What I wanted to know was simple: how to drive a manual without breaking it, since repairs are expensive and every piece of advice I got was b.s. So I called up a rally champion and found out what will actually blow up your car in the space of an afternoon, and what will keep it running just about forever.
I first learned to drive manual when I was 16 thanks to my parents’ long-term investment in a series of 1980s Volvos. In retrospect, they were great cars to learn on, since their engines made less than 100 horsepower, and the worst thing that could happen when you stalled out was a weak lurch forward.
Still, my dad didn’t teach me to drive manual so much as he just kind of passed it down through osmosis. For years my goal was only to drive smoothly, like he did. As close as I could get it to feeling like an automatic.
But I always wondered, too, if my version of smooth was optimal. Was I actually hastening the transmission’s demise by slipping the clutch too much? And engine braking feels awfully violent sometimes, huh? What about when I’d occasionally hear the gears grind?
Over the years, I got a lot of different answers from a lot of different people—some of it seemed to make sense, some didn’t. If you bring up driving a manual in the right crowd, armchair experts come out of the woodwork.
Anyway, I finally got around to asking an actual expert this week in the form of Wyatt Knox at Team O’Neil Rally School. When Wyatt isn’t disassembling manual transmissions to show you how they work, he’s teaching you how to heel-and-toe shift. He’s also a former Rally America champion, though we talked about regular driving, the driving of the masses.
It turns out that my younger self was doing some things wrong and some things right.