The Manual Transmission

For the longest time, I had a dirty little secret: even though I fancied myself something of a “car guy,” I could not drive stick.

I would watch Top Gear and hear them talking about how a manual transmission is the best way to drive a car, and I would see that some of the coolest and sportiest cars came either only in manual or primarily in manual, and I would feel my secret shame.

The problem was: how does one go about learning how to drive a manual in a country where nearly every car is an automatic? The people I knew who had cars with manual transmissions had fancy Porsches and WRXs and didn’t want some learner messing about with their fancy cars.

But then, it really came down to it: I was traveling to South Africa, and most of the cars there were still manual. I was planning on renting a car, so I knew I would have to learn.

Right before my trip, I swallowed my pride and found someone with a manual car who could give me a lesson. So I got one driving lesson before I went — all in a parking lot, nothing above second gear. I knew enough to not stall the car immediately, but that was about it.

So my flight landed in Johannesburg, and I rented a car. A manual.

Fortunately, there was someone there to meet me at the airport. He drove me to my host’s house that night, which was excellent because I probably would have died otherwise.

I kept that car for a few days (there are many stories from that time, which I shall tell in due course), and then I flew to Cape Town. After landing there, I got a second, different car. This car had a different shifter, a bit more complicated and definitely unfamiliar to me. Due to this unfamiliarity, when I thought I was getting first gear, I was actually getting third. Naturally, this led to me stalling almost immediately.

I developed a system: I would dump the clutch in third, which would jerk the car forward. Then I would immediately slam it into second. This would get me going, after which I would shift back into third (this time intentionally) and so on. I…feel very bad about this now, and the rental company probably wondered what horrible things happened to the clutch of their poor car.

Thankfully, the next day I figured it out (I had to shift into reverse, which made everything clear). I had been thinking that my car was busted, when it turned out that I was just really bad at driving it.

I don’t think I really got the hang of driving a manual until I bought one for my own (and then a second one), but I can still claim that I learned to drive a manual on a right-hand-drive car in South Africa.

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