How to Drive a Manual Car

Although automatic cars are becoming increasingly popular, there are still advantages to learning how to drive a manual. For a start, most cars in the UK are sold with a manual gearbox, but learning with an automatic will limit you to driving automatic cars only. Once you pass your test with a manual gearbox, you’re qualified to drive any car or van weighing up to 3.5 tonnes. So, when getting started, it's a good idea to get manual driving lessons. To get to grips with the basics, read on for our handy guide on how to drive manual cars.

how to drive a manual car

First things first

Before you turn on the ignition, there are a few important checks you need to do to ensure your safety.

  • Check that all your doors are closed properly and locked
  • Adjust your driver’s seat for good visibility and to ensure you’re able to use the pedals and change gears comfortably. You should also be able to run your hands around the steering wheel comfortably.
  • Put your seatbelt on and make sure any other car passengers are wearing their seatbelts.
  • Adjust your rear-view and side-view mirrors for maximum visibility of the road, as well as the corners of your car.

Understanding the major controls

Understanding the main components you’ll be using is key for controlling your speed and direction as you drive. In a manual car, the major controls are:

  • The steering wheel, which allows you to control the direction of the car. Most manual cars allow one-and-a-half rotations before the steering ‘locks’ and the wheel won’t turn any further in that direction.
  • The clutch pedal, which is operated by your left foot. This pedal is not found on automatic cars. The clutch connects the engine to the vehicle’s gearbox and wheels. Use it when you’re starting the car, changing gears, braking and coming to a stop.
  • The brake pedal or footbrake, which is the middle pedal between the clutch and the accelerator. You’ll operate the footbrake with your right foot. It slows the car down or brings it to a stop. You should always engage the clutch pedal when reducing speed significantly or stopping.
  • The accelerator pedal, which controls the fuel and air entering the engine. It’s operated by your right foot. It controls the speed of the car.
  • The handbrake, which is also called the emergency brake or parking brake. It’s located between the front passenger and driver seats and you’ll use it with your left hand. To operate it, press the button and raise or lower the lever.
  • The gearstick, which you’ll operate with your left hand. It’s used to switch between gears. The clutch pedal must always be engaged while changing gears.

Understanding the minor controls

The minor controls allow you to adjust other key functions in your car. These include:

  • Indicators: Located on the left-hand side of the steering wheel. These activate the indicator lights on the front, side and back of the car. Nudge them up or down to signal to other drivers that you’re turning left or right.
  • Windscreen wipers: Located on the right-hand side of the steering wheel. Nudge to activate if it is raining or drizzling. You’ll also be able to control the speed of the wipers.

Other minor controls like the AC, sat-nav and infotainment system, as well as lighting controls, are unique to each car. Understand how to operate these controls by learning from an experienced driver or from the car manual. You should also familiarise yourself with all the indicators and warning lights on the dashboard.

Starting your manual car for the first time

Now that you’ve got the basics, you can start the exciting bit – moving the vehicle. To start a manual car, follow the steps outlined below:

  • Check that the handbrake is applied and the gearbox is in neutral
  • Press the clutch pedal down all the way
  • Turn on the ignition
  • Push the gear stick into first gear (to the left and up)
  • Very slowly, start to release the clutch pedal. Begin to very gently press on the accelerator. At a certain point, somewhere halfway through disengaging, the clutch will ‘bite’ or ‘engage’. At this point, the car will try to move forward. Keep your left foot steady at the point when you feel the ‘bite’.
  • Release the handbrake and the car will move forward
  • Slowly take your foot all the way off the clutch

Understand that it takes a while to get used to the clutch pedal’s ‘bite’ – two to three tries at least. If you release it too soon, the car will stall, meaning it will jerk to a halt, the ignition will turn off, and you’ll have to start the process over. Stay calm and start again. However, for safety, make sure you learn how to start a car on a road that’s straight, flat and traffic-free, with an instructor or experienced driver.

Changing gears: when and how

Changing gears should really depend on the rpm (revs per minute). As you get used to driving a certain car, and to driving manual cars in general, you’ll get a feel for when to change gear. The car will start to ‘complain’ (make louder noises and feel a little different) when you need to change gear. To make things easy for beginners, this relates roughly to guidelines based on the speed of the car.

  • Use the first gear for starting and for driving below 10 mph
  • Use the second gear when driving between 10 and 20 mph
  • Use the third gear between 20 and 35 mph, and for accelerating up to higher speeds
  • Use the fourth gear upwards of 35 mph
  • Higher gears are reserved for cruising and for optimising fuel efficiency, on motorways and dual carriageways for example

When changing gears, always press the clutch down completely. However, never press the clutch and accelerator at the same time – it’s bad for the car and the environment. When you’re braking, you don’t need to press the clutch unless you’re changing gears (which you will need to do if slowing down significantly) or coming to a complete stop.

Reversing a manual car

Reversing is similar to starting a manual car, except you use the reverse gear (usually marked with an ‘R’ on the gearstick) instead of the first gear. Follow these bas steps:

  • Make sure to check the space behind and around you in your mirrors
  • Press the clutch all the way down and move the gearstick into reverse
  • Slowly remove your foot from the clutch pedal and lightly press the accelerator, feeling for the point where the clutch bites
  • Release the handbrake and the car will begin to move backwards
  • Make sure to use your mirrors and look behind you while moving in reverse

Driving economically

Once you get comfortable with operating a manual, you’ll soon understand the pulse of the car and intuitively know how to drive economically. With experience, you’ll be able to tell from engine noise and the way the clutch feels whether you’re changing gears at the best times and so driving efficiently. For example, if the engine growls and judders, you should check your speed and move into the correct gear. This helps to protect your engine and conserve fuel. Take a look at our guide on how to improve your fuel consumption for useful tips.

Learning to drive manual cars gives you the full freedom when choosing your first – or next – ride. While it can seem more complicated than driving an automatic car at first, follow the steps outlined here and it will soon feel natural enough. Still not sure whether to drive a manual or automatic car? Take a look at the pros and cons in our expert advice article.

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