig the newpaper and having breakfast at the same time. ;)

    And what about drivingaway at a hill using clutch and handbreake? ;) If you manage that you can say, that you can drive a car with a manuel gear shift.

    By the way what’s a Hurst? I heard it before in a Springsteen song once but I couldn’t find out what it is.

  30. Jules says:

    "The best part of the name ScooterCam-1 isn’t the ScooterCam; it’s the 1. That just gives it that extra little kitchy space technology feel that turns a good name into a great name."

    Not *entirely* sure I agree with that.  Back in the late days of the first .com boom, my company was developing a system for a typical .com startup company.  When they discovered they couldn’t get their first choice of domain name, they just appended ‘1’ to the end of it, and became ‘’ (name made up to protect identities, etc.).  Ever since then, I’ve associated that naming style with "couldn’t get the domain name they wanted, but didn’t have the imagination to come up with another one".

  31. Mihai says:

    "what about drivingaway at a hill using clutch and handbreake"

    In Romania this is part of the standard exam (before you get on the public street exam, you have to pass the "polygon" test, a range with various artificial obstacles).

  32. Peter says:

    I see where Raymond’s coming from – when I’ve sat in near-stationary traffic for half an hour, I start wondering what the benefit of my clutch is. Of course to me that question is answered as soon as I start moving again, but an automatic does offer a very simple ‘just get from a to b’ thing.

    Sort of like Python vs C, to use a geekily appropriate metaphor…

    My impression is that the general attitude is a bit different in America too – automatics are more common and many people don’t know how to drive a manual ("stick", whatever). I’m not quite sure where it comes from, but here it seems that almost everyone knows how to drive a manual, even if they’re not very good at it.

  33. Stewart says:

    I sympathise, but i’m the other way around – I sometimes drive an automatic and tend to bump it into things when I forget that it moves by itself. I feel stupid *every* time

  34. Igor says:

    Raymond just admitted that he sucks at multitasking :)

  35. Jordan says:

    My first car was a 1965 Corvair that I drove off-and-on for almost ten years. I’ve not owned a stick since, but I’ve never had trouble settling into one in a pinch, either. Your left foot just never forgets.

  36. Steve says:

    "Well automaic gear shifts don’t know in advance what you want to do. If I want to overtake a car for example I shift one gear down and when I need the power I can be sure to get the power from the engine."

    Modern automatic transmissions will downshift for you.  Just push the accelerator hard and it will do whatever it has to do to give you the power you need.  That’s good encapsulation.  Gears are an implementation detail that the user of the car shouldn’t have to worry about.

    Manual transmission is like vi.  Obsolete, hard to use, and ardently defended by a highly vocal minority of crazy masochists.

  37. Peter says:

    Steve: "Modern automatic transmissions will downshift for you."

    Yeah, they will, but often they like to hold on just in case they can manage in the current gear. Most that I’ve driven have particular trouble with hills; they think the current gear is adequate for what you want, which it would be on the flat, but on a hill it results in a total lack of acceleration.

    As far as encapsulation goes, that’s a leaky one.

    Manual transmission may be like vi, but the thing is that we’ve so far been incapable of making an automatic that works better. As soon as we can invent one that has no more power loss than a manual and changes gears exactly at the right time (some sort of telepathic interface may be required), manuals will be obsolete.

    Until then, I’ll be keeping mine – the manufacturer quotes it as being more powerful, that’s all the excuse I need.

  38. Mr Shifty says:

    Maybe we should go talk to Sara Ford.  She makes $400k, and parties like a hurricane in the big easy.  AND, she drives a stick, when her leg is in good shape.

    She denies the $400k, though.

    Michael Puff: Hurst is a company that makes (or made) famous shifters.  Their heysay was the 60s and 70s when American "muscle" cars typically had sloppy or weak shifters.  So I’ve been told.

    Steve: Your analogy is good, but your conclusions are biased.  Obsolete isn’t really fair.  vi and manual transmissions are seasoned by years of use, allow power-users more control, and allow them to do more things quicker and more precisely.

