The USS Quad Damage

A new taxonomy for driving manual cars

Also, why I should be giving you advice

“The blind leading the blind” has always been an odd statement to me. While it makes sense that someone who is not blind is required to lead the blind, the problems that the blind encounter, and the kinds of help they need is only really understood by the blind themselves. Therefore, the best help will probably come from someone who has only recently gained the ability to see.

Myself and Harpy recently rented a manual car to practice driving manual. I’m still not perfect, but I feel more confident and I think I’ve got the theory down. Here’s some of the things that I’ve learnt:

Stalling the car

The most important thing to note is that stalling will happen in the beginning, no matter how good you are. The idea is to accept it and get used to it. If you’re lucky the guy behind you will smile and you can laugh it off. The way stalling will stop is that you get a good “feel” for the car (see below). You can avoid it in the meantime by overcompensating on the accelerator. Since stalling occurs when the engine slows down too much, if you accelerate a lot before trying to get into gear, it’s less likely that you’ll stall. Note that if you don’t “love the clutch” (see below) you might stall anyway.

Feel the car

One of the first questions you’ll ask is “how do I know when the gear is engaged on the clutch?” The answer you’ll get it "you’ve gotta feel it". This is bullshit. There’s actually no way of knowing. The “feeling” is actually something your brain figures out after continually “stalling the car” (see above). There is some feedback in the noise the car makes and the tacho (so getting a rice car may well be worth it in that respect). Once the gear starts getting engaged your revs will go down, and if you “love the clutch” (see below) you’ll have a smooth transition.

Lightness and Tightness

The way the accelerator is used in a manual is very different to an automatic. In an automatic, you get used to “telling” your car which gear to use by using your accelerator pedal, and this habit may cause some trouble with a manual. The manual tends to have a very touchy accelerator in neutral. Further, in a manual the gear is directly engaged to the engine, so the revs directly affect the speed. This has some implications for “gear changes” (below), but the real advantage is that you become far more aware of the speed you’re travelling, since you’ve got to keep track of the gear you’re in as well as your revs.

Practice being gentle with your accelerator. In neutral it will shoot up to 8000 before you know it.

Love the clutch

The reason I think most newbie manual drivers drive badly is that they want to touch the clutch as little as possible. It’s a new skill to learn, and your leg is uncoordinated. It’s like learning how to walk. At first it’s really hard and it eventually becomes natural. Also, it’s frustrating to re-learn a skill you’re used to having for free. Clutching is one of those skills. The trick is to love the clutch. Be gentle with it when you need to be, and be nasty when you can get away with it, but pay it some attention. Eventually you’ll do it by habit, but you gotta love the clutch.

Heavy car, light engine

One of the things you’ll learn whilst you’re “loving the clutch” (above) is that when you engage, the rpms will line up to the speed. If you’re soft on the clutch you’ll barely feel it, and if you’re hard on the clutch you (or the engine) may “jolt” as the speeds sync up. The thing to understand is that the “weight” of either the engine or the gears1 is important. The engine has a constant weight, and the gears get “heavier” as you go up them. In first, the engine is “heavier” than the gears. In second they’re about even, and after that the gears are heavier than the engine. This really depends on the ratios and the engine size, but it’s generally right.

The key point is that in first you’re really syncing the car to the engine, in second they’re about even, and third onwards the engine gets synced to the car. That’s why for the first gear you have to be soft on the clutch, and in second you have to be kind of soft, but third onward you can just change gears and there’s no “jolt”. Note that the “gears” can be made heavier by being on a hill.

The basic rule is that when going to or from first or second, be gentle with the clutch and be careful with RPMs. In third onwards, it’s OK just to slam the clutch in and out, but once you get good you’ll be able to just sync up the rpms.

The other rule from this is that when changing down gears, it’s probably helpful to over-rev the engine in neutral, and then shift gears (or reduce speed accordingly, and then shift gears), especially when going into second or first.

Gear changes

This piece of advice depends on your car’s gear ratios but I believe in general cars are meant to do this. Basically, don’t use the first gear unless you’re at a complete stop. The engine is generally too heavy for the gear, and will make the accelerator really touchy once in gear. Always change to second if you’re already rolling.

If you change gears quickly enough, then you’ll be ready to engage the clutch right when the car’s rev range goes down to where the next gear is supposed to be engaged (ie: where the engine speed and gear speed is the same). This is sweet. Going from first to second is the hardest to get this right on.

Most of this advice will come in one form or another from the people who know how to drive manuals already. Hopefully, however, this is explaining in a format which people who are used to driving autos find easier. Enjoy driving a manual car.

1 By “gears” I really mean the end of the clutch attached to the drive train, on the engine side of the gearbox.