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Controlling the Clutch for an Easy Take-off

Your first step, before starting the engine with the ignition key/switch, is to familiarize yourself with handling all the other basic controls and switches without having to look down. You are not ready for anything else until you can find everything quickly, without your eyes needing to leave the road ahead. Your hand must be able on its own and without fail, to seek out and use the gear lever or hand brake; your feet must be at ease finding the right pedals. With regard to the switches, it is essential that you are able to work the flashing indicators, all the lights (including the headlight dipswitch and the headlight flasher). and to operate the wipers and washer(s), and the heater and demister controls too, without having to look for any of them.

Step two, before attempting to drive to any destination, must be initial mastery, on an open piece of ground or in a very quiet road, of the steering, brakes, clutch and gears.

If you have automatic transmission you will not need to worry about gear changes or using a clutch but you still need to begin in the same way in a quiet place to gain full command of your car before trying to cope with other traffic.

A Test pass with manual gears qualifies you to drive afterwards with automatic transmission. However, if you pass with automatic gears, you will be restricted to that type unless you pass again later with manual gears. You may be happy to accept that if you feel you are never going to need to drive a manual geared car, or if you prefer not to have to learn the coordination of clutch and gears right at the beginning, when there is so much else to be thinking about.

During the initial familiarization, still before you start the engine for the first time, get your instructor to show you how to use the ratchet release button on the handbrake. (Your foot should be on the footbrake to prevent the car running away!) The button has to be held in and the lever pulled on fractionally more than it was previously set, before you can let the brake off. It should also be held in for noiseless handbrake application. This saves wear on the ratchet teeth. He or she must help you to memorize how much strength you use to reach the full-on position of the lever, and to learn how to recognize, by feel, whether you have released it completely.

This is also the time to be getting the feel of where the three root pedals are, and to practice selecting different gears without needing to look down at the lever. Your eyes have to be on the road! The clutch pedal left-hand-most of the three, is operated with your left foot. The footbrake, in the middle, and the accelerator positioned to its right, are both used with your right foot (though never at the same time!) Each pedal is spring-loaded against foot pressure, coming back to its “off” position as you release it.

Press the clutch pedal down, so that the engine is disconnected from the gearbox (as will be explained), while you try the gear positions; otherwise the lever may be difficult to move. Notice how easily, when you are moving up or down the gears in sequence, the lever will almost self-seek its way towards the next gear. Your hand should guide the lever, never force it.

As engine speeds only have a narrow range, gears are essential so that the car can be moved off from rest, pick up speed easily, and be driven both slowly and quickly as occasion demands. The usual type of manual gearbox has a floor-mounted gear lever with six or seven positions. There are four or five forward gears, reverse and neutral. In neutral no gear is engaged; changing from any one gear to another always involves passing through neutral which acts as a buffer zone to help that transition. The other purpose for neutral will be explained when I come to the clutch. The image below shows the positions of the gear lever for a typical car. Whilst the forward gear positions and neutral are the same in most cars, reverse gear may be in various positions. The smooth take-off can be learned with 1st gear alone but you will soon be wanting to change gear on the move, and this “dry-run” practice will then stand you in good stead. You will need 2nd gear, for example, as soon as you are confident moving off in 1st and stopping again. 2nd lets you add a little speed whilst safe stopping ability is becoming second nature.

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Starting The Engine

Before ever turning the key in the ignition switch to start the engine, a safety habit must be ingrained. It is physically to check that the handbrake is on and that the gear lever is in neutral every time, before you touch that key. Otherwise the car could lurch forward (or back … ) directly you operate the starter. There is a marginal saving of effort for the battery turning the engine over to start it, if you press the clutch pedal down while you operate the starter. But the fact that this separates the engine from the gearbox, as described shortly, must not be regarded as an excuse to skip your ingrained safety rule about checking, each and every time, that the handbrake is on and that you are out of gear. Examiners will not accept sloppy procedure. (A fault in the clutch, or your foot slipping off the pedal, could lead to an accident.)

Another essential before discovering how to use the starter itself is to understand the choke. This device enriches the fuel mixture to help start a cold engine. It may be automatic or manual. Your instructor can explain what type you have and how the makers state it works or should be used.

