Here’s how you drive a manual van:
- Sit comfortably and fasten your seat belt.
- Press the clutch to the floor.
- Put the gearshift in neutral.
- Turn on the ignition key.
- Shift to the first gear.
- Release the parking brake.
- Ease off the clutch a bit and gently press the gas.
- Fully release the clutch and roll.
A manual transmission van (or stick shift van, as most folks call them here) is something you’d rarely find in the US these days, even if you’ve settled your heart on a dinosaur like the Chevy Express or its GMC Savana twin.
But if you’re a newbie who’s probably gotten their hands on one from Japan or would like to rent one abroad, it calls for some bad-ass stick shift driver skills.
Just kidding, because I’ll tell you my experience briefly.
The first time I drove a manual van, it was pretty messy. Maybe that’s partly because the instructor happened to be my old man, and he’s a no-nonsense guy.
If there’s one thing I remember more, it’s how often he’d criticize me for grinding the clutch discs of his 1997 Nissan Caravan. For what it’s worth, I didn’t even know what those were at that time.
Now, yelling is one thing. But in my experience, nothing matches the fear that gnaws at your already fractured psyche when the engine stalls absurdly on a hill climb, or with heavy traffic behind you.
With practice, however, I finally got the hang of it, and here I am today to show you how to drive a manual van, step-by-step with no step skipped. Let’s roll.
Familiarize Yourself With How the Controls Feel
I highly recommend you familiarize yourself with the controls and get a feel of how everything works.
So this is where you first practice with the engine turned off in an empty parking lot. It’s also important that you find one on flat ground.
In my opinion, rolling down the windows a little could help you hear the engine revving and know when to shift gear. With time, however, you’ll just feel it.
I can’t stress this enough for the subsequent steps: never shift gears without fully pressing the clutch pedal to the floor!
Get To Know Where The Pedals Are
Notably, you’ll be using both feet when driving a manual van. Starting from the left, you have the clutch pedal, with the brake in the middle, and the gas pedal to its right.
Whether you’re handling a left-hand or right-hand drive van, it’s always in that order.
To give you a basic idea of what the clutch does, it’s simply a mechanism that connects or disconnects the engine from the wheels.
So when you press the clutch pedal, you’re disconnecting the engine from the wheels and vice versa.
Understand and Memorize The Gear Positions
The gear positions for the van you’ll be driving are in an H-pattern, with five forward gears and a reverse gear.
Unless your van’s cockpit magically becomes that of a Subaru Forester, I haven’t yet seen a manual van with six, seven, or more forward gears.
Don’t fret; you should find them all labeled on the gearshift.
You’re in neutral when the gearshift is at the center and can easily wobble from side to side.
Up and to the left, there’s the first gear. Going down and to the left, there’s the second gear.
The third gear is forward from the neutral position, and the fourth gear is down towards you from neutral.
You also engage the fifth gear by moving the shifter to the right and up. Lastly, the reverse gear is positioned down and to the right.
Start and Drive Your Manual Van Forward
This is where the fun begins, and once you’ve started the van and shifted to first gear, you’ve become a pro.
Spoiler alert: you’ll probably stall the first time you do it, but don’t get frustrated.
Here’s how to start and drive a manual van:
1. Sit Comfortably & Fasten Your Seat Belt
Before you start the van, adjust the driver’s seat so you can slide forward enough and reach the full range of the clutch pedal with your left foot.
Remember, if you ease off it prematurely, the van will stall, and you’ll have to begin afresh.
Once you’re seated comfortably, fasten your seatbelt and just relax.
2. Push the Clutch to the Floor
Press the clutch down to the floor with your left foot and hold it there. Notice also how the travel of this pedal is different from that of the gas and foot brake.
Remember, the clutch allows you to shift gears without grinding them, and you must push it in every time you change gear.
3. Start the Van In Neutral
With your left foot still on the clutch, move the gearshift to neutral (the center position). You can wiggle it from left to right just to be sure.
Next, insert the key, turn on the ignition, and enjoy the vroom. So now you’re just sitting there, the engine is running, and you’re doing nothing, which is all good — time to breathe.
4. Shift Into First Gear
I highly recommend checking the parking brake to ensure it’s engaged before you perform this step.
With the clutch still pressed down, move the shifter to the left and up away from you – that’s first gear.
The shifter isn’t going anywhere if you lift off your left foot prematurely, which is all good when the engine is off.
But if you make a mistake at this point, the engine will stall inevitably.
Pro Tip: Don’t look at the shifter as you change gear; that’s why you need to practice a lot beforehand.
