The Ultimate Driving Experience – Drive a BMW With A Manual Transmission
I love manual transmissions – they are found in cars with three pedals to those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about. And I’m sad to report that experts warn me that loving to row through the gears myself puts me out of step with the general car buying public. And while some performance orientated manufacturers like BMW still offer their customers a true, shift-it-yourself option, wanting one, dare I say, needing one makes me a member of a dying breed.
I did not come by this affection for manual trannys recently. While my first car had a slush box, every car after that (coming on to 4 decades of driving) has had three pedals. I prefer manuals because they are cheaper to buy, cheaper to own, are generally more reliable, can offer better fuel mileage and are a heck of a lot more fun to drive to boot. If you are addicted to automatics, let me try and lure you over to the three pedal side of the street.
Transmission Fundamentals – A manual transmission is a direct connection between the engine and the drive wheels. Unlike a typical automatic, which has a power robbing device called a torque converter sitting between the engine and transmission, the power coming from your engine gets directed to the wheels in a manual transmission through the flywheel, clutch disk and pressure plate. NOTE – There are some BMW “manual” transmissions with an “automatic clutch” – a system that presses the clutch pedal for you and can even shift like a traditional automatic. They work great but they are still a minority offering, can be very expensive and generally (but not always) are installed on super high performance vehicles, not on a “daily driver”.
The way this whole manual transmission thing works is quite simple, actually. First, the crankshaft is connected to a heavy metal disk called the flywheel. It sits on the end of the crankshaft and spins in time to your engine’s RPM. As the crankshaft turns inside the engine, the flywheel spins outside. (You can’t see it; it’s hidden in a bell-shaped housing called, of all things, a bell housing!) The energy from the spinning flywheel is transferred to the transmission through the clutch disk and the pressure plate. The pressure plate’s job is to clamp the clutch disk to the spinning fly wheel. When you release the pressure by pressing the clutch pedal to the floor (that’s the third pedal) and you disconnect your engine from the transmission. When you take your foot off the clutch pedal, power can go back through the transmission. This is how the power of the engine gets to the transmission. From the transmission, the power is transferred to the drive line and away you go. Like I said, it’s simple.
Get The Picture – Most cars with manual transmissions have a picture or icon on the top of the shift knob showing the gear box’s shift pattern. Normally, the pattern resembles, in some form or another, the letter “H” with first gear (i.e., low) on the upper left with second gear directly below it. Third gear would be up and to the right of the H and fourth would be directly below third.
If a car has a 5 speed or, like modern manual BMW’s, 6 speed manual transmission, the pattern usually continues with fifth gear up to the right like first and third with sixth directly below fifth like second and fourth. Depending on the number of gears and age of the car, reverse could be to the left of first or the right of the top gears – you have to look at the picture or check the owner’s manual. Oh yes, one more complication; I used to drive an old race car that had a “road race” shift pattern – first was down and to the left and second was where first normally resides in most cars. This design assumes that on a race track, you would only need first for starting and that shifting in the more useful gears would make driving quickly easier. Good idea in theory, but it took me a while to master in practice.
Shifting -To shift from neutral to first or from one gear to the other gears, you have to temporarily disengage the engine from the transmission. This is accomplished by pressing in on the clutch pedal (again, that’s that third pedal on the left in a manual transmission car). Failing to press (and hold) the third pedal prior to shifting usually results in a harsh grinding sound – especially when you attempt this maneuver from a dead stop. If you smash the gears around too many times, the grinding noise will start to resemble the sound of your money going down the drain! You have been warned!.
Every time you want to go from one gear to the next, you should press the clutch pedal fully, put the shifter in the desired gear and smoothly release the clutch pedal. Could it be any easier?
Basic Technique – While shifting a manual transmission is really simple, there are some slightly tricky parts to the process that you have to master to be able to drive smoothly and safely on the road or the track. The first challenge is starting the engine correctly. You should always place the transmission in neutral when starting and you should also always press and hold down the clutch pedal as you start the motor. Some cars even have a lockout switch under the clutch pedal to prevent your engine from turning over and suddenly lurching forward should you accidentally try to start with the car with the transmission in gear. Naturally, your right foot should be on the brake, or the hand brake should be engaged to prevent the car from rolling. Once the car is started, you should take your foot off the clutch pedal – I’ll explain why later. Happily, new BMW’s have a hill holder feature that keeps yoru car from rolling when you take yoru foot off the gas to press the gas pedal.
The Dreaded Inertia – To get the car moving, you have to overcome inertia. If you remember from Mr. Kenny’s physics class in High School, a body at rest tends to stay at rest so you have to press the clutch, engage the lowest gear you have (normally, that’s first because it gives you the greatest mechanical advantage) and slowly release or let up on the clutch to get the car rolling. If you try to start the car in a higher gear, as a rule you will just stall out the motor. But if you do this too many times, you will prematurely burn out (meaning use-up) the clutch. Mastering starting off from a dead stop is the hardest part of driving a manual transmission car. I know because I had to learn it myself and I have, over the years, taught many people how to use a manual and getting the start up right is always the big enchilada.
Skip Barber’s Secret – The best way to learn the feel where your car’s clutch “grabs” is to try this trick revealed to me by a senior Skip Barber Racing School instructor.
Start with your car on level ground – you should check you are on level ground by releasing the hand and foot brakes and if the car doesn’t roll, you’re good.
Next, with the engine running, press in on the clutch pedal and put the shifter in first gear.
