The Easiest Way To Destroy Your Car’s Manual Transmission

The Easiest Way To Destroy Your Car’s Manual Transmission
Photo: AP

What I wanted to know was simple: how to drive a manual without breaking it, since repairs are expensive. I got a lot of different answers from a lot of different people — some of it seemed to make sense, some didn’t.

So I called up a rally champion and got the definitive word on what will 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?

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.

Slipping the Clutch is One of the Fastest Ways to Blow Your Shit Up

Take slipping the clutch, the term for what you do when you slowly lift your foot off the pedal to engage the clutch, but you don’t fully engage it, and you leave it hovering in a weird grey area. You might do this while easing your way into gear, you might do this while stopped on a hill so you when you restart you don’t roll back, you even might do this inadvertently while shifting in higher gears.

But whenever you do it, Wyatt says, it will accelerate wear and tear of the clutch, even if some clutch-slipping (as minimal as you can stand it) is necessary, like when you’re starting in first gear from a stop. The reason? Clutch-slipping heats everything up, and all that heat on your clutch can fry it. If you do it for too long, you’ll destroy your clutch in the space of a few hours.

“The longer you spend in that grey area the less life you’re going to get out of your clutch,” Wyatt says. “You could get a couple of hundred thousand miles out of a clutch if you want to, or you could burn it out in an afternoon.”

The best release of the clutch pedal when shifting is quick but not too quick, since you also don’t want to just dump it into gear, both to keep the ride smooth and to protect the gears. Still, Wyatt said that if he had to choose between slipping and dumping, he’d go with dumping, since gears are pretty tough, and clutches less so.

How Long Would It Actually Take To Destroy A Transmission Grinding Gears? Longer Than You’d Think.

Which leads us to grinding, or that awful noise you hear when you engage the clutch halfway into the gear, or when you try to shift without disengaging the clutch and the revs aren’t matched, or when you’re coasting in neutral and you try to put the car into gear without first disengaging the clutch.

The sound is very bad and even panic-inducing but, I was happy to learn, far from the end of the world. Wyatt says if you intentionally ground a gear, it would be an hour or two before it was stripped, meaning that “you’ve got a lot in the bank” before that happens, since most drivers hear the noise and within a few seconds remedy the situation by putting it back in neutral.

Is Engine Braking That Bad? No, But It’s Not That Good Either.

One thing my dad did that always confounded me was engine braking, or downshifting to slow down instead of using the brakes. A former auto mechanic, he used to say he did this to save the brakes, but that reasoning always felt a little suspect to me, and, indeed Wyatt said that if you want to protect your clutch and transmission long-term, you should shift into neutral, release the clutch, and then hit the brakes.

The slowing effect of downshifting, he says, “is what the brakes are for.”

And Just For Fun, Here’s How to Launch Your Car Without Breaking Everything

And while this blog is aimed at normal people, and not maniacs, let’s say you really want to launch the car while causing the least amount of harm. One easy rule: Never put the pedal to the floor until the clutch is fully engaged. Before all that, though, rev the engine to 3,000 or 4,000 rpm, and release the clutch quickly but not too quickly. Too quickly and you’ll break the clutch then and there, too slowly and you might fry it.

Best, though, for those of us who don’t have unlimited budgets, is to ease the car into first gear at much lower rpm and fully engage the clutch. After that, there’s no risk to the transmission at all. Feel free to punch it.

This story originally appeared on Jalopnik.

This story has been updated since its previous publication.


  • “Wyatt said that if you want to protect your clutch and transmission long-term, you should shift into neutral, release the clutch, and then hit the brakes.”

    Hope you’re not driving a truck, because you’re going to crash it.

    • Yes… that might be an acceptable practice while rally driving, where there are no other cars, the track is known, there are no pedestrians, cyclists etc.
      People need to be in control of their vehicle as much as possible, you should always be in a gear appropriate to the speed you’re travelling at, even if decelerating. No need to stress the engine by excessive engine braking, but you should still change down gears as you decelerate.

    • Commonly called coasting in neutral, when I got my license in 1967 the testing officer would fail you for doing this because you weren’t in full control of the car. Back then just about everything was manual, I thrashed them mercilessly and never had one fall apart, most manual gearboxes can take a hell of a beating.

      Slipping the clutch is definitely bad news.

  • The other thing I recommend is learning to feather the gears. That’s the term my brother gave it. It’s basically putting 2nd, 3rd 4th gear, and so on without the clutch. Your clutch will last a lot longer this way. I have a 1999 eclipse with 160k miles and I’ve never changed the clutch.

  • The point of engine braking is that you’re going down a long hill, the brakes are liable to overheat (this is less frequent now), and that you’re protecting the vehicle’s ability to stop itself.

  • Engine breaks are good if you are going down hill for longer than abt 200 meters. Otherwise I’d always neutral and break or just leave it in the same gear and let it go down the hill. most of the new cars cut off the fuel supply when there’s a negative load in the engine.

    Remember… It’s always easier and cheaper to change ur breaks than the clutch than the gear box

    Gear Box > Clutch > Breaks

    Happy & Safe Driving…

  • The whole reason there are arrester beds on the road down into Adelaide is – brakes can fail. Failing brakes on a large vehicle, rolling down from the Adelaide hills, is a Bad Thing.

    Keeping your car / truck in low gear for the duration of the descent, and / or using the gravel arrester beds, can be a life saver.

  • There’s damn good reason that truckies refer to neutral as angel gear – use it too often and you will end up being one!

    When i did my practical driving exam to get my license, I was actually penalised a point for “not selecting lower gear when going down hill”, which is basically the same as relying too much on brakes.

    So, the article is wrong. Yes, gear are for going and brakes are for slowing, but there are times when engine braking is necessary to avoid brakes overheating and fading on prolongeed descents.

  • Dont ride your clutch on hill starts. Its the quickest way to wear out the clutch cable especially in older cars. And getting that replaced is both hard and expensive.

  • Wyatt said that if you want to protect your clutch and transmission long-term, you should shift into neutral, release the clutch, and then hit the brakes.Terrible advice, for all the reasons other commenters have given (above).

    Manual cars are designed for drivers to use the engine, when in gear, to assist with braking.

    As for one commenters remark about ‘feathering’, it referred to the ability to sync engine and road speed to be able to change gears without using the clutch. That is advanced driving, and can do a lot of damage if you get it wrong.

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