  39. andrewssi says:

    Raymond’s point is valid. I get a lot of value out of driving a manual, but my wife gets zero benefit.

    RE: "It says a lot that virtually all executive cars in Europe have automatic transmission."

    Bigger engines (such as those found in executive cars) don’t need their power controled so much, since they are mostly used for cruising down freeways.

    Manual vs Automatic is like C# vs Java.. there isn’t a ‘best’ language, merely one most suited to its environment :)

  40. Sven Groot says:

    Out of curiosity, how to automatic cars deal with mountains? I’ve always learned that when driving down a steap mountain road you have to use your engine for braking, otherwise you’ll overheat your brakes. There’s often signs, even: “Use your engine brakes!”

    This means you have to go down a mountain in low gear, usually second or third (the rule-of-thumb I’ve been tought is to go down in the same gear you used going up).

    I know you can sometimes pick first and second gear manually even in an automatic, is that what you’d do in this situation? Or do modern automatics “know” when you need engine braking?

    [PRNDL. If you’re going down a mountain, you use “L” (“low”). -Raymond]
  41. Manual vs Automatic is like C# vs Java..

    I’d say more like C vs. C#/Java, unmanaged vs. managed…

  42. andrewssi says:

    "[PRNDL. If you’re going down a mountain, you use "L" ("low"). -Raymond]"

    Thanks! I thought the only time to use that was when I got stuck in a ditch. (Or driving along a farm track)

    I now know something new for next time in the mountains…

  43. Matt says:

    I recently drove in the UK for the first time, and the weird part was that while the driver sits on the right side, the stick shift is *not* a mirror of the US version.  In other words, first gear is farthest away from you and reverse is closest.

  44. Merus says:

    "I’d say more like C vs. C#/Java, unmanaged vs. managed…"

    This might be me assuming personal experiences are universal but I thought everyone went, ‘oh thank god I don’t have to do memory management anymore’. Are there people who prefer to manage memory themselves?

  45. Drak says:

    “[PRNDL. If you’re going down a mountain, you use “L” (“low”). -Raymond]”

    Uhm, ok so the automatic gear still needs user input to know what you want. My manual (stick) also requires that, but I don’t have to think about doing that, while I guess people driving an automatic need to figure out that they need L in some ‘odd’ situations and that might take some thought, especially if the situations are uncommon. For me it’s just: if there’s not enough power, flick the stick up or downleft to get more power.. no need to even look if I selected the right gear (unless you start thinking about it, then you mess up).

    Btw, do modern automatics ever change back 2 gears to overtake? I sometimes go from 5 to 3 if there’s an extremely slow-accelerating driver in front of me, just to blow them away :)

    [Downshifting for more power is irrelevant to mountain descents though. It’s “downshift for engine braking”. The same principle applies to both automatic and manual transmissions, so the mental effort is the same. I think it’s interesting that you say it’s as simple as “up or downleft” — but you have to keep track of whether you’re in an odd or even numbered gear to know whether you should go up (even) or downleft (odd). And it’s more than just odd/even; you have to remember the exact number. Because woe unto you if you try to upshift from 5th gear into reverse. It seems to me based on the comments here that manual transmissions are for impatient drivers who enjoy overtaking other cars as fast as possible in order to show off. -Raymond]
  46. Fat Tony says:

    “Managing a manual transmission occupies a huge chunk of my mental processing and actually detracts from my situational awareness”

    After a while it becomes natural and you end up changing up/down without having to consciously think about it.

    [How long is “a while”? I owned a manual transmission car for three months. Should that have been long enough? -Raymond]
  47. Drak says:

    [Because woe unto you if you try to upshift from 5th gear into reverse.]

    Hmm, I know Opels can’t do that because you need to pull up a ring on the stick before they go into reverse, and some cars have reverse on the same side as first gear instead of after 5th. And going from fifth to reverse usually is stopped when the driver hears the beginning of the grinding noise ;)

    About knowing which gear you are in, in general I seem to know which gear I’m in, unless I start to think about it, then I mess up. I think it’s some sort of association: I’m in a tight turn, so I’m in 2nd, I’m on the highwat so I’m in 5th, etc. The wonders of the human mind :)

    Oh, by the way, my friend had a Nissan Micra (not sure if those were ever sold int he USA) with an automatic gearbox which from standstill would out-gear most manual drivers, but maybe that was just because they sucked :)

  48. AGL says:

    “… you have to keep track of whether you’re in an odd or even numbered gear to know whether you should go up (even) or downleft (odd). And it’s more than just odd/even; you have to remember the exact number.”

