On fear and loathing of stick-shifts: How One Instructor Eases the Pain

By Bill Taylor

The Dodge Colt Turbo is like a rocket-propelled rollerskate, tiny and volatile. Lots of white-knuckle fun, but the last car you’d expect a driving school to use.

There again, Carlos Tomas doesn’t run just any driving school. He calls his operation Shifters. He takes licensed drivers whose idea of motoring is to shove the slush box selector into “D,” and teaches them the ins and outs of a manual transmission and what their left foot is really for.

The Colt is ideal for this purpose. It has one of the sweetest five-speeds around. And as Tomas conducts his one-day, 41/2-hour course (it costs a very reasonable $135) on the highway as well as city streets, the turbo kicks the little econobox up to the legal limit in double-quick time.

Tomas, 33, says most of his students are experienced drivers who have decided to put a little fun into their motoring life. But his course also stresses the defensive aspects of correct stick-shifting and – “because safety is hard thing to sell” – the fact that doing it right can save you a whole bundle of maintenance money.
Shed myths
He is a demanding teacher.

I learned to drive a stick-shift 22 years ago and, though my daily drive has an automatic, I still handle a lot of manual-transmission cars. Tomas told me after an evaluation drive – and I repeat this purely in the interests of journalistic accuracy (honestly) – “You’re one of the better drivers I’ve had out.” But my chick sheet was still full of orange “no-no” marks . . .

• The Colt doesn’t have a “dead pedal” to rest the left foot on so I tend to keep it “cocked” above the clutch pedal. Tomas said that once in a while I was actually riding the clutch lightly. More wear and tear. Similarly, going up and down the gearbox in traffic, I kept my hand on the shift-lever. Strain on the selector forks. Not a lot but enough to add up after a while.

• Not giving the Colt quite enough revs in the first gear, causing it to “lug” a little. I pleaded lack of familiarity with the car and the fact that spinning the wheels is uncool. Tomas let me off for some slightly unsynchronized downshifting, allowing that I wasn’t use to the Colt.

• But he got me for revving the engine too high and shifting up later than I should have. No excuses. I didn’t tell him what a temptation it was to red-line the sucker all the way into 5th. Its like giving a kid a drum and then telling him to keep the noise down.

• Tomas also penalized me for not pacing myself better in traffic and not “reading” stop lights properly. “I’ve driven downtown to my home in Scarborough during rush-hour on the Don Valley Parkway and used my brakes three times,” he says. “It all comes down to reading the traffic flow and planning ahead. I had 60,000 kilometres on my last car when I traded it in and the brakes weren’t even half worn. I expect this car will got to 100,000 kilometres without needing new brakes.”

Among other common stick-shifting faults, Tomas says, are:

  • Incorrect engine-starting procedures. Having the car in neutral and the clutch depressed, he says, minimizes starter and battery wear and is also safer.
  • Waiting at stop signs with the car in gear. Tomas admits there are two schools of thought on this but prefers to have the car in neutral and (foot off the clutch)
  • Leaving the car parked either in gear only or secured only with the handbrake. Use them both, he says.
  • “Clutchitis” – depressing the clutch every time the brakes are applied.
  • Incorrect footwork on slow maneuvers such as parking.
  • Jerky starting, or rolling back on hill-starts.
  • Holding the car on a hill for extended periods with the clutch and accelerator.

Loves standards

The man knows what he is talking about. Tomas has taught standard-shift with Young Drivers of Canada, worked with disabled drivers, and even instructed instructors.

He figures he can take a licensed driver who has never used a stick-shift and within the first hour “have them taking off without jumping. Once they understand the clutch, it’s smooth sailing.”

And he’s a great believer in standard-transmission cars.

“A stick-shift gives you greater control over traction, power and handling and the greater degree of driver involvement also makes you more aware of what’s going on. It’s safer.

“it makes you flexible. Your can drive any type of car, anywhere in the world. And it’s more fun than driving an automatic.

“And it’s cheaper. You’re going to save about $1,000 on the purchase price of a new car if the transmission is manual rather than automatic. If you drive it correctly, your repair bills will be lower. And you’ll also save a lot of fuel – about 11 per cent if it’s a four-speed; 15 per cent with a five-speed.

“Just figure out the global fuel savings if everyone in the world drove a stick-shift.”

Once you’ve got it figured out you can reach Carlos Tomas and Shifters at (416) 921-7845.