As the choke works in conjunction with the accelerator, care with that pedal is vital for easy engine starting. Pumping the pedal without thinking can flood the engine with fuel, making it difficult or impossible to start. Cars fitted with automatic chokes are sometimes especially sensitive in this respect

Once an engine is hot you do not need choke to re-start it but the correct use of the accelerator can still be critical. Different engines have different requirements for starting when hot. Be sure you understand yours.

Manufacturers reckon a cold engine warms up most efficiently if the car is driven away directly the engine has overcome initial spluttering. Extra care must be exercised, however. Many serious accidents are caused by having the engine stall (cut out) at an awkward moment An example would be when pulling out of a side street with what you thought was plenty of time. Too little manual choke may lead to an engine stall but so can too much, as, for example, if you forget to push off the choke control as soon as the engine runs well without it. You must learn exactly how much manual choke to use. Normally a choke should be pushed progressively right off within a couple of minutes' running. With an automatic choke the engine can still stall if you are unruly with the accelerator and flood the engine shortly after getting on the move. Again, if you have studied the manufacturer's instructions carefully, you should avoid trouble.

To start the engine, the normal arrangement in most cars is to turn the ignition key a little beyond the basic “on” position, against spring pressure. You then hear the starter spinning the engine. Instantly the engine starts - which you can also hear - you let go the key, which will then return itself to the basic ignition “on” position.

To stop the engine, you have to turn the key back further, to the “off” position.

Operate the starter in short bursts of five seconds or less. The engine should go at the first attempt but if not, brief tries, spaced out with a few seconds rest in between, give the battery a much better chance than a lengthy grinding effort; the latter is usually doomed to failure. Help the battery by switching off all electrical items, except sidelights where essential at night. If the engine will not start within about a dozen attempts, make sure you have not flooded it as discussed at the beginning of this section. The car handbook will describe what to do if you have, or where to look for other faults which may prevent starting. To go on trying remorselessly, without looking for the reason, will soon wreck your expensive battery. Your instructor should be able to tell you about any specific starting tips which help with the car you will drive.

After so much necessary theory the exciting first attempt at a smooth take-off still must await, yet, your grasp of the key component, the clutch.

The Clutch

The clutch is operated by the left pedal under the steering wheel as already noted Its purpose is to ease the take-up of the load when you start off, and again, when you change from one gear to another.

The effect of the clutch is to disconnect the engine from the gearbox. You need to do this whenever you select and then engage a gear. When the clutch pedal is fully depressed, the engine is completely disconnected from the gearbox. When the clutch pedal is not depressed at all, the engine is fully connected to the gearbox. There is a point in between, where the engine is only partly connected to the gearbox, and at that point the engine can be going fast, but the car (provided a gear has been selected) will only move slowly. What the beginner has to do, in order that he can move away slowly is to discover that point. Normally, it is during the last three to five centimeters of clutch pedal release that the connection begins to take place.

The workings of the clutch consist of two tough flat plates, each having a span about the same as a pudding plate. They are positioned between the engine and the gearbox opposing each other, rather like a pair of cymbals at the moment of striking. One plate is attached to the engine crankshaft, and rotates at whatever speed the engine happens to be running. The other is attached to the gearbox and thence connects, whenever a gear is engaged, through the transmission to drive the wheels.

When the clutch pedal is up fully, the two plates are locked together and turn together. The power of the engine - unless you are in neutral, out of gear - is transferred, via whatever gear is selected, out to drive the wheels.

When you press the clutch pedal down, the plates are drawn back from one another, disconnecting that power.

The point, already mentioned, of partial connection – where the engine plate begins to brush the gearbox plate, transmitting some power but without yet turning it fully as one - can be controlled with the clutch pedal. Doing so is known as slipping the clutch.

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When you first start the engine, or when you have to wait in a traffic queue or at traffic lights etc., you need to be able to have the engine running without having to hold the clutch pedal down all the time in order to disconnect the gearbox. This is the other purpose of the neutral gearbox position, referred to when its role as a buffer zone between gears was being described earlier. Selecting neutral enables the engine to be run with the clutch pedal fully released but without the car moving: although the gearbox is connected and both clutch plates turn locked together, the car remains still because none of the actual gears are in engagement.