    Oh my, you do have a way of making it sound complicated. And what’s that with “go up (even) or downleft (odd)”?

    How do you compare this to playing an instrument, to really master it there is a lot of things involved.

    “… manual transmissions are for impatient drivers who enjoy overtaking other cars …”

    Based on some of the comments, maybe yes, whole truth, no. I could, in the same manner, say: it seems most Americans would like to have it as in Disneyland, a funny little car (ah, well, a big car to match their ego) with an accelerator and a brake, nothing complicated (not that manual transmission is complicated but they seem to think so).

    To say that drivers of manual transmission are some kind of racing drivers, show off types, or just enjoy driving, seems odd. In many countries in Europe manual stands for, what 90-95 % or more. That will include young/old/rich/poor people, all kinds, only driving to work and grocery store, others do a 3,500 km holiday trip.

    [The “up or downleft” is what Drak wrote. Playing an instrument is hard, but I play an instrument because I choose to; it isn’t an obstacle to some other goal. Driving, on the other hand, is just a means to an end, namely getting from A to B. (I’m not saying that all people who drive manuals are “driving enthusiasts”, just the ones who choose it voluntarily for reasons other than economics. It’s like bicycling. In many parts of the world, the bicycle is the default mode of transportation, but in the United States, it’s the car. Somebody who chooses to bicycle everywhere for reasons other than economics is almost certainly a bicycling enthusiast.) -Raymond]
  49. Michael Puff says:

    "but you have to keep track of whether you’re in an odd or even numbered gear to know whether you should go up (even) or downleft (odd)."

    Raymond: Before you end up with prime numbers, extracting roots and other algebraic stuff, please stop driving a car with manual transmission.

    I just came home from a trip by car that took four hours. I only started thinking about shifting gears when I remebered your blog entry. But from that point on I couldn’t get it out of my head. You cast an evil spell on me. ;)

    @Mr Shifty: Thanks for that information. Now these lines make sense (Racing in the Street / B. Springsteen)


    "I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396

    Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor"

    Now I nly have to find out what a 396 is. I guess it’s a special engine or something like that.

  50. Sam says:

    Here in the UK, there are different driving licences required for automatic and manual (stick-shift) cars – and hence there are different tests that you must pass. A ‘manual’ licence allows you to drive both types. But with an ‘automatic’ licence, you can only drive a stick-shift as a learner (student) driver.

    So I wouldn’t feel too bad about not quickly picking up the skills of stick-shift driving!

  51. Nick Lamb says:

    [How long is "a while"? I owned a manual transmission car for three months. Should that have been long enough? -Raymond]

    Did you learn with a manual ? In the UK there are separate tests and licenses for those don’t want to drive a manual [specifically if you want to drive a car with an explicit clutch control, you must take your test in a car that has such a control], but I guess it might be different in the US. I would expect that the usual tuition process would make you just as comfortable and familiar with the manual gear changes as with other routine aspects of the car’s operation, but of course if you never did any training then it’s harder to pick up.

    I can imagine that in particular three months of driving to the office from your home, and back, for a total of perhaps 150 journeys or so, doesn’t add up to a lot of practice. So if that’s what you did then I would say that no, that’s not enough experience to expect it to become natural.

    I would guess typing is a reasonable comparison. It seems to a beginner that it must be a very special skill to be able to rattle off lines of English text without even looking at this oddly arranged keyboard. But for the experienced typist it’s completely unconscious, you think ‘cow’ and the fingers move to type the word ‘cow’ perhaps even without you becoming consciously aware of how to spell it. You can’t achieve that experience by typing the "Quick brown fox" test phrase twice a day for three months though.

