The Toronto Star: Wheels Feature: Manual Gearbox Requires a Shift in Attitude

Ashante Infantry - The Star

By ASHANTE INFANTRY, Star reporter.

Why did a breeze assignment turn into `What I Did This Summer?’
Sure, I never aced roller blading, but I’m not completely uncoordinated and my instructor wasn’t to blame.
Carlos Tomas of Shifters Driving School is a skilled, unflappable guide who purports to teach licensed drivers to master the gearshift in three to five 90-minute lessons.
It certainly wasn’t him, and it wasn’t all me.
Life got in the way: out of town assignments, illness, holidays and demand for Tomas at the only Toronto school that’s dedicated entirely to manual transmission motoring. Altogether, I had the routine seven-and-a-half hours of instruction — spread over 16 weeks.
And unlike most of his clients who have a time-sensitive goal — a new car, or maybe a European vacation where stick shift rentals are a third of the price — I was just after the bragging rights.

Day 1: When Tomas pulls up in front of the Toronto Star building, I’m happy to see that his training vehicle is a slightly older model of my Mazda 626, also black. “Now you get to see what your car really feels like,” he says when he hears this.
We head over to Cherry Beach, where Tomas parks on a quiet side street and takes out a colourful metal model of a powertrain and explains that the engine and wheels are connected, like a tricycle, unlike their independent relationship in an automatic.

Tomas, 51, is knowledgeable and full of one-liners, but I’m swallowing yawns. Instead, I smile and nod a lot. Later, Tomas tells me that he expanded the theoretical component because I seemed so interested.

Day 2: When we meet again a few weeks later, Tomas begins with a review. Then, I start the engine, slip into first gear and practise driving off, accelerating and stopping.
At first, using both feet to drive is awkward. My left sandal keeps getting caught under the pedal and as soon as the car starts moving I have the urge to come off the clutch and floor the gas. But that makes the car jerk forward.
I ease up on the gas, but keep forgetting to hold the clutch in for the 1-2-3-4 beats he suggests. Stalling cures that.
I take the car up and down Cherry St. several times, then Tomas says its time to shift gears. Yeah! “This is fun!” I squeal as I hit third for the first time.

Can I drive manual and answer the cell? And write down directions? Does the manual-me measure up to the adept, accident-free automatic-me? Not yet.
Day 3: “Did you think about driving standard while you were gone?” he asks six weeks later. I respond with an unequivocal `No.’ In fact, I’m not really thinking about it right now: weary from a late night, nervous about having this lesson in the rain and preoccupied with looming story deadlines.
It’s obvious. It takes me five minutes to figure out that the car won’t move because it’s in neutral. Then I keep forgetting to return to first gear to move off from a stop.
“The hurry habit is a problem for learning a skill that is all in the feel,” says Tomas, whose most consistent instruction is “listen to the engine.” I’m paused, uncertainly, at a green light, waiting to make a left turn when I hear the impatient horn of the car behind me.
At a clearly marked driver’s ed vehicle? I’m indignant.
“They probably can’t even drive standard,” Tomas says reassuringly.
Shake. Shudder. Stall. And the cacophony increases.

Day 4: “Okay, impress me,” he says when I get behind the wheel a month later. Relaxed, confident, I do a fair job in bustling through Bloor West Village.
Tomas directs me to a residential neighbourhood and announces that it’s time for hills. This turns out to be the most frustrating lesson.
Parked on a mild slope with my foot on the gas, I’m supposed to press the clutch down softly to inch the car back, release it slowly to move forward and find the friction point, or “sweet spot” in between to keep it still — guided by a subtle change in the engine noise and nearly imperceptible clutch vibration.
I don’t hear it. I don’t feel it. And with a late-model Volvo parked behind me, I’m afraid to let go of the emergency brake.

“This is the pinnacle of the skills,” says Tomas.
“Believe it or not, there a lot of people out there driving standard who can’t hold a car on a hill.” I believe it.
He complements my efforts to not lose my cool. I fake him out with a smile while calling myself a loser (“See: this is why you can’t rollerblade!”). New mantra: I must get in touch with my clutch.

Day 5: The leaves are changing and so is this light. I slip into first and accelerate over the steep incline. Tomas and I are both grinning. That hour of hill exercises paid off. I can hold the car still, sans parking brake, while discussing the news. I’m pretty sure I could also find the lipstick in my purse and apply it, but I don’t test this in Tomas’s presence.
I thought driving standard was about speed, but it’s really about control. And changing gears is the best part: the finesse in the flick of the wrist and the power of that instant response from the engine.
Tomas and I have some stylistic differences: he prefers to have the car in neutral while waiting at red lights to prevent leg fatigue and save wear on the clutch release bearing; I want to remain ready-to-go in first gear.
I’ve also picked up a few tips about reading traffic flow and been reminded to come to a complete stop at a red light, even if I’m making a right turn, even if the way is clear.
I flow from bumper-to-bumper traffic in first gear on Danforth Ave. to cruise in fifth on the DVP before pulling up at the Star building at One Yonge.
Now that I know how my car is supposed to feel, I see something sporty and expensive in my future.
Lessons at Shifters cost $274 for three, $454 for five, plus GST. For more information call 416-921-7845 or visit www.shifters.ca.

Tips for learning how to stick shift
-Practise or visualize lessons between sessions
-Take sessions as close together as possible
-Wear flat, closed-toe shoes
-Schedule downtime before and after each lesson to ease tension
-Take lessons in weather and neighbourhoods that you’re going to be driving in