Do you remember when you first tried driving a manual transmission? Did you make any sense of the stick shift’s geometry? Would “driving” even be an accurate word to describe what you did in that vehicle, lurching it forward in short spurts only to kill the car shortly after animating it?

If you’re as illiterate as me when it comes to piloting a manual, those few, embarrassing endeavors are likely seared in your brain. They are not fun memories.

My sole attempt came around 2006 when, as a teenager, I did my best to maneuver my friend Brock’s Toyota Tacoma through a parking lot where we loitered in high school. That he was in the passenger seat narrating through the steps – bless him for that – didn’t keep me from killing the pick-up around 11 times before making a full loop through the lot. I have avoided stick shifts since, opting always to pay more money and endure more hassle to rent an automatic when on vacation in Europe, or to shirk driving responsibilities on a group trip that involves a manual car.

But maybe I could be cured. Maybe, on a closed course with a proper instructor (sorry Brock), I could figure out how to massage the clutch, how to engage the throttle just enough, and how to turn those steps into something fluid that resembles real driving.

Gallery: Mini Manual Transmission Models

Learning To Beat Brock

I did so this month at the suggestion of Mini, a company that’s invested in keeping people interested in manuals. In November 2022, Mini USA announced that it would start making its Cooper, Cooper S, and John Cooper Works 2-door hardtops with manual transmissions again. Four more models – the Mini Cooper Convertible, Mini Cooper S Convertible, Mini Cooper 4-Door Hardtop, and Cooper S 4-Door Hardtop – just opened for ordering and will begin production in March.

Mini’s pitch is that driving a manual is more fun. It sounds plain to say, but it’s really not more complicated than that. (The story of the popularity of manuals in America is of course more complicated – at a Mini presentation I attended, there was talk of the “threat” electric vehicles posed to the business of manual transmissions.)

As a brand, Mini wants its cars, and the act of driving them, to appear fun. Fun is, their corporate communications director tells me, the cornerstone of Mini.

So in addition to offering more manuals, Mini is working to convince people that driving these cars; like, really making them hum and pur, is a fun thing to do. Not so in my memory, but I could be convinced otherwise, and I am willing to try to learn.

2024 Mini lineup

Take To The Track

This month, Mini flew me out to Palm Springs and put me up in a hotel near the Thermal Club, a bougie motorsport country club in the California desert that caters to owners of all sorts of exquisite and desirable automobiles. These collectors buy plots of land at the club (priced at $1.5 million each) and build houses on them to host their rare cars, taking them out for joy rides along the club’s five miles of racetrack.

BMW, which owns Mini, is a member of the club. Its property there comprises the BMW Group Performance Center West, where you can whip around BMWs and Minis on a couple different chunks of track. There is a Mini stunt driving school ($750) and a Mini manual driving school ($499) that just opened this month.

My guide in both of these courses was Rob Stout at the Performance Center West. He describes himself as obsessed with driving in all forms. His name is a misnomer; Stout is a lanky 6’4.

Best case scenario: I am heel-toeing in Belgian loafers a la Ayrton Senna. Worst case scenario: I fail again, but in private.

He walked us through a few presentations about the stunt school and the manual school. Most enlightening in this was the description of how a manual transmission actually works – the visual breakdown of what’s going on mechanically primed me to push the correct pedals when I was actually behind the wheel. I can’t say I remember much of it now, weeks later, but it helped me feel confident in the moment. Although, we were assured that the stakes were relatively low.

“We’re not going to do anything to put you guys in a dangerous presentation,” said Stout, which was a relief but also a bit of a let down. We were, we were told, not exactly going to be driving like Dom Toretto.

Best case scenario: I am heel-toeing in Belgian loafers a la Ayrton Senna. Worst case scenario: I fail again but in private, away from the anxiety that trying to learn to drive a manual in a public place, with a friend as a teacher, induces.


Before we hit the track for the manual driving lessons, I consulted my old friend Brock to see if he had any more wisdom to impart on me. He sent long texts with exact advice – ”push the clutch all the way down to avoid grinding gears” and ”accelerator and clutch work like a seesaw when getting the car rolling” – until I let him know that I had a real teacher this time who would walk me through the steps.