Now, have faith, take your right foot away from the gas pedal – that’s right; do not touch the gas at all!
Slowly, ever so slowly, let up on the clutch until you start to feel the car roll forward – again, don’t press the gas pedal. And don’t fret if the car stalls. That just means you let up on the clutch too quickly. What you are trying to do is slowly “slip” the clutch so that you start to overcome inertia without stalling the engine. Repeat this process until you can consistently let up on the clutch pedal on level ground without touching the gas and without stalling the car. The whole point of the exercise is to give you experience feeling where your clutch “grabs”. With time, you will develop “muscle memory” and be able to start off without thinking. You really can’t hurt the engine, clutch or transmission doing this and in the long run, once you have mastered it, this skill will help save wear and tear on the all-important friction parts (i.e., the clutch disk).
The Right Foot – Once you are sure you can get the car rolling on level ground, you are ready for your first real start. As in the previous exercise, have the car running with your foot on the clutch and the car in first gear. Only this time, put your right foot on the gas pedal and bring up the engine’s revs. (For your first attempts, go to around 2,000 RPM and with experience, adjust the speed as needed.) Initially, you may want to look at the tachometer but eventually, you will get a sense of where the sweet spot is from feel and engine sound. Repeat what you learned before and slowly release the clutch pedal. If all goes well, you will move off from a dead stop a little more briskly than you did before. If you stall the car, release the pedal more slowly next time. If you chirp the tires or the car lurches forward, use a little less gas. Note, if you suddenly let up on the gas while the car is rolling in first, the car will buck back and forth – no big thing but not cool for your passengers.
Again, practice this until you can get the car moving away smoothly and briskly. Be mindful – now that you are applying more power, you could accidentally start to burn up the clutch. You want to spend the minimal amount of time “slipping the clutch” when starting. If you see smoke or smell burning, you have started to do damage – stop and go back to the first exercise.
Going Up – You can’t just drive in first so as your speed builds, you will need to shift to a higher gear. To do this you need to build a little speed in first (to 15 or 20 MPH), depress the clutch pedal and pull the shift lever back into second gear. Then, release the clutch pedal. The process to do this will take you much less time than it takes to read it. For fuel economy and engine longevity reasons, you should not run the engine up to red line (i.e., max RPM’s) with every shift. Shifting in the middle of the power band is usually good enough in day to day driving. Shifting from second to third and third to fourth is done the same way. Build speed in the lower gear, press the clutch, make the shift and release the clutch.
What Goes Up Must Go Down – Naturally, when you slow down, you can’t stay in a high gear so you will have to down shift to the appropriate gear. (Trying to drive at a slow speed in too high a gear will cause grunts and groans from the engine and is called “lugging” the engine – a bad thing.) If you are going highway speeds and come to a slow exit ramp, you have to do a little foot ballet to slow the car and get the transmission in the right gear. Here’s how that’s done.
First, always get rid of your speed by pressing the brake pedal – it’s the safest thing to do. When you brake, you should also bring your left foot over to the clutch pedal in case you have to change to a lower gear. If you were braking from 65MPH to 55MPH, you probably would not have to down shift. If, however, you went from 65MPH and had to take a corner at 20MPH, you most likely have to go from fourth or fifth gear down to second or third. With experience and practice, you will learn which gear to be in at what speed. You just need to remember – press the brake first with your right foot to get rid of your speed. It’s always safer to do that first and then, when you down shift to a lower gear, there will be less strain on the drive train (Transmission, axles and rear end gears).
Expert Tips – My friend Tommy “The Juice” taught me to drive a manual transmission in an hour and I have doing so happily for 40 years without ever burning out a clutch or damaging a transmission. My wife learned to drive a manual on our honeymoon and she too has put hundreds of thousands of miles on manual transmission equipped cars – all without a single burned out clutch. But there are a few tips you need to heed to make you just as successful.
First, do not “ride the clutch” – spend as little time as possible with your foot on the clutch pedal. If you master the simple overcome inertia exercise described earlier, you should be on and off the clutch very quickly. Second, never sit at a light with the car in gear and the motor running. This puts a strain on important and expensive parts like the throw-out bearing, pressure plate and the clutch disk. I have seen people rocking their car in first gear at a light, holding it in place by slipping the clutch. I have a word for people who do that – DUMB! Third, do not rest your right hand on the shifter and do not rest your left foot on the clutch pedal while driving. Both practices are common and can cause premature wear on the transmission and related parts. Finally, at a hill, to prevent the car from rolling backward, I click on the emergency brake. When the light changes, I press the clutch, put the car in first, raise the RPMs and slowly release the hand brake. It works and I have a lot of miles of experience to prove it. Again, all new BMW’s with manual transmissions will not roll backward thanks to their hill holding technology.
Most important – shift gently. Don’t “bang” shifts or do power shifts. These put strain and cause wear on really expensive parts inside the transmission called syncros. These are, essentially, metal brake pads that slow the internal speed of the gears and allow them to mesh together without clashing or grinding. When they wear out, you are looking at paying for a complete transmission rebuild.
That’s it – all you need to know to begin to enjoy the thrill of driving a car with a manual transmission. With practice, the whole process becomes automatic (pun intended) and will open up a whole new world of potential cars to drive and enjoy.
For a complete description of what makes a clutch work, mechanically, check this web site. http://www.automotivearticles.com/Clutch_Operation_Explained.shtml