Our daughter Kailyn came home with her learner’s license a few weeks ago. Time sure flies — I started writing car reviews for the Winnipeg Free Press a year before she was born.
With Manitoba’s graduated driver licensing system, Kailyn will have to wait a minimum of nine months before taking her road test to get her intermediate license. During that stage, which lasts 15 months, there’s a zero alcohol tolerance, as well as limitations on passengers in the car at night.
The final stage of graduated licensing lasts a full three years and maintains a zero tolerance for blood alcohol content. I’m liking that rule.
So, with learner’s license in hand, it’s time to let loose on the streets of Winnipeg, right? Well, not quite. That’s because for the past 20 years no automatic transmission has resided in our garage. So, on top of the sensory overload that normally meets a new driver, we’re throwing the challenge of learning to operate a manual gearbox in for good measure.
Not that I’d have it any other way. Having the skills to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission will surely come in handy one day. Plus, using both feet and both hands to drive takes a certain amount of focus that’s not necessary in an automatic. Which means less of an opportunity to focus on unrelated matters, such as who’s texting me right now?
The training vehicle is what I drive when I’m not behind the wheel of a press car: a 2013 Volkswagen Golf R. It is a forgiving manual to drive; clutch effort is reasonable, throttle is not too sensitive and the engine gives some warning before stalling. This last point is important as a teaching tool.
But let’s start with what doesn’t work. Don’t tell people that the throttle and clutch should be treated like a lever; simply add throttle as you’re releasing the clutch. Do not say it was rough because they didn’t use enough throttle. Don’t tell them to rev it up then release the clutch. These are all paths to poor manual transmission skills, excessive stress on the driveline and premature clutch wear. Instead, focus on learning the point along its travel at which the clutch begins to engage.
Start on a flat surface. In Winnipeg, that’s a given. With your left foot on the clutch and right foot on the brake, put the lever in first gear. Your right foot can take a rest; it’s not needed for the time being.
Slowly bring the clutch pedal up from the floor until the vehicle starts to move.
And now, this part is key: once the vehicle starts rolling, freeze that left foot for a brief moment. The clutch will engage on its own with no further action required from the driver. Once the clutch engages (it requires some help from the instructor to identify that point at first), release the clutch the rest of the way.
And just like that, you’re rolling.
Once rolling in first with your foot completely off the clutch, you can try applying just a little bit of throttle, say up to 1,500-2,000 r.p.m., and put the clutch in, shift to second and release slowly. No throttle needed.
That’s the process to follow the first few times, until the new driver gets a feel for how the clutch engages.
Next, it’s time to bring the throttle into the equation. With a gentle application, increase engine revs to a maximum of 1,500 r.p.m. and repeat the clutch engagement exercise. And at that point, more throttle can be applied during clutch engagement to speed up the process.
But the main takeaway here is that the person understands the need to engage the clutch quickly and without excessive revving. Too much throttle while engaging the clutch is known as riding the clutch and causes excess friction and thus wear on the components.
This method also makes it easier for a driver to get used to operating different manual transmissions, because the first thing they look for is the clutch bite point.
Once Kailyn had ample practice with operating a manual up to third gear, we found a street that was freshly paved, with an intersection and some curves. The street was deserted in the evenings because it services a group of commercial and industrial buildings that are still under construction. So, without the pressure of other traffic, we could practice starting off, getting up to speed, slowing down, downshifting, stopping, signalling and parking — all relatively simple tasks made more complicated by the manual gearbox.
With Kailyn’s focus on these new tasks, the operation of the vehicle started to become second nature.
And here we are, mere weeks into Kailyn’s driving career and she can navigate her way through our neighbourhood (let’s throw in cyclists, crosswalks and impatient drivers for good measure) and drive a stick like a natural.
“So, you like driving standard because it’s more involving?” Kailyn asked during one of our driving sessions. When I concurred, she simply said, “I can see why.”
Maybe there is hope for the manual gearbox after all.