    The first time I had a driving lesson, aged 17, I couldn’t imagine how it would ever be routine to operate all these different controls, like the clutch, the variable speed windscreen wipers, the separate accelerator and brake and so on. Each was enough to be the focus of my attention on its own. But last month after not having driven for several years (city life) I rented a van, climbed in, started it up, put it in gear, drove off, no problems. Sure enough, like riding a bicycle, the brain remembers how to do it.

  52. Dewi Morgan says:

    RE: "It says a lot that virtually all executive cars in Europe have automatic transmission."

    A lot about automatics… or executives?

  53. Mr Shifty says:

    @Michael Puff: Oddly enough, my first car was a ’68 (sic) Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396.  ‘396’ refers to the engine’s displacement in cubic inches.  btw, it was seven years old when I got it (indulging my age vanity – I’m not 50 yet!).  

    The 396 was the first ‘big-block’ Chevy, and eventually grew to 427, and ultimately 454 cid.  I believe the last is equivalent to 7.4 liters; these engines aren’t known for fuel economy, but are for awesome torque.  It was great in street drag racing.

    I’ve been reading the ONT for a long time, and I don’t remember seeing any topic get so many comments before.

  54. Stephen Jones says:

    US roads are often flatter and straighter than European ones, which explains why there are fewer manual cars.

    Changing gear is something that becomes automatic (I learnt it on a motor bike, so I can’t say how long it took me on a car). First car was a Mazda 929, and it had a stick shift that could be change with one finger.

    Don’t automatics use a lot more gas though?

  55. Stewart says:

    Its all about what you’re used to at the end of the day isn’t it.

    I learned in a manual, and have always owned manuals. My wifes automatic feels like a go-kart and as such cheating, and I always feel like I am underusing the left hand side of my body (right hand drive car). It never seems to be in the right gear, especially on roundabouts, unless you put it in "S" (no L – dunno what you’re supposed to do on mountains – luckily we don’t have that many mountains in the south of england), when you get deafened by the sound of petrol going down the pipes and shell’s cash register jangling a happy tune. It always just gives me a vague feeling that its controlling me rather than the other way around.

    Give me my manual any day of the week just because to me changing gear is like remembering to breath in and out, you just don’t forget to do it.

    But then I love driving and restore classic cars – I would prefer a manual – restoring an auto box costs a fortune, and I drive for the love of it – and because trains are so expensive.

  56. Sinan says:

    I learned on a 1965 VW and a 1982 Turkish Fiat-clone. And, yes, I have driven some of the finer cars with manual transmission since then.

    Manual transmission is really fun only on winding country roads with hills etc. For day to day driving, whether inching towards the NYC tunnels and bridges or fending off lane violators in Istanbul, I find it to be torture.

    If the only driving one is doing is leave home, drive through uncongested flat roads, park and repeat as necessary, then I really do not feel the difference between a manual and an automatic.

    Except, of course, by law you must stall a manual at least once the first time you drive :-) I bet you did not know that.

  57. Having passed my driving test I bought a 12 year old manual. About 4 years later it went into the garage to have a new gearbox and clutch fitted. The journey home from that garage is one mile via five sets of traffic lights, and driving the car home that day, I stalled it at every single one :-)

  58. Cody says:

    [Don’t automatics use a lot more gas though?]

    Manuals usually rate 1 or 2 MPG more than the automatic model.  How that works in practice is questionable.

    I learned to drive in a manual and did stall it three times in a row while I was learning the clutch in that car.

    My car now is an automatic though I intend to purchase a motorcycle soon.

    To Raymond:  I assume your bicycle has manual gears, so have you tried connecting the part of your brain that manages those gears to the stick shift?

    [It’s not so much the gears as having to worry about the clutch and sensing when the car is about to stall. On a bicycle, there is no clutch, and you know when you’re going to stall because you’re the engine. But the again, I don’t ride my bicycle to get from A to B; I ride my bicycle because I enjoy riding my bicycle. But I drive to get from A to B. -Raymond]
  59. Dean Harding says:

    > not so; traditionally, at least, manuals have had more gears,

    > so you can drive with a ratio closer to best efficiency more often.