5. Release the Parking Brake
Press the button at the tip of the parking brake and release it. I’d like to think you were doing all the previous steps on flat ground, and the van won’t go anywhere at this point.
If the van’s nose were pointing down a slope, you’d roll before you figure out what to do next.
6. Ease Off the Clutch a Bit & Tap the Gas a Little
Gently release the clutch until you feel the van shudder and start to roll a bit.
That’s the biting (or friction) point of the clutch, and it’s important you learn how to feel and hear it because then, driving manual will be a cinch.
If you hear the engine sound begin to drop, push the clutch back in. You can repeat this a couple of times until you’ve mastered the biting point.
At this point, you also inject some gas into the engine by pressing the gas pedal (accelerator) gently with your right foot.
Again, you might wonder at what point you stop giving the engine gas. Most folks will tell you it’s at 1500 RPM or thereabouts.
However, that’s not some real guideline. The first reason is that your van may not even have a tachometer.
But even if you install one, it’s more practical and sensible to concentrate on the road straight ahead, not some equipment on the dash. The same goes with your shifter, don’t look at it.
Just to bog you down once more, driving manual is all about perceiving stuff, right from the sole of your left foot to the different engine sounds 🙂
7. Release the Clutch Fully and Roll
Here’s where you gently release the clutch until the gears engage (you’ll feel some vibration). As you do so, push down on the gas with your right foot.
Now, don’t be part of the misconception that you must perfectly synchronize your feet in a ballet sort of movement.
That makes driving stick shift look a bit difficult, which shouldn’t be the case.
Instead, just release the clutch pedal as you feel it, without killing the engine.
You only have to ease off the clutch till you hear a slight drop in the engine revs, then apply light pressure on the gas as the clutch engages.
Once you get moving forward in first gear, release the clutch fully and drive around like you would in an automatic.
8. Start Again When You Stall
In my experience, a diesel engine doesn’t stall as easily as a petrol would.
Regardless, it can still happen, and you need to take it easy.
You’ve not hurt the van, and it’s something you should expect even. The thing is – you didn’t give the engine enough gas to move.
Simply push in the clutch once again, put the gear in neutral, and start the van as you did before, ensuring you pull out in first gear.
9. Shift Gears Appropriately
First things first, learn how to hold the gearshift so you can select the next gear carefully.
It’s practical and sensible to cup your palm on top of the shifter and rotate your hand, so your palm goes towards the gear you’re selecting. You won’t select the wrong gear this way.
Notably, your engine runs more smoothly and efficiently at more than just idle speed. So its best for it to be at roughly 1500 and 2000 RPM (don’t focus much on the tacho when driving, though).
Selecting the right gear helps you maintain that speed while ultimately saving fuel and your hard-earned bucks.
But if you choose the wrong gear, your engine may stall or rattle aggressively, aside from the fact that you’re taking a toll on its long-term efficiency.
That said, I’ll show you when and how to do both the upshift and downshift. So feel free to read on.
Upshift Once You’re Moving
In my experience, shifting gears will be a breeze compared to starting and moving the van.
To go from the first gear into the second:
- Push the clutch to the floor.
- Pull the gearshift down and to the left.
- Gently ease off the clutch to the biting point, then add more gas.
- Fully release the clutch and continue driving around in second gear.
Going from second to third, fourth, and fifth gears is pretty much the same, even more straightforward.
Interestingly, you can’t put the shifter in reverse once you’re moving forward, even by accident.
Modern stick shift vans are designed that way to avoid damaging the gearbox, so don’t freak out.
However, you should note that you need to transition smoothly between the gas and clutch as you upshift.
So how do you know when to upshift?
There’s no fixed rule here that’s tied to the RPM reading on the tachometer.
Remember, vans are different, and go by how the engine sounds and how you feel it.
Once the engine revs up and you can tell the distinct noise, it’s time to move to a higher gear.
Generally, low gears like the first and second translate to high torque and more power to the wheels, and you’ll use them while pulling out.
So in the first gear, you might be doing 10 MPH or less, and you may shift to the second when you’re rolling at around 20 MPH.
You shift to the third gear when you want to begin accelerating, let’s say between 25 and 30 MPH.
At high speeds, you’ll likely drive the fourth or fifth gears, above 45 MPH, like on the highway.
Again, nothing here is cast in stone.
However, you might wind up in a higher gear sooner than you should, and it’s at this point that you’ll sense no significant change in the forward motion.
Instead, the van rattles a lot, and you have to downshift, which I’ll explain next.
Pro Tip: Ensure you check out the speed limits for various states to which you’ll drive.
Downshift To Slow Down
Here’s why you need to downshift in a manual van:
Downshifting is useful when negotiating traffic, going through corners smoothly, navigating dangerous features like potholes and small rocks, or simply reducing speed without using the brake.