Many learners are told that to slip the clutch for a smooth take-off, a “slow” clutch pedal release is correct. This is not so; your clutch pedal release watch-word should be “controlled” rather than slow. Briefly, the method when moving off, involves releasing the clutch pedal under control up to the connection point, where it is held momentarily whilst you release the handbrake and make final safety checks; thereafter the remaining movement is smoothly released under control, when you are ready. The detailed steps I give shortly.

During gear changes on the move, all that is required for the release of the clutch pedal is to make it completely, in one continuous, swift, smooth movement, directly the next gear up or down has been selected.

I have stressed that you are going to need all the information regarding clutch control, stopping, steering, changing gear before you tackle your first smooth take-off – your first live exercise in clutch control. This is because before you move a car one jot, you must at the very least be aware of how to STEER it and STOP it! You need some idea of all the little things that can (but need not!) go wrong, and to understand how to change gear, which will be necessary virtually from the start. In addition, you are obliged in law to know the rules of the road. I present the detailed steps for the smooth take-off now, I do so in the form of a convenient check-list to which you can return when you are ready.

I make the presumption that when the time comes your instructor will drive you to a quiet place, the need for which I have emphasized, and that he or she will choose an area with level ground and no parked cars or obstructions near to worry about. If you have to begin on a road rather than on open ground, your instructor should stop the car a little further out from the curb than is normal for parking, so that you won't have to worry about being too close to it.

When you finally swap places with your instructor, into the driving seat for real, hold it! THINK! Have you run through the Vital Driver's Check-List? You are responsible – every time you drive! What must you do before you start the engine…?

Smooth Take-Off From The Curb

This smooth take-off check-list begins with the car on a level place and with you ready, both hands on the steering wheel, looking at where you are about to go, not at the controls. The handbrake is on, you are in neutral, the engine is ticking over (your foot is off the accelerator). If on open ground, you can imagine the line of a curb.

So, here you go! First time round, make sure the engine is already fully warmed up and running evenly (which it should be if your instructor has driven you to the quiet place chosen).

1. Press the clutch pedal well down with your left foot. Keep it there.

2. Move the gear lever to 1st gear position and bring your hand back to the steering wheel.

3. Give gentle acceleration with your right foot on the accelerator pedal. The sound of the engine should now be a little more distinct. You have accelerated its “beat” from a “tick-over” to just more than a fast idling speed, that is from just under 1,000 r.p.m. (revolutions per minute - if your car has a rev-counter, you can check) to about 1,500 r.p.m. Maintain the louder engine “rev” by keeping the accelerator pedal gently squeezed down, but not too much.

4. Allow the clutch pedal to come up, under control. It will be the last three to five centimeters of clutch pedal release that count. It is perfect control here, that determines whether you achieve a smooth getaway, or a jumpy one. If your heel will reach the floor, where it can act as a pivot, you will find this a great help. As the next Step is approached under control, the point of partial connection which has already been described, will be reached. You can recognize it, because the sound of the engine quiets slightly.

5. Stop releasing and hold the clutch pedal steady at this partial connection point. Don't alter your accelerator foot position. Keep the engine “rev” exactly as set initially. You are now slipping the clutch. (The “screaming” extra engine revs you will often witness other learners produce at this point are not required.) Should you feel the car “rarin' to go”, physically straining against the handbrake, lower the clutch pedal just enough to stop that happening but no more; that attempt by the car to creep against the hand brake only meant you had released the clutch pedal by a very small amount too much.

6. Release the handbrake. Keep both feet rock-steady 'til Step 7 in a moment. Return your handbrake hand to the steering wheel.

There is no rush to alter your feet positions now, because the car should stay still.

If it does start to move ahead slightly, then lower the clutch pedal a tiny fraction, just enough to stop that movement. Then hold the clutch pedal steady in that position. Remember, it is the clutch you finely adjust, not the accelerator. You keep that right where you set it in the first place. However, with a little practice, you will get the exact point to hold the clutch pedal right first shot, and avoid the need for any such fine adjustment.

There is now time for a final check all around that it will be safe to move the car. As well as checking all mirrors, this must include a look behind over your right shoulder, a look which, both for safety and because it is a Test requirement, must become an ingrained habit in your procedure for moving off from the curb. It is also the time to give a moving off signal. (Begin to incorporate the signal as soon as you become competent at the smooth take-off itself.)

