This is just the starting point. There is far more to safely operating a motor vehicle than I’m going to cover.


Learning how to drive a manual transmission was a particularly unpleasant experience. My Dad taught me the same way his dad taught him, and before that was horses probably.

Tell me if any of this is familiar:

Dad drove me out to a gravel road, put me in the driver’s seat, showed me the pedals and told me to drive back home.

The car lurched and chugged.

The motor revved and I learned what burning clutch smells like.

I skipped 3rd gear and went straight into 5th.

I forgot that I only had 5 gears (not 6) tried to put it in reverse.

The motor died a lot.

That poor starter.

Dad yelled “Clutch!” a lot.

I said “I quit” and made him drive us home.

Dad tried his best to teach me to find the catch point, to work the clutch and gas together, and eventually, I did learn. In the end, he was successful, and I am grateful. In fact, now I love a manual transmission. It’s the best way to make slow cars feel fast.

Now that my nieces and nephews are of age to drive, it’s my turn to teach.


In the interest of brevity and clarity, I had to make a few assumptions.

  • You have a manual transmission car,
  • a person who wants to learn how to drive one,
  • a quiet place to drive with no traffic, and
  • you want to minimize emotional scarring while maximizing the life of your clutch.


Before you read any further, think of all the steps it takes to drive a manual transmission car. Extra credit: write them down on paper and compare notes at the end.

Here’s the process I used to teach my niece how to drive a manual transmission car. Here are the steps, with a brief description of each.

It’s the best wrong way I know and it’s far from perfect.

  1. Plan

    Before we went out for a driving lesson, I considered all the operating steps necessary to drive a manual transmission car and selected the smallest number that I thought made sense to teach in one sitting without me having to yell “CLUTCH!”;

    Start the car moving, shift from 1st gear to 2nd gear then stop.

    This was a lesson in process decomposition and a human’s ability to automate a task that has become routine. There are SO MANY steps that are automatic to me that I neglected to plan for. I underlined each “forgotten” step below.

    Note the ratio of underlined/forgotten to the rest. Now look the list of steps you wrote down. How many did you miss?

  2. Teach

    Once I had my lesson mentally planned out, it was time to teach.

    Here are the steps I taught her, and how I taught them.

    Again, note the number of underlined steps that I forgot to plan for and had to make up on the fly.

    1. Show “where” neutral is and what it feels like
    2. Show where “in-gear” is and what it feels like
    3. Introduce the “H-shape” of the transmission and show where 1st and 2nd gear are.
    4. Introduce the clutch
    5. Have her push the clutch and put the car in 1st gear, then neutral, then 2nd gear, then neutral, 1st, etc. etc.
    6. Introduce the emergency brake
    7. Set the e-brake
    8. Take the car out of gear
    9. Push the clutch down
    10. Turn the key
    11. Push the clutch in further so the sensor that checks that the clutch is pushed down all the way before the starter starts lets the starter start
    12. Turn the key to start the car
    13. Tell her about that sensor, and explain why the car wants to make sure the clutch is pushed in completely before letting you start the car so the starter doesn’t cause the car to lurch forward
    14. Push the clutch
    15. Put the car in 1st gear
    16. Introduce the “catch point” by letting out the clutch until you feel the car start to move
    17. Kill the car and remember the e-brake is still set
    18. Restart the car
    19. Release the e-brake so the car can move
    20. Push and hold the clutch
    21. Put the car in first gear
    22. Introduce the “catch point” by letting out the clutch until you feel the car start to move then push the clutch again
    23. Repeat 10 times to build a little muscle memory and let her get the “feel” of where that catch point is, and how to move the pedal around and find that catch point
    24. Put the car in neutral
    25. Have her hold the gas pedal at 1,000 RPMs, idle, hold 1500 RPMs, idle, hold 2000 RPMs, idle, back to 1000 RPMs, idle. Etc.
    26. Repeat 10 times to build a little muscle memory and let her get the “feel” feathering the gas pedal and get used to holding steady
    27. Now that she has a feel for the clutch and gas pedals, it’s time to move the car
    28. Push the and hold the clutch
    29. Put the car in 1st gear
    30. Hold the gas at 1,000 RPMs
    31. Let out the clutch until the car starts to move at the “catch point”
    32. Hold the clutch there until the car is moving
    33. Gently release the clutch
    34. Gently push the gas to accelerate
    35. Push the clutch
    36. Let off the gas
    37. Put the car in 2nd gear
    38. Gently release the clutch
    39. Gently push the gas to accelerate
    40. Push the clutch
    41. Let off the gas
    42. Put the car in neutral
    43. Press the brake to stop
    44. Repeat steps 27. through 43. 5 times
    45. On the 6th time, have her shift from 2nd to 3rd gear which in this case results in accidentally going into 5th gear, the car chugging, and me yelling “CLUTCH!”
      (and I swore I was better than that!)
    46. Switch seats and turn the car around so we’re heading toward home
    47. Repeat steps 27. through 43. Another 4 times
    48. Tell her that 1st gear is only ever necessary from a dead stop, and that if she’s rolling at all, there is no need to shift down to 1st gear
    49. Have her start one more time, and turn right back toward’s gramma’s house, keeping the car in 2nd gear
    50. Have her stop the car
    51. Ask her if she’s comfortable driving back to gramma’s and parking
    52. Listen when she says she no, switch seats again, give her a high-five for being an awesome student, and drive back to grammas.

That’s it!

Wrap up

I set out to teach the smallest little starting morsel of how to drive a manual transmission and ended up with a 52 step process and a far greater appreciation for everyone who has ever taught this to anyone else, especially my old man teaching me.

Note that I didn’t even have her turn the wheel until the very end. I realized there was so much that was new to her that I didn’t want her to have to worry about navigating anything other than a straight line at first. That was deliberate. I even turned the car around for her so we could head back home.

Was that overkill? Would she have been able to drive around a country block and get us home? Probably. But I wanted to this to be memorable for how easy it was, so I chose no turning the wheel until the very end, and even then only once.

At the end of the day, my niece learned how to start a manual transmission car and shift from 1st gear into 2nd, and she did great! Emotional scarring was minimal, and I think she may even be open to another driving lesson in the future.