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I Taught My Friend to Drive Stick Shift in My Dodge Viper (And Then It Broke)

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author photo by Doug DeMuro November 2016

I recently tried to teach my friend Britt how to drive a stick shift in my Dodge Viper. In the first hour, she seemed to be mastering it, with no trouble starting, or stopping, or turning, or shifting gears. In the second hour, I was standing in an empty parking lot, waiting for a flatbed tow truck.

Here's what happened.

A few weeks ago, I came up with the brilliant idea that I would write a column (and make a video) where I taught my friend Britt how to drive a stick shift in my Dodge Viper. This would be funny, I reasoned, because the Dodge Viper is possibly the worst car on earth to use if you want to learn how to drive a manual transmission: it has a heavy clutch, it has a vague gear lever, it has no traction control, it has 450 horsepower, it has a cramped seating position, it has poor visibility, and it has a second-gear lockout that won't let you upshift from first to second unless you've reached a certain engine speed.

Bearing all these things in mind, I figured it could be possible to learn to drive stick shift in the Viper, just like it's possible that my neighbor Phil is actually an adult beluga whale. But I figured you'd probably have more stick-shift driving success if you went out in an automatic car and pretended the dead pedal was a clutch.

And so I went out a couple of Sundays ago with Britt and my friend Sean, who agreed to film all this, to an excellent spot for driving a Dodge Viper: an empty loading dock behind a Best Buy. And then Britt and I climbed into the car.

Actually, I first conducted a little on-camera interview with Britt. Now, I should mention that Britt is one of my fiancee's friends, so I didn't know much about her automotive history before this event. I should also mention that Britt lives in the middle of Philadelphia, where everything is close together and public transit is the norm. I say this because, for the entire time I've known Britt, I've never seen her operate an automobile. She doesn't own one. Instead, she has a bicycle. She walks everywhere. She takes the train. And so, during this interview, it came out that her previous automotive experience was confined to a Subaru Forester and an Isuzu Trooper ("I really liked the Trooper!"), and, oh, by the way, she couldn't remember the last time she had driven a car.

So this was going to go very well.

And yet, oddly, it did go very well. First, we practiced starting and stopping -- and Britt was able to quickly get the hang of both without a single problem (or a single stall). Next, we tried reversing -- and, once again, she successfully got the car moving. After that, it was time for shifting gears -- and Britt managed to get going, to upshift and to stop again -- several times -- without stalling. At that point, we were down to just two more items to check off our stick-shift learning list: hill starts, and then the open road.

The first hill start, of course, didn't quite go so well. No matter how well you've done with a stick shift, or how much you think you're starting to get the hang of it, there's something insanely unnerving about rolling backwards when you want to be going forward. You panic. It's like the first bout of heavy turbulence on a commercial flight. You may have flown twelve zillion times before, and you may experience turbulence more often than you turn on your oven -- but the first time that first bit of heavy turbulence shows up when you weren't expecting it, you can't help but think: I wish there was a parachute in my carry-on luggage.

Nonetheless, Britt powered through it -- though her first hill start was more than a little shaky, with some jerking, and some rocking, and some unnecessary extra revs. So we decided to line up for a second hill start before she took the Viper out on the open road.

And that's when it happened.

As I was providing a few hill start pointers, I noticed the "high temperature" light was on in the gauge cluster. This wasn't a surprise -- we had been idling in a parking lot, not going faster than a few miles per hour, for the last two hours, so the car was probably getting a little hot. So I told Britt to turn off the engine, and I got out and told Sean we were going to take a break. And then we noticed the bubbling.

Well, at first it was bubbling. Then it turned into a full-on waterfall of coolant, cascading out of the engine bay at a rate that seemed approximately equivalent to those commercials that show happy children cooling off by shooting water out of a neighborhood fire hydrant, even though the product being advertised is cholesterol medication.

It was at this moment that I knew our Manual Transmission Driving Adventure had ended, and our Waiting For the Flatbed Tow Truck Adventure had just begun.

So what happened? When you teach someone to drive manual, you know the clutch is a risk -- especially a 20-year-old original clutch like the one in my Viper. But as you might suspect from the description I’ve given or from watching the video, the clutch wasn’t the culprit. Instead, the radiator failed. Annoying timing, but not a huge surprise, as radiator failure is a common problem in Vipers of my era.

Instead, here’s a conclusion that’s a little more surprising: the Viper isn’t really such a bad car for learning how to drive stick shift. This may not be that shocking, actually, since it has so much torque that it’s hard to accidentally kill the engine. Or maybe it’s Britt: she only stalled once, so she might just be a really fast learner.

Or maybe there's something else at play: I am simply an excellent stick-shift driving instructor. Personally, I think that it's it, and I'm currently mulling over the idea of opening a learn-manual-transmission-on-a-Dodge-Viper driving school. We'll have flatbed tow trucks on standby.

1997 Dodge Viper on flatbed

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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