Should it become obvious, just as you reach Step 6 and are slipping the clutch poised to go (which you will in Step 7), that you are going to have to wait for more than a few seconds (say for a child cyclist to pass), re-apply the handbrake and, at the same time, press the clutch pedal back down. You are then ready to return the clutch pedal to the partial connection point and take off the handbrake again, as soon as the cyclist has gone. By avoiding slipping the clutch any more than is strictly necessary, you help reduce wear on the clutch plates. If any longer delay looks likely to be involved, return the gear to neutral as well, and then release the clutch. Doing so saves unnecessary wear of the clutch thrust bearing whilst you await the chance to begin again.

7. Once safe to move, make sure you are now looking ahead again, and then smoothly release the remaining upward movement of the clutch pedal.

This is all that is needed to get you away without any jerk. Do not jump off the clutch pedal. And do not change the accelerator yet. Control the release of the remaining movement of the clutch pedal as one continuous smooth operation.

If you hurry this final clutch release by mistake, quickly depress the pedal by just the amount you raised it, thus returning to the beginning of Step 6. You can recover and go on again from this stage but, if you need more time to collect thought, put the pedal fully down, apply the handbrake and return to neutral before starting again.

Once the car is moving away and the clutch pedal has been fully released, you can apply a gentle, firmer squeeze on the accelerator so that the car picks up speed.

Remember to steer along the left hand side of the road (or of the road you are visualizing). There is no need to pull out fully while you still are only moving slowly; just drive straight ahead. This is why I have urged that your instructor should find a quiet place where there will be nothing in the way for you to have to steer round during this first time you take the wheel, and for him not to have parked too close to any real curb.

8. After a few meters STOP THE CAR.

You need lots of smooth take-off and stopping practice now, before adding gear changes, covering any great distance, or anything else. This will bring confidence in stopping, long before you ever exceed the speed available in 1st gear, a speed which can be fatal nevertheless.

Having completed Step 5, some drivers find they prefer to keep the handbrake on until after the safety checks and signal of Step 6, making its release the final item just prior to Step 7. There is nothing wrong in doing so, or switching to this method later on, but from a teaching beginners point of view, I have found this tends to lead to reliance on the handbrake to hold the car still, instead of developing 100% correct footwork. Then, later, when the stresses of other traffic intrude, the right way with the feet gets forgotten and all hell breaks loose! The key words for everything you do on Test are under control. The examiner will not be so concerned with which method you may have adopted with your instructor, as with the result – whether you always have your car under control.

Although I have taken you slowly through the 7 Steps of the smooth take-off, suggesting no rush, your aim by the time you begin general driving should be to be able to carry it out all-of-a-piece, subject only to the safety checks revealing a need to pause.

Driving along after the clutch pedal is fully up, rest your left foot comfortably away from the pedal (a little to the left is best or raise your knee to let your foot come back towards you, or do a little of both). Avoid the common bad habit of driving along with your foot touching the clutch pedal, however lightly; this quickly causes excessive wear of the clutch thrust bearing. Never let either foot wander under the pedals. This could rob you of vital seconds in emergency braking. For the same reason keep clutter out of the driver's foot-well too.

Note: In Step 1 of the smooth take-off I said press the clutch pedal “well down”. In future, having now gained a feel for how far down in the pedal's range of movement the connection point comes, you only need to make sure you start with it below that point. There is no need to waste unnecessary energy going right to the floor with the pedal.

The Slightly More Advanced Driver

The “L” driver should appreciate that regrettably few experienced drivers show mercy to the learner who is taken amongst traffic too early. Suppose the “L” driver is held at a red light, first in the queue, when it changes. The beginner gets excited, or is too eager, and stalls. Then a selfish driver behind gets impatient and sounds his horn. This further excites the learner, who then goes to pieces. See what I mean? Do not panic; this is not the end of the world. Others can wait, or pass round you. First get your handbrake on; then collect thought calmly, secure in the knowledge that since you have already mastered the starting off sequence, going back to the beginning again is all that is required. Watch that the traffic light has not gone back to red in the meantime. Especially REMEMBER, after a stall and before you re-start the engine, that physical check…that the handbrake is on and that you have returned to neutral correctly!