I wasn't asking Brock how to drive a manual, I was asking him how it feels to drive a manual.

“I’m not going to tell you stick shift is better in any meaningful way,” he admitted before adding a caveat that would spark a twinkle in the eye of any Mini employee. “It is fun though.”

Out on the track, we loaded into Minis. A sense of dread crept in when I realized the instructors who’d be talking us through this portion of the day wouldn’t actually sit in the cars with us. Instead, they communicated through walkie talkies, and there wasn’t a real way to go back-and-forth with them as you make your initial attempts. Fortunately, another of the day’s participants sitting passenger was a guy who actually knew how to drive a manual.

Shifting between gears felt like playing a mini-game in a video game, where I had to find the right window of time to finesse a couple of quick motions.

When we actually had to make the cars move, starting them up and then easing off the clutch to give them enough oomph to roll along, I was surprised at first how smooth it felt. Shifting between gears felt like playing a mini-game in a video game, where I had to find the right window of time to finesse a couple of quick motions.

I’m not going to describe to you here what exactly those motions are – that would be about as useful as my friend’s text message tips. You are not going to learn much about driving a manual from reading my explanation of the experience. But you might gain comfort in knowing that it’s not that insurmountable, especially on a closed course with a couple experts that you can quiz about its nuances.

I’m also not going to lie and say the Mini manual school was painless. I was frantic in moments, pushing the shifter around to the wrong gear on a turn and panicking about what to do next, or trying to roll to a stop while multiple people stared at me and expected me to figure it out. Downshifting from second to first felt like hell, although I was told that wasn’t something a manual driver would have to do with great frequency in the real world.

Shifting between gears felt like playing a mini-game in a video game, where I had to find the right window of time to finesse a couple of quick motions.

I asked the instructor how viable it was that I could drive like Senna – he looked at me through his sunglasses for a few seconds before explaining that that wasn’t super likely for the level I was at.

Eventually I found some level of pride in what I could do with the manual Mini, pushing myself to up the difficulty. The course lags a little in challenge toward the end because it’s a small amount of space and at some point you’re meant to just keep looping around and shifting from first to third and back down, so I had to entertain myself by adding an occasional new mini-game.

The class runs about three and a half hours total, and we had about an hour of driving in the Mini. This felt like more than enough time to form a basic understanding of how to drive a manual.


Stunting On The Fundamentals

The obvious thing is that the considerably more fun offering of the two Mini schools was the stunt driving one. There, we jerked the handbrake up to spin the car around. We pushed 30 miles per hour in reverse, flicked it into neutral, and then pulled hard on the steering wheel for violent J-turns. It is the more enticing course if you’re at the Thermal Club for the totally understandable purpose of filling up your social media with footage of you doing wild stuff in a tiny automobile, and it’s the one that instills in you how fun a Mini can be.

You walk away from the stunt school with a less practical skillset, but also with the satisfying reward of adrenaline and freckles of black rubber sprayed across your face. Plus if you’re reasonably good at it, the instructors will gas you up with the obvious commentary about how you’re fit for the next Italian Job shoot, although I pictured myself more pirouetting across an Ohio motorway.

What did I walk away from the manual school with? A new confidence that if I absolutely had to pilot a manual transmission, I could. I’m not going to be renting a manual any time soon, but I’ll be happy to steer down the right secluded road to have another try. The course also gave me a foundation to build upon – much of what I learned is already slipping from my muscle memory, but I felt that with more practice I could sharpen the actions into habits.

The practice part is key. Driving a stick shift is not, we were told at the school, like riding a bike. This course won’t make you a master at manual driving, but it’s a good first step. After that, one needs repetition for the lessons to be really useful if you’re seriously considering becoming a full time manual person.

“Nobody ever really should be expected to do one thing one time and feel totally confident,” Stout said.

He’s right, and a couple weeks removed from the Mini manual driving school, the familiarity with manual transmissions I built in an afternoon has mostly faded. But I still have the memory and the private joy that for a few brief stretches of road, for a few moments in the California sun, I was really doing it, really driving a manual.

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