    *In theory* you’re right, and I think that was the point Mihai was trying to make: it is possible to drive a manual car with more fuel-efficency than an automatic. But most people who drive a manual (myself included) do so for the actual pleasure of driving — and people like us tend to drive a bit harder than someone just trying to get from A to B.

    > manual transmissions are for impatient drivers who enjoy overtaking

    > other cars as fast as possible in order to show off

    I’m not sure that it’s "in order to show off" but some people enjoy driving just for the sake of driving. These types of people are more likely to drive a manual than an automatic. I can repsect people who just want to get from A to B — just like I respect people who only use computers to get their actual work done…

    People tend to try to justify their choice in terms of actual measurable quantities though, so things like acceleration from a rolling start are what we talk about :-)

  60. Are there people who prefer to manage memory themselves?

    Yes, I, for one.

    And manual vs. automatic, if you think about it, are not different flavors of the same thing. With manual transmission you adjust the gears manually, with automatic, the system does this for you (semi-)automatically. I think memory management/garbage collection is a good analogy here.

    Without garbage collection you have more power, you are in more control, you need to think more. And sometimes garbage collecting works better…

    And as Raymond said, it’s a personal choice. You may prefer a managed language but also driving manual, or an unmanaged language and automatic transmission.

  61. James Schend says:

    None of these people espousing the virtues of a manual transmission live in the Seattle area. We’re lucky to make 20 MPH on Interstate-5 or I-405 here… a manual transmission is nothing but tedium in bad traffic, and traffic here is almost always bad.

    That said, I have to admit I prefer a manual transmission. But I own an automatic, but I commute on Highway 9 which is stop-and-go in the extreme.

    BTW, my automatic transmission is smart enough to do engine braking when going down hills, if you use cruise control. If you don’t have cruise control on, you have to switch to Low.

  62. Human... says:

    The worst thing about an auto, is when you jab the brake monumentally hard with your clutch foot thinking it’s the clutch.

  63. Hayden says:

    Modern micro-controlled autos have got rid of many of the "dumb-ass machine" effects of the old-fashioned rubbish they fit to US cars. Try a recent Beemer, and you’ll get:

    1) Auto downshift on decend

    2) Multi-ratio downshift on kickdown

    3) Torque-converter lock that usually makes the highest ratio (equivalent to fifth or sixth on a manual) a real "overdrive", saving even more fuel.

    4) Sensible heuristics for downshifting in traffic. I hate driving hire cars in the US that won’t downshift on the freeway until the throttle pedal’s nearly on the floor, then they go all the way. Augh.

    Sport mode on my ‘7 shifts like I would – hangs in low gears, downshifts as soon as you give it more gas.


  64. njkayaker says:

    [Don’t automatics use a lot more gas though?]

    Quote: "Manuals usually rate 1 or 2 MPG more than the automatic model.  How that works in practice is questionable."

    Given the same number of gears, automatics often beat manuals on MPG in current testing.  (Classicaly, manual transmissions had more gears than the automatics but that is no longer generally the case.)

    In actual driving, though, one can use a manual more efficiently than an automatic and, so, get significantly higher MPG. Part of this is the input from observations to using a manual transmission.

    Three months should have been more than enough time to learn how to use a manual transmission fairly well!  Once you get used to it, you really don’t think much about using a manual transmission. I really don’t care what people use but I prefer a manual (outside of heavy stop-and-go traffic).

    Arguments about manuals being "safer" are probably mostly supposition (ie, not based on data).

  65. saraford says:

    The biggest difference i’ve noticed between an automatic and a standard is turning radius.  In a standard, i can hit the clutch and make a tighter turn, since the car is in netural.  But in an automatic, the car is constantly accelerating.  I notice this when I park.

    However, i love the fact that i can just take my foot off the brake in an automatic when i’m on an incline.  In Miss, our idea of a hill is a levee, so i’m not used to hills like 1st avenue here in Seattle.

    I’ve drove a stick since I was 15 (legal driving age in Mississippi at the time).  Now, 14 years later, i’m driving an automatic.  And no, i haven’t tried to hit the clutch yet.

