Driving Stick Shift VS. Riding Motorcycles

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Riding a motorcycle versus driving a stick shift car.  Does being able to do one mean you can easily transition to doing the other?

What are the similarities and differences between the two activities, making the transition easier or harder, respectively?

This topic came to mind from personal experience and seemed like a perfect fit for the site.  So here goes….

Learning Stick Shift or Motorcycle First

When it comes it riding a motorcycle versus driving a stick shift car, my gut tells me that most people probably start with the car first and then transition to motorcycles – especially in countries outside North America where manual transmission cars are still readily available.

Anyways, my experience was the opposite of most and will be a fun story to tell.

My dad bought his mid-life crisis car (a used, manual transmission Toyota Celica) around the time that I started driving. 

We went to a large parking lot and he tried to teach me to drive stick. Needless to say, my father was not a great teacher and after three stalls on his new prize possession, the lesson was sadly over.

Fast forward many years and I was in college. 

I had always dreamed of riding motorcycles as a kid – my favorite activity as a boy was taking my bicycle and racing it down the steepest hill I could find. 

With that in mind and no transportation of my own as a young collegiate, I scraped together $400 and bought a non-running Kawasaki KZ440 off Craigslist (back when the website was new and cool and not weird and creepy). 

I pushed it home and once functioning, I set about teaching myself to drive the thing despite having no idea what I was doing.

I was alone and all I had was that tiny little rectangular manual that comes with old bikes.

This was also in the days before the internet was the vast resource it is now (with a million YouTube videos on every subject). 

So, I relied on the couple page explanation of what a clutch is and how it works in that tiny manual – and then I hopped on and gave it a shot. 

It is funny the things you will try in your youth that are stupid in hindsight. Punchline is that it took about 50 stalls before I got the hang of it, and the experience of that first ride (as we all know) was thrilling.

Transitioning to a Stick Shift

Fast forward another couple years and my buddy Nate was off to South America for a few weeks and needed someone to baby sit his stick-shift Toyota Tacoma truck. 

His comment to me, “Well if you can drive it, you can borrow it during the time I am gone.” 

My response, “well I can ride a motorcycle, come down early before you leave and let’s see if I can figure it out.” 

Same deal as with my father, we went to a parking lot and low-and-behold, I didn’t stall once! Hence the idea for this article. 

That said, there are both similarities and differences that impact the transition of going from motorcycle to stick shift and vice versa, and this is the information I want to share.

Motorcycles VS. Stick Shift Cars – Similarities and Differences

Being able to drive a stick or ride a motorcycle makes you a prime candidate for transition from driving one to driving the other. 

Check out some of the key factors that make stick shift cars and motorcycles similar or different.

Similarities (Things Making the Transition Easier)

The principle of a clutch and how it operates are exactly the same, it is just the physical activity that is different. 

Instead of using your two hands to balance between gas and clutch (on a bike) you are using your two feet (in a car). 

Keeping that in mind the whole time will make the transition easier. You know what you are doing, but just have to train your body to do it differently.

In both cases, the sound of the engine is your friend.  See below.

Going from a bike to a car, you can forget about balancing and your hands really free up since you don’t have to twist the throttle.

Down-shifting is essentially the same, although in a car I find a lot of people pop into neutral and use gravity/braking to slow the vehicle.

Differences (Things Making the Transition Harder)

Going from a bike to a car has the challenge of size and “feel.” 

On a bike, you are so close to the engine and can hear everything really well. My recommendation going from a bike to a car is to roll down the windows and leave the stereo off. 

That way, you can hear the engine and really listen for that sweet spot of engaging the clutch.

Additionally, on the size topic, you have to beware of rollback in a car – especially if it is a bigger or heavier vehicle. 

A bike (unless on a super steep hill) can be prevented from rolling backwards at a stoplight generally by leaning forward. 

A truck or SUV will want to roll backwards almost immediately once you let off the brake. 

You need to work at the skill of keeping part of your foot on the brake or use the park brake to hold the vehicle in place while engaging the clutch. This will prevent you from denting the front bumper of the guy behind you.

Bikes require balance, which is most important when you are going slower.  Obviously with four wheels, this is not a concern.

Transitioning from a car to a bike, down-shifting requires special care. 

Dropping down gears too quickly can make the back tire spin and cause you to lose your balance. I recommend caution when first down-shifting on a bike and reserve this behavior until you are more comfortable.

Other vehicles have a tougher time seeing you on a motorcycle than in a car. You are smaller and seem further away due to that difference is size. Give yourself more time to slow down and look at all vehicles with an air of skepticism (assume that chucklehead is going to pull out in front of you or cut you off without a turn signal). This kind of cautionary mentality has saved my life thousands of times.

Finally, motorcycles are way more sensitive to what is “under foot.” Cars can handle wet leaves, rain, gravel much easier than a bike.

Other than that, like I said, if you can do one you are a prime candidate for doing the other. 

I maybe stalled my buddy Nate’s truck twice during the two weeks I had it – mostly due to losing my cool on a hill at a stoplight or just not focusing. I am a very competent stick shift driver now, as the only vehicles (outside bikes) that I will buy are stick-shift Jeeps.

I honestly believe if you focus and really pay attention to what you are doing, the transition from bike to car is maybe easier. The transition from car to bike requires the newbie rider to tackle the additional challenges that are inherent to motorcycle riding itself – balance, road conditions, and other drivers!

Author Bio:

Chris is a DIY Motorcycle Repair nut (pun intended). He advocates getting to know your motorcycle and experiencing the rewarding thrill of success that can only come through picking up a wrench and working on your machine.  He is an active blogger on his website HappyWrench.com and an active member of many social media websites.  He began wrenching out of necessity at a young age and has continued to teach himself and others through his research and writing.  He believes anything is possible with a little ambition and patience.