Learning to drive manual transmission has traditionally been a rite of passage, a learning experience shared from generation to generation. However, it may not be the best way to learn.
When I was 16, my grandfather took great pride in attempting to teach both of his granddaughters to drive his manual transmission Mazda Miata. While the memories will always be with me, the skill never stuck.
Driving a manual transmission car has always been a goal. And 63% of drivers agree that being able to “row your own” is an important life skill, according to a stud commissioned by Mini. However, the same study found that just 24% of those on the roads today are shifting gears.
Perhaps just as important is the fact that 53% of the respondents who didn’t know how to drive stick want to learn — a number that rises to 67% for drivers aged 18-34. Nearly half of all Gen Z (49%) and 42% of all women indicated they did not know how to drive a car with a manual transmission.
So when the opportunity arose to attend Mini Manual Driving School — $499 for a half day program and open to the public — to learn from professionals in a stress-free environment, I was beyond excited, and extremely nervous. Learning from professionals is usually the best way to gain a new skill, and the ability to learn on a track made it way more exciting.
Mini Manual Driving School
The Mini Driving School is located at BMW Performance Center West in Thermal, California, and it is a great place to learn new skills and bring a new level of confidence to any driver at any level of experience.
Since 2015, Mini has been teaching drivers, helping them to master skills on the track and allowing anyone to feel like a stunt driver. Classes are taught by professionals who love to drive and are passionate about having fun on the asphalt, and courses range from half a day to two days.
Arriving at the Performance Center, attendees begin with classroom instruction, including an outline of what to expect during the class. Instructors teach the basics of the mechanics of changing gears, your moves behind the wheel and the skills you’ll gain, and students can ask questions before getting out on the track.
Once all the nerves have settled, it is time to get behind the wheel.
Starting from new, gaining confidence
Now, the fun begins. Once buckled in the car, the first step for every driver in the group is to push in the clutch and then begin to release it to find the “sweet spot,” or the point when the car begins to move without pressing the throttle.
Once we learned to find the sweet spot, we were coached to put the car into first gear. We practiced this on a lap around the track to get the hang of it.
Then, we were coached to shift from first to second, and practiced for a few laps. And then, third gear. After every few laps, steps were added until each driver was running through the first three gears and downshifting to a stop.
And with every lap, confidence was gained.
As we learned, instructors, Chris Hill and Loni Unser, gave us feedback and tips on the radio. This was great help to learn how much throttle to give when shifting gears and coming around curves. The feeling of accomplishing a downshift before a turn and hearing “great job car No. 4” from your instructors is awesome. After two hours, our class was zipping through the course, upshifting and downshifting with a check in at the beginning of each lap.
By the end of the class, everyone in the group was on the hunt for a manual of their own.
Making manuals more attractive
Not every moment is sunshine and roses and the sooner one understands that while stalling can be humiliating, especially for new drivers, it’s also part of the process. However, when driving a Mini it’s not quite so embarrassing, courtesy of its “Auto-Start” feature.
Auto-Start automatically restarts the car after a stall once the clutch is fully engaged. While stalling is inevitable for new drivers, this feature made the prospect less intimidating.
Then, to make manual driving even more attractive, the company is adding four new manual models to Mini’s 2024 line-up: Mini Cooper Convertible, Mini Cooper S Convertible, Mini Cooper 4-Door Hardtop, and Mini Cooper S 4-Door Hardtop. The company hopes that these offerings — and the driving school — will entice new drivers who want a manual transmission car to make the shift to rowing their own.
More fun? How about stunt driving?
Learning to drive stick under the tutelage of expert instructors is a fantastic experience. However, if you’re already at the Performance Center for half a day, why not complete the experience with by learning stunt driving?
That was Mini’s thought too, so we spent the afternoon at Mini Stunt School — this time driving automatic transmission cars. Typically, though, the Stunt School is a full-day course for students to learn how to do tricks behind the wheel. Learning stunt driving in a safe environment is an adrenaline rush like no other.
The first trick we learned was an “E-Brake Turn.” Each driver accelerated to 25 mph to then “rip the E-Break out of the floor and whip it.” Then, drivers were taught how to do a reverse 180 which involved accelerating to 25 miles per hour in reverse, shifting to neutral to then turn 180 degrees.
After each driver was able to burn some rubber, these two skills were put together in a course and each driver drove the course in a competition format. This exhilarating minutelong course was the perfect amount of whipping around and feeling like the main character in a car chase movie.
At the end of the day, my confidence behind the wheel had grown tremendously. Now, I just have to find a manual transmission car that I can drive regularly to continue practicing my skills — until I get one of my own.
And of course, pass the skill on to the next generation.
Cameron Reiss is a tech executive at Canva and part time writer, with articles published by A Girls Guide to Cars. A graduate of the University of Alabama, she lives in Austin, Texas with her boyfriend and her dog, Ranger. She drives a Hyundai Veloster Turbo.