    Yeah, i guess it is more tempting to do distracting things, like use a cell phone, while in an auto, since in a stick, you don’t have a free hand (unless on a hwy).  But having been hit while on a motorcycle by someone talking on a cell phone, i didn’t get the type of car (auto vs manual) that hit me.  =)

  66. Ian Argent says:

    Enh – it’s not that hard to do stop-and-go traffic in a stick – I live in Jersey and had to deal with it for a couple of my commutes. I found that I could just coast along in first most of the time.

  67. njkayaker says:

    "found that I could just coast along in first most of the time."

    You can often do that. At times, the traffic is too heavy to do that and it might be a bit tedious to deal with it regularly.

  68. I occasionally prefer vi.

    I occasionally find myself coding in contexts where memory management needs to be done by hand, and otherwise prefer fundamentally different programming languages (Haskell!)

    And I learned to drive on a stick shift, and still prefer it.

  69. AC says:

    I’m from Germany and almost everybody here drives manual, as someone else already pointed out. And it’s true that from a certain point on you don’t have to think about it even a little bit.

    But I disagree with it being "so much better". I drive rather economically myself, but I think it should be entirely possible to make an automatic transmission which lets you drive more economical than most people do with manual.

    And being more agile is nonsense too, because you can have that "sport mode" button for that effect.

    I’ve never driven an automatic myself and am glad you’re taught manual in driving lessons, but I really don’t understand why most people don’t drive automatic "for everyday use".

  70. Drak says:

    [but I really don’t understand why most people don’t drive automatic "for everyday use".]

    Here in Holland, on a 15000 Euro car, getting automatic transmission costs about 800 Euros more. That’s a bit over 5% extra. For a lot of people that might be the reason to drive manual.

    PS. Yes I am one of those people who does like to show off, but only if road conditions allow it.

  71. Michael says:

    I should NOT use my left foot at all!

    That is better than the idiots around here that keep their left foot on the brake.  You have seen them, the ones that drive down the interstate with their brake lights on.  Having driven a stick-shift car for years (learned on an automatic), I never use my left foot for braking.  

  72. Mats Gefvert says:

    Whenever I drive automatics, I always put my left foot close to the seat and sort of lean onto my left leg a little, to remind me not to try to operate the clutch.

    Nothing beats an automatic on a congested highway. I have to cross a couple of steep bridges on my way home from work (the famous Tjörn bridge in Sweden :) ) and the traffic is always crawling forward at a heartbreaking 5 mph. The cars in front of me are always going forward just enough to put me into 2nd, and then they stop again. So it always degenerates into some heavy clutch-use and switching endlessly between 1st and 2nd while going uphill.

    Gimme an automatic any day.

  73. Ema says:

    Hey guys, maybe Raymond doesn’t like (or isn’t so skilled) to drive! :-P

    Everyone know that with MT you have more control on speed and acceleration.

    And when you want more acceleration for example you step back from 5 to 3 or 4 to 2 and the engine bumps up! :-)



    Ps. Here in Italy we have mainly MT cars…we do like to have control of our driving style: AT cars wouldn’t sell here and not for a matter of costs…

    PPs. Would be like to buy a Ferrari with AT. Shame on who has ever thought to get "the car" with AT! :-D

  74. James Risto says:

    This reminds me of when I start a programming task. Do I use C, with max performance and "connection to the OS", and have to be more wary of shooting myself in the foot. Or C#, where I don’t have to count the bytes in every string and can be more focused on the destination, but at performance cost and less connection to the OS.

    Each has advantages and disadvantages. Like programming, I have one car of each. I like and dislike both at times.

  75. Gary says:

    Raymond is not a bad driver, he just wants his car to be an easy-to-use appliance rather than a fun machine.

    It’s one of the cultural differences that has prevented some European manufacturers from doing well in the US market. Many US drivers want their vehicle to be an easy chair on wheels that also conveniently does zero-to-sixty in 6 seconds so they can get to the next red traffic light 100 yards away in no time at all! Almost everything on American roads smaller than an 18-wheeler will outrun my poor little 2-litre manual unless I really cane it!

