How Did You Learn To Drive Stick?

Illustration for article titled How Did You Learn To Drive Stick?
Photo: Tim Boyle (Getty Images)

Most everyone who’s learned to drive a manual has a story about it. Whether it was an absolute disaster or a great success or somewhere in between, I’ve found that it’s one of those events people remember forever.

Now, I am not a competent manual driver. I learned back in 2017 with the intention of helping a friend road trip from Boston to Indianapolis for the Indy 500. That friend, they drove a manual. I thought I’d be a good pal and get my shit sorted out instead of just mooching a ride.

So, I asked a pal in my Formula SAE team if he would teach me. We met up in a meager school parking lot in North Austin, and I got behind the wheel of his Volkswagen Golf.

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And I was awful. Just a disaster. A hot mess. I picked up the skills relatively quickly, but in that way you pick up facts while cramming the night before an exam. I was confident I could perform on some unintimidating roads and pray that I would cement my skills somewhere on the route to Indy.

As it turned out, I never drove. My friend, Remy, decided they were just going to knock out the entire drive in one day and a night. It was perfectly fine for my lazy ass, but the next time someone let me behind the wheel of their manual, it was at a Hyundai press event. Not great!

I still haven’t really mastered it. My education has been dragged out for years, which is embarrassing for a person that writes for a car blog. But, hell. I’ll get it at some point.

And I bet your stories are a lot more exciting than mine.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

I was a car nut when I was a little kid. My favorite toys were Matchbox cars. When we’d go to the grocery store I’d make a bee-line to the magazine counter and absorb as much of Road & Track and Car & Driver as I could.

When I was eleven or twelve years old, my father got a bad case of bursitis in his right shoulder. He could barely move his right arm for a few months. During this time he’d sit me in the passenger seat of his ‘67 Beetle (U.S. spec, left-hand drive) and I was supposed to change gears for him. He didn’t teach me how to do it or anything; he just pointed to the shift pattern on the gear-shift knob and expected me to figure it out. Furthermore, he didn’t ever tell me whether I was supposed to be shifting to a higher gear of a lower gear, I was supposed to figure it out from context. He’d just say “shift,” and he’d curse at me if I guessed wrong.

When I was fourteen, my mother started letting me drive her ‘64 Beetle in the parking lot of the grocery store. I picked it up pretty quick, I totally loved it.

Skip ahead to when I was sixteen. The state of Florida had just changed the law, so where previously all you needed to get a license was be sixteen or older and pass the driver’s test, now you had to have a certificate from a Driver’s Ed class if you wanted a license before your eighteenth birthday. So I took Driver’s Ed. at my hi-skool. I was, by far, the worst driver in my class. I had learned how to drive in a Beetle with a manual transmission, and now we were was going to take classes driving full-sized American cars with huge V8s and automatic transmissions (one was a Dodge Polara, another was a Ford LTD). You know how, when you’re in a Beetle and you are taking off from a stop sign, you basically floor it? Don’t try that in a Dodge Polara with a 360! I dented the fenders of two of the cars in the first two weeks.

The Driver’s Ed. class had an advanced section, where students were supposed to graduate from the “easy-to-drive” automatic cars to a car with a “hard-to-drive” manual transmission. This was a Beetle, loaned to the school by the local VW dealership. Three of us got in it with our teacher. After my repeated failures in the vast American cars, was he ever surprised when I got in and drove like an old pro! After that the VW was the only car I was permitted to drive in the class.

Finally there came the day for me to take my driver’s test and get my license! But that day I couldn’t borrow either of my parents’s Beetles. So my friend Dean, who had a ‘67 Pontiac Catalina with a 389, offered me his car for the test. I didn’t do very well, and I couldn’t parallel park that car at all. I thought I was going to fail the exam. I was almost ready to cry; I told the examiner, “I learned how to drive in a VW Beetle, I could have parallel-parked one of those, but this car has me beat.” He had pity on me and let me pass anyway!