Clutch control starting off must become instinctive not just for the smooth take-off but for maneuvering in any confined space; for example, on Test the three-point-turn and the reverse into a limited opening, will be a shambles without it.

For these Test maneuvers you have also got to be able to make the car move very slowly, over small distances. Try this out now. From the “both feet rock-steady” position (Steps 5/6) you release the handbrake as usual. Next, instead of full continuous smooth clutch release, you only release the pedal a tiny fraction, until the car just begins to move, barely perceptibly. The tiny amount you raise the pedal may be only a millimeter.

Hold the clutch in this new position, so that you keep the car moving at the speed of a snail for half a minute. In that time try to cover no more than three meters, neither going faster or actually stopping until the time is up. To prevent any stop on the way – or the opposite, running away too fast- you may need to alter the clutch pedal position up or down by a miniscule fraction here and there, but never like some yo-yo! You keep the accelerator where you have been holding it since Step 3, all the time; no more will be needed. When you can hit this snail's-speed target with ease whenever you want to, you have mastered slipping the clutch. Do not put up with an instructor who tries to rush you past this stage too quickly, solely in order to save wear on his clutch.

As well as learning to go as slowly as possible under clutch-slipping control, it is important for you to discover just how slowly you can move the car with the clutch fully up in 1st or 2nd gear (or, later on, in reverse), without stalling the engine. After a smooth take-off, instead of a gentle, firmer squeeze on the accelerator once the clutch is fully up as in Step 7, let your speed die down almost to a stall; then revive it with a feather-light touch back on the accelerator. With a little repetition and a few (inevitable) stalls thrown in, you will soon get the hang of just how slowly you can go with a gear fully engaged, clutch right up.

With only a little more practice after that, you will be able to “catch”, and prevent, a stall of this kind in an even more controlled way. Instead of having to revive the engine by light reacceleration (or having to stave off a stall by depressing the clutch below its connection point as you would for stopping), you will find that you can recapture a clutch-slipping position whilst still on the move. Just drop the clutch to the point it would be in Steps 5/6 of a smooth take-off. That gives the engine the chance to recover, and you can straightaway raise your revs to the point they would be for a smooth take-off. Without having stopped at any stage, you can now “take-off” again, simply by smoothly releasing the clutch pedal exactly as you would have, had you been carrying out Step 7 of a smooth take-off. Equally, if you wanted to move very slowly for a short distance before driving on again, you could. It would be just like doing the previous, snail-speed, exercise above, and then, instead of stopping, going on into the final clutch release of a smooth take-off. Practice the technique. It will be extremely handy at junctions where, even though you may never quite have to stop, you need to go very, very slowly at some stage.

Starting On A Steep Hill

Steep uphill starts only terrify learners who haven't been properly taught. At no stage may the vehicle run backwards, at all. As soon as the smooth take-off on level ground is causing no problems, you should graduate to doing it on gentle slopes and after that find steep places for practice. The need to demonstrate a proper steep uphill start is certain to occur during your Test. If you have learned the right moment to release the hand brake for a level road start (Step 6), you will have no difficulty, however steep the hill. The only difference is that, when you set and hold the accelerator from Step 3, you need to maintain up to about twice the engine revs usually required, perhaps a little more if the hill is extremely steep. But there is no need to make the engine “scream”. With the extra power on and the clutch being held at the “rarin' to go” point, there will be enough forward force to prevent any running back as you release the handbrake.

As on the level, there need be no rush to go when you release the handbrake. Hold the feet where they are, and the car will remain still 'til you are ready. (Normally, you would not wait deliberately, but the point is you could if you wanted.) Further smooth clutch release, and being ready smoothly to increase acceleration more if needed, and you are away!

1st gear is essential for an uphill start. It is also the usual choice for a level start, in order to be certain you will have sufficient power (e.g. especially at crossroads, etc.). For a downhill start, 2nd gear may be used. As there may be no need to accelerate, your procedure can leave out raising the engine revs. Simply release the handbrake (and footbrake if you have been holding it) at the “rarin' to go” moment, as you release the clutch. It will not matter if the brakes are off a fraction early on down hills, and knowing this helps you discover how to release the clutch and brakes in one flowing movement. Once the car is rolling, accelerate smoothly as required. Notice that on a dramatically steep downhill you may not want to accelerate; indeed you may need the immediate benefit of “engine braking”.

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