I learned stick shift from the pros—here’s how it went

It’s noon on a hot July day in New York City, and the thermometer reads 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m sitting in a red Ford Bronco overlooking an empty parking lot outside of Citi Field in Queens, learning to drive stick shift for the first time. My instructor is Autumn Schwalbe, Ford performance marketing specialist and a professional drag racer. 

Some car purists, and many Europeans, believe that you don’t truly know how to drive until you’ve mastered a manual. Despite making up less than 2 percent of annual car sales, manual cars could be making a small comeback, according to recent data—and the growing popularity is seen chiefly among drivers in their 20s.

I learned to drive on an automatic-transmission vehicle, like my parents and my peers. Dipping my toes into driving a manual was definitely a new endeavor, but one I felt excited to take on. Here’s how it went.

How to drive a stick shift, 101

Driving a manual transmission is a very involved process, and to me it feels almost like playing the piano. Like a piano, a manual car sports three pedals instead of the two in an automatic transmission car. The pedal on the left is the clutch, and the other two are the brake and the accelerator, which are in their normal spots, of course. There’s also a parking brake, which in the Bronco is located on the left of the steering wheel. 

“The basics of a manual: Always have your foot on the clutch, foot on the brake, and while you’re shifting, you’ll have your foot off the brake, but you’ll always use the clutch to shift the gear,” Schwalbe tells me. “You always want to be focused while you’re driving.”

The inside of the Ford Bronco. Charlotte Hu

The gears in a manual transmission car work similarly in principle to the gear shifts on a bicycle; certain sizes are better for achieving certain speeds. Most manual cars today have four or five forward gear ratios, although some can come with more. The Bronco has a seven-speed manual, but for today, we’re only working with first and second-gear (blame the limited space in the parking lot). Lower gears offer slower speeds but more torque, and as you go up each gear, the speeds start increasing, and the torque decreases. 

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“Parking brake is very important, because once you take your foot off the brake, foot off the clutch, everything, if you did not have your parking brake on, you could roll, since it’s in neutral, and nothing’s controlling it,” says Schwalbe.  

In the Bronco, there’s a mechanism that sits on the stick shift like a turtleneck that can slide up and down. To reverse, you pull the component up and move the stick into the “R” gear. 

With the overview done, we’re prepping for the drive. First, to start the car, I have to press my foot all the way down on the clutch, and have my right foot on the brake, before I can hit the engine-on button. 

The car roars to life. Now, we have to move. Schwalbe is coaching me from the passenger’s seat. Once I shifted into first gear, I lifted my foot off the brake pedal, and set it on the accelerator. To refrain from lurching forward or stalling, I’m slowly lifting my foot off the clutch and then tapping down on the gas to move it forward. To stop, I push the clutch in and press down on the brake. We repeat this process in a lap or two around the open lot before we get ready to shift gears. 

We’re cruising at 10 mph in first gear, and before we can shift up a gear, the foot comes off the gas, the clutch needs to be pushed in. “You always have to have your foot on the clutch to shift,” Schwalbe notes. 

We practice slowing, speeding up, and shifting gears for a couple more laps. Being in a manual car definitely makes you feel more present and engaged, as you’re evaluating both the vehicle and the surroundings constantly, and moving the car’s components to adjust. By the end of the lesson, I feel comfortable with it, but am in no way ready to hit the road. Baby steps. 

In the Dark Horse

To showcase the true range of a stick shift car, NASCAR driver Ryan Blaney took me for a spin in the Mustang Dark Horse, a sleek, ground-hugging vehicle designed to get up to high speeds, fast. Zooming around the lot, deftly maneuvering around the edges, made me understand why drivers have to work out their necks to withstand the G-forces of racing. For a brief moment while we were going straight, I had a sensation like I was on a roller coaster. 

[Related: An inside look at the data powering McLaren’s F1 team]

Blaney notes that he’s used to the heat. NASCAR vehicles don’t come with AC that’s blasting us at the moment. A luxury. This event is falling in the middle of the season, which is made up of 38 races spanning from February to November. The next one is in Chicago. Racing is a cool gig, but free time is sparse. They only get a week of break during the season. “Weddings are hard to get to,” he says. “All the NASCAR drivers get married in the winter, because it’s our off-time.” 

NASCAR race cars all have manual transmissions, because it provides more control over the performance of the vehicle. Driving well on a manual takes skill, I have learned. Skills that Blaney clearly has, and I probably will never attain. Specifically, Blaney uses H pattern shifters while racing, although NASCAR has been testing sequential shifters, too. Formula 1 race cars, on the other hand, use a type of semi-automatic gearbox that’s controlled with paddle shifts.

In my experience, I’ll say that it’s not the hardest new skill to pick up over a weekend. And I guess like all the old trends that are new again, nostalgia (along with a cheaper price tag if you’re in the market for a car) is too great of a lure to resist.