COAL: Teaching Myself To Drive Stick In A 1998 Audi A4

After the demise of my first car, my 1991 Subaru Legacy, I decided that my next car had to be a manual transmission car. After all, the cool sports cars I wanted in life were stick shifts, and I wanted to be a cool car enthusiast that could drive the cool sports cars.

There was only one little problem: I didn’t know how to drive stick. Furthermore, neither did my parents.

No problem, I thought to myself. How hard could it be? I could just wing it.

There was a beautiful silver 1993 Ford Taurus SHO with a stick shift advertised for sale by a small used car dealer in town. I decided to go over there and take a look at the car. It stuck out like a sore thumb among the rows and rows of plain family sedans, practical minivans, and the occasional truck and SUV.

The salesman noted that he normally wouldn’t sell a car like this, but a family friend of his wanted to sell the car, so it showed up on the lot. He asked me if I knew how to drive a manual transmission car — it was the only manual transmission car on the entire car lot. Of course I do, was my reply.

I got in the car, twisted the key, and promptly stalled the car. Tried it again, same result. The salesman politely took the keys from my hand and asked me to leave.

Okay, it’s not as easy as I thought.

The next car I looked at was the Audi A4. It was also at one of the little used car lots in town. This time, I brought along a friend who knew how to drive stick, and had him do the test drive for me. I sat in the passenger seat and tried to gauge the test drive, but you really can’t form a driving impression from the passenger seat. My friend said it drove fine, so I took him at his word and bought the car for $7,500.

That was a lot of money. My parents did the very Asian thing of setting up a savings account for me, and putting all of the money I’d receive over the holidays and as gifts into the savings account and never letting me touch it. Any money I earned from doing chores and, later, working in the family business also went into the savings account untouched by my fingers. So I had a sizable savings account balance (at least it felt that way to a college student) that I thought I could splurge on a fancy automobile.

Well, sort of fancy. The car had the four rings on the grille, but other than that, it was extremely basic. It had the base 1.8L turbo 4-cylinder mated to a 5-speed manual transmission routing power to the front wheels only. The interior was cloth, not leather. In short, this was one of the cheapest trims of the B5 Audi A4 that one could possibly buy.

Still, I was excited that I now had a fancy car.

Another friend drove the car back for me to my father’s laboratory business and left it in the parking lot. When I told my parents that I had bought a manual transmission car, they were not enthused.

I was on my own to learn how to drive the car if I were to get the car from the lab back home. Naturally, when you don’t know how to do something… you Google it.

It was on Google that I found the advice to begin with clutch work first before moving on to shifting gears. With a printout of what I had found on the web, I started practicing on the deserted industrial road in front of the family business, first spending nearly an hour just learning to move the car with the clutch pedal alone, before then spending another hour learning how to shift up and down the gears.

I managed to drive the Audi back to my parents’ house and was thrilled. I now knew how to drive a stick shift! I’m a Real Car Enthusiast now!

I would go on to teach another half dozen friends how to drive stick, following the same exercises that I learned from. I boasted that I could teach someone to drive stick well enough to drive us back home in one hour, and to date, I’ve held true to that promise.

The internet, my Audi, and me

Now that I had a fancy car, I needed to keep it looking good. I had never detailed a car, but the internet knows all, so I went looking online for detailing advice. That’s when I found the Volkswagen/Audi enthusiast car forums.

This was my very first exposure to online car culture. All of these people, with cars just like mine, doing cool things with them! I immediately fell in with the crowd, though I didn’t feel confident in posting much of anything on the forums, since I knew so little and all of these online experts obviously knew so much. Some dude online recommends some super fancy German detailing supplies that are very expensive and hard-to-find? Well, I read it on the internet, so it must be true, right? Go ahead and buy that stuff.

So while the naive me was taken up by plenty of — now with 20/20 hindsight — complete bullshit, there was plenty of good stuff I learned on the forums. For one, I learned of all of the horrible things that can go wrong with a B5 chassis Audi A4 or Volkswagen Passat.

I soon embarked on a quest to fix everything that was wrong on my Audi A4. The cruise control died somehow on a long road trip to Windsor, Canada. There