  76. radirPok says:

    Don’t let this bad experience disappoint you – it can be pretty much the same the other way around… When I went to the US and rented a car, I almost crashed it while still *in* the rental office parking lot – actually the guy at the exit asked for my ID again before letting me go. The problem was that I’d never driven an automatic car before, and my complicated little European mind just couldn’t cope with the thought of not using my left leg for anything in particular. So I put my right foot on the gas pedal, and my left foot – well, you guessed it, on the brake. Rally drivers can do that – unfortunately I’m not a rally driver. The guy at the exit told me the trick – I should NOT use my left foot at all! Clever…

    I’m sure this sounds for the most of you at least as funny as it is for me someone saying that manual transmission "occupies a huge chunk of their mental processing". LOL! Just think about it: I know people who can hardly sign their names but drive cars with manual transmission… how’s that?

  77. Cooney says:

    [I think it’s interesting that you say it’s as simple as "up or downleft" — but you have to keep track of whether you’re in an odd or even numbered gear to know whether you should go up (even) or downleft (odd). And it’s more than just odd/even; you have to remember the exact number. Because woe unto you if you try to upshift from 5th gear into reverse. ]

    Not really – grab the gearshift and you should know what gear it is. I sometimes to a 1-4 shift or start in 3rd, but that works itself out rather quickly.

    Also, my car won’t let me do a 5-r shift.


    {The problem was that I’d never driven an automatic car before, and my complicated little European mind just couldn’t cope with the thought of not using my left leg for anything in particular.}

    I did that once – drove an auto and did a clutch in when getting ready to turn left – hit the brake instead.

    I actually learned stick in seattle with a jetta – took about 3 days to sort things out.

  78. Cooney says:

    It’s one of the cultural differences that has prevented some European manufacturers from doing well in the US market.

    Compare it to such braintwisters as Ford doing well in europe because the cars they sell are actually worthwhile, yet refusing to provide them over here. Just because some people (Raymond) only want basic transport doesn’t mean that everybody is like that. If only you could see all the Elises around here…

  79. Scott Tringali says:

    I never had that problem. My first car was a manual and the clutch started to go after a few years. I drove it all through high school, every day.

    Until a few years ago, my wife owned a manual, too, which I’d drive occasionally, once a year or so. I can honestly say that it still takes 0% of active foreground mental processing. You never forget, like riding a bike.

    I think you just haven’t gotten to that phase where it’s natural.  Three months probably isn’t long enough, and I don’t know how often you drive.  I remember it still not being completely automatic (er, completely natural) after my first summer owning it.

    Still, today I drive an automatic, mostly because of crappy traffic.  Long ago with said car, I have been stuck in hours-long jams on the Cross Bronx.  No fun.

  80. Jess Sightler says:

    @brian: – more economic (ok, guys from US usually don’t care about that part)

    There are some automatics now that get better mileage than the manual equivalent.  And many where they are the same (or nearly so).

    I’d still take the manual, though. :)

  81. Neil says:

    I’ve only driven one of those newer "semi-automatic" gearboxes. I found the change very eerie – you still have your foot on the accelerator but the revs suddenly drop away because it’s decided to change gear. Even in manual override mode I still found myself waiting for it to change.

    "Should I downshift now? Maybe that red light up ahead will turn green soon."

    Personally I only think about changing gears when I need to accelerate, or if I specifically want engine braking.

    "I’ve certainly never heard of a synchronized reverse"

    I used to drive a Proton, and it had a synchronised reverse. Which came as a shock once when I eventually (14 years later) had to replace it, and found I couldn’t engage reverse after I had already started rolling backwards out of an inclined parking space. Crunchy.

    "Because woe unto you if you try to upshift from 5th gear into reverse."

    Both my cars have (had) an interlock to stop you moving the gear lever directly from 5th to reverse.

    "Modern automatic transmissions will downshift for you.  Just push the accelerator hard"

    How hard is hard? I don’t generally rev the engine much, say 3000rpm at most. (Or whatever 70mph is in top gear.)

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