Learning to Drive a Manual at Honda’s First Annual Shifting Gears Event
Keeping the art alive in the age of automation
LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDEGE, California — My first encounter with a manual transmission car occurred in the early 1990s in my dad's 1984 Ford F-150 pickup in the parking lot of a park. I was a wimpy looking 13-year girl who thought she could do anything the world tossed her way after driving a manual that day. Years later, there were occasional opportunities to drive a manual thanks to guy friends who were carefree enough to allow me to get behind the wheel. Though I lacked this basic life skill, I always managed to keep the car rolling without crashing or destroying the clutch. After these experiences, I purchased a pre-owned 1998 Toyota Camry with an automatic transmission and driving a manual became a faint memory of my teenage years.
When Honda extended the invitation to attend their first annual Shifting Gears event near Angeles Crest Highway, it compelled me to learn how to drive a manual again. Though there are pros to not driving a manual in Los Angeles traffic there are also cons to not being able to do so, such as being unable to drive manual test cars—like the fabulous Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and Honda Civic Type R that I missed out on testing during the 2018 edition of our annual Automobile All-Stars competition.
Eager to learn the art of driving a manual, I arrived an hour and some change before Honda's first training session went into effect. While I waited I browsed through the various Hondas on hand: the Fit, Civic Type R, Civic Si Coupe, Accord Sport 2.0T, and the HR-V. But wait, there's more: Honda also brought along a first-generation Civic, a Prelude, an S2000 CR, a 1999-2000 Civic Si coupe, and a Z600 coupe. All were available to drive—after successfully completing the training, of course. (Due to some mechanical issues on arrival, however, the Z600 coupe and first-gen Civic were not available for use.)
The cool thing about this event is that Honda also welcomed those who already possessed the skill of driving a manual to participate just for fun. Experienced manual drivers could arrive at any time during the event and drive any available car up Angeles Crest Highway. Learners like myself, however, were required to pass the manual driving exercises first. Honda used colored wristbands to separate the two groups—learners were were given a blue wristband while experienced manual drivers were given a red one.
After viewing an entertaining primer video that Honda produced about the manual driving exercises, I was paired up with instructor Chris Martin of Honda Public Relations. On the enclosed course set up for learners, Martin went over the basics and before I knew it, I was in the driver seat of the Honda Fit, shifting into first gear. The car stalled and shut off a number of times and driving a manual up Angeles Crest started feeling more like a fantasy.
"Put it in first gear and release the clutch pedal slowly. You don't have to push the gas pedal immediately because you can control the speed with the clutch pedal," instructed Martin.
On the other hand, for some odd reason, reverse proved a walk in the park as I nailed it after a few attempts. Clutch pedal, gear, release clutch, gas pedal, release gas pedal, clutch, gear, gas pedal...this kept playing on my mind like a version of Daft Punk's "Technologic."
I worked my way up to third gear and when I finally demonstrated that I had a good grip on the basics I was ready to go on the public roads. I explained to Chris that I really wanted to learn how to downshift because it was something I struggled with in the past. Once I got the Honda Fit rolling on the road, that was the first concept I practiced.
There were two routes designated for learners and manual drivers and we mistakenly went off route. But instead of panicking I pretended to be a driver with years of experience operating a manual.I successfully completed the off-route driving exercise without stalling and graduated with honors. After I obtained a red wristband, without thinking twice, I signed up for a Honda Civic Si coupe and accelerated up Angeles Crest Highway. All I need to say about this is that driving a manual up the famed mountain road will forever be one of the coolest things I have ever accomplished as a driver.
Prior to leaving Shifting Gears, I chatted with Carl Pulley, Assistant Manager of Honda Public Relations, and asked how the event came to be. "We wanted to get our mojo back by bringing the fun to driving. That's what Honda is about. We are one of the few brands that still offers a manual across all passenger vehicles," stated Pulley. "We want to teach people a new life skill. Driving a manual is a fully immersive and engaging experience and we wanted to share the enthusiasm of driving a manual."
Honda's strategy to teach drivers how to operate a manual was a fun and educational experience. What I appreciated the most is how laid-back the instructors were and that they offered many opportunities to go for a drive in a wide variety of vehicles. And not not just on any road, but on Angeles Crest Highway. What more can one ask for? There couldn't be a more effective way to learn manual. They made the entire process of learning how to drive a manual less intimidating and more like a life skill one should possess.
Now that I know how to drive a manual, I can get into our long-term Honda Civic Type R. Thank you Honda. I look forward to attending the next event and hopefully this time I can get behind the wheel of that S2000 CR.
Top 10 Reasons to Drive a Manual Transmission according to Honda
10. You can pretend you're a racecar driver
9. Thwart would-be car thieves...well, some of them
8. Strengthen your left calf and right arm
7. Drive a friend's car home after they celebrated too much
6. It goes with your other DIY hobbies (craft beer, beekeeping, etc.)
5. Texting and driving is hard...and, really stupid
4. More control of the vehicle - unleash your inner control freak
3. Drive a rental in Timbuktu (or Europe)
2. Take the long way home because...
1. ...it's WAY more fun!
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