My first car review was published a year before my daughter was born. And a couple of weeks ago she came home with her learner’s licence. Now, I can go all cliché here and talk about how time flies and that you should cherish every moment, blah blah blah; but those of my generation and beyond already know that, and younger folks will come to realize this truth in their own time and in their own way.
What this is really about is the fact that we have a new driver in the family, and things are going to change around here. Suddenly, I’m acutely aware of habits I’ve been developing for decades that might not be exactly by the book. There are the unwritten rules about tolerance beyond the speed limit that I take full advantage of. There are the merge lanes that aren’t used properly (or designed or signed properly), where I quickly lose my patience for those who insist that they should stop until there’s a football field-length gap in the traffic, despite there being ample runway in the lane ahead to get up to speed and join the traffic flow.
I’m viewing something as simple as an intersection with a four-way stop in a whole new light: do I stop at the right place? Do I stop completely? Most of the time. I think.
The Manitoba driver’s handbook is full of these great nuggets of information, also known as laws. And if I don’t lead by example, it’s difficult to develop such respect for traffic regulations in others. Now, one could argue that I’ve been instilling these bad habits into my children’s psyche for years, but the reality is they never paid much attention to the minutiae of everyday driving. But now, it’s different. And I’m on the hook.
In Manitoba, 16 is the minimum age to be eligible for a learner’s permit, unless said learner is enrolled in a recognized driver’s education program, in which case the minimum age is 15-and-a-half. My daughter turns 16 this September, but she started taking the course in April, and on her third week in the program, she aced the written test and headed straight to the nearest Manitoba Public Insurance agent to complete the paperwork.
Since that day, it’s been legal for her to operate a motor vehicle, so long as the person riding shotgun has had their full licence for at least three years. Kailyn’s instructor made the point that an older sibling might not be the best person to fill such a role, and I wholeheartedly agree: a certain maturity and wealth of experience is required to help prepare a new driver for the road. That is, despite whatever bad habits have been developed over the years.
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 licence. 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 lasts a full three years and maintains zero tolerance for blood alcohol content. I’m liking that rule.
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So, with learner’s licence in hand, it’s time to let loose on the streets of Winnipeg, right? Well, not quite. That’s because at this moment in time, and for the 20 years that have preceded it, no automatic transmission has resided in our garage. So, on top of the sensory overload that normally greets 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. Even though all the traditional advantages associated with manual transmissions (you know, things like better acceleration and lower fuel consumption) have gone the way of the Pyrenean Ibex, I still find driving stick immensely involving and satisfying. And having the skills to do so properly will come in handy one day, guaranteed.
Whether she will be driving another person’s vehicle in a pinch, or shopping for her first car (which right now is looking like a Jeep Wrangler if she has her way), it’s all about having the right tools for the job. Plus, using both feet and both hands to drive takes a certain amount of focus that isn’t necessary in an automatic. Which means less of an opportunity to focus on unrelated matters – like “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. Hardly my first choice of cars to teach someone on, but the only other option in our garage is a Golf TDI wagon, which won’t be with us much longer. Plus, the TDI’s engine is like a switch: let the revs drop below 1,000 rpm and it stalls with no warning.
The R, on the other hand, is a very 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.
To start the teaching process, I elected to take Kailyn to a couple of undisclosed locations (not on public roads, of course) to teach her the basics of driving stick. And this is where some readers might take exception to the technique I use to teach people this dying art, but I guarantee that this is the way to do it.
But I’ll start with what doesn’t work. Don’t tell people that the throttle and clutch should be treated like a lever – add throttle as you’re releasing the clutch. Do not say that 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. For each car this point is different.
Indeed, every time I drive a different one I give myself the same lesson. 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. Release the hand brake if it was up, and release the brake pedal. 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. Not very quickly, mind you, but getting going smoothly in first gear is the single most difficult obstacle on the road to driving stick.
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 rpm, 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.
Pretty soon, this will get boring. And when that happens, it’s time to bring the throttle into the equation. Starting with a gentle application, increase engine revs to a maximum of 1,500 rpm, and repeat the clutch engagement exercise. Doing this will help the novice to get a feel for the clutch engagement, which happens to be different in every vehicle. 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 a manual gearbox.
With Kailyn’s focus on these new tasks, the operation of the manual started to become second nature. After a few drives on this deserted road, it was soon time to venture out into the real world.
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.