Keith’s Blog: How Automatic is Manual Shifting

“I learned to drive on a stick” is a gearhead’s mantra. We all tell tales of the first three-pedal car we learned to operate.

For some reason, it’s a badge of honor that we learned to drive a car and learned to operate a manual gearbox at the same time.

I’ve taught several of my children to drive, most recently 10-year-old Bradley in his 1960 Bugeye Sprite.

Teaching someone to drive, and to drive a stick at the same time, requires a very calm, Zen-like approach. There is much information for the driver to process, and the downside risks of if you make an error are high.

Getting the brake and clutch confused as you are coming up to a stoplight is not uncommon. Rolling through a red light as you move your feet around on the pedals can have unfortunate consequences.

Repeated launching of a car with fits and starts, chirping tires and frequent stalls can lead to a very frustrated new driver — and an exasperated teacher. Not to mention the possibility of a burned clutch and even a snapped axle depending on the horsepower involved.

I just came across this article abstract, “How Automatic is Manual Gear Shifting” — that addresses the complexity of learning to drive and learning to shift simultaneously.

It made me rethink the learning process.

I now believe that people should first be taught to drive on an automatic. That way they can focus on the skill set required to navigate stoplights, traffic, turning and so on without having to think about coordinating a clutch, gas pedal and brake.

Once they are comfortable with the skills needed to drive, we can add the challenge of operating a manual shift car.

It makes sense, and I don’t know why I didn’t think about it before.

Now, I’ll simply say, “let’s learn to drive” on one day, and “let’s learn to drive a stick” the next.

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

Posted in Blogs, Keith Martin

7 comments

  1. Good job, Keith.
    Kids need to learn early how to drive a car. There are lots of places that are not public roads for them to practice. I was taught as soon as I could safely operate our 56 Ford. My dad would say, “What if I was injured and you were the only person with me? You could get us home.”

  2. The car I learned to drive was a 1948 Dodge with fluid drive. It had 3 on the tree and a clutch with a fluid coupling between the transmission and differential. You could come to a stop without depressing the clutch and not kill the engine and if you had a lot of time you could leave it 3rd gear and start from a stop without using the clutch. It also made starting out using the clutch easier. The best of both worlds?

  3. Keith,
    I fully agree. Although learning to drive on a standard seems like the macho way to do it as I look back it is quite foolish given the consequences of a misstep and especially so when another option such as learning on a automatic is readily available. The only question is then, will that same person have interest enough to go back and learn to drive standard. I guess it comes down to the circumstances, who influences them, and of course the fun derived from synchronizing the efforts needed to operate a standard shift vehicle successfully.

    1. Very well put. One of my adult godchildren (the one who received a 240D from me for his 16th birthday) is a proficient driver in a manual-shift car. The other, who received a Toyota pickup witih an automatic, can’t drive stick. I will hope she’ll learn, but hope is getting thinner.

  4. Very well put. One of my adult godchildren (the one who received a 240D from me for his 16th birthday) is a proficient driver in a manual-shift car. The other, who received a Toyota pickup witih an automatic, can’t drive stick. I will hope she’ll learn, but hope is getting thinner.

  5. That picture of Bradley is priceless. Love the smile. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

  6. My, Bradley has grown since our last meeting! Bravo for teaching him the “right” way to drive with the “right” transmission. It might go even smoother next time if his left shoe is tied… 😉

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