Here’s how you know when to downshift without looking at the tachometer:
If your van is going rather slow for the current gear, you’ll feel the engine lagging the transmission. You know it when the van begins to shudder, rattle, produce a low rumble, or feel like it’s almost sending you to a stall.
Of course you want to downshift when this happens even to the slightest degree. In time you’ll know when it is going to happen and be able to downshift just before.
To downshift while in motion, press the clutch to the floor, release the gas pedal, then shift to a lower gear. Afterward, release the clutch gently, then depress the gas pedal again.
Suppose I’m in fifth gear. I’ll drop to the third gear as I slowly approach a junction, then drop to the second as I decide what to do.
If it’s clear, I’ll stay in second gear. Otherwise, I might go all the way to the first, ready to pull out.
Note that you don’t have to downshift through all the gears if you’re to slow down. You can quickly move from fifth to third or fourth to second gear.
Moreover, you’ll rarely go down to the first gear once you’re rolling. Think of it as the gear you should be at when you’re ready to shift to the second or higher.
The 5 Tips for Driving a Manual Van In Traffic
Once you hit the road in a van, keep these tips in mind:
1. Stay Calm
People will keep honking at you when you stall in traffic as nobody cares you’re a newbie.
It’s at this point that you accept it could happen to anyone. Breathe, and repeat the steps for starting.
2.Maintain Stopping Distance
As a rule of thumb, keep a stopping distance of at least four full seconds with the vehicle ahead of you.
That’s because you could stall, and the van will lurch forward when it happens. You don’t want to ram into the rear bumper of someone’s car.
Make sure you don’t use roads where other vehicles and people are until you are confident and sure you can use the manual gears. For example, use an empty car park to practice in.
3. Use the Parking Brake When Starting Up a Hill
In case you’re having trouble on an incline, you might be worried about rolling backward into someone’s bumper.
Engage the parking brake for a moment as you restart and gain enough RPMs for pulling out. Release it just as you ease off the clutch.
4. Avoid Riding the Clutch
Riding the clutch means you’re resting your left foot on the clutch pedal when you’re in gear.
However much you’re pressing lightly and haven’t disengaged completely, it causes unnecessary wear and tear on the clutch mechanism, which should only engage and disengage momentarily.
Part with this: once you’ve successfully shifted into gear or are in neutral, ease off the clutch pedal completely.
5. No Multitasking
It’s a no-brainer: you’ll be using both hands and both feet when driving a stick shift, which calls for coordination.
Sorry, but no snacking, texting, or calling at this point.
Here’s how to stop a manual van:
- Lift your right foot off the gas pedal.
- Push the clutch to the floor.
- Press the brake pedal with your right foot.
- When you’re close to stopping, move the shifter into neutral.
- Release the clutch fully once you’ve stopped.
Pro Tip: You don’t have to downshift successively through the gears.
How to Reverse a Manual Van
I first introduced stopping because you must bring the van to a halt before you can ever go backward.
But you can start in reverse, and the procedure is quite the same.
Here’s how you shift a manual van into reverse:
- Press the clutch all the way down.
- Move the shifter to the reverse position. That is, to the right and down.
- Look in the mirrors or check your blind spot monitoring system.
- Gently press on the gas pedal as you ease off the clutch.
Your van should begin to move backward. But if it stalls, repeat the procedure, this time being more gentle on the clutch, and press the gas a little more.
How you park depends on the surface you’ve stopped on or the space you’re in. For example, if I back up into my garage, which is on level ground, here’s what I do:
I press the clutch fully down, put the shifter into first gear, engage the parking brake, then release the clutch.
If I park my van with the front bumper just off a wall, I’d follow the above procedure but put my shifter in reverse.
Suppose I hop in and absent-mindedly start and pop the clutch; at least I won’t bump into the wall.
I’d also leave the shifter in reverse if I park with the nose of my van pointing down a gentle slope.
At first glance, driving a manual or stick shift van may seem intimidating because you’ve got to learn the subtle art of coordinating your hand and feet movements.
To be blunt, I expect you to lurch ridiculously on start and kill the engine a couple of times (plus a little bit of your ego).
And you’ll suck at it until the moment you’re not thinking hard about it. It’s more like learning to ride a bike as a kid without looking down at the pedals.
But once you know how to work with the clutch and shifting the stick is hard-wired into your subconscious, you’ll drive manual flawlessly, and handling auto will be a breeze.
I hope this guide helps you beef up your confidence with stick shifts, so give that manual van another try if you already did and found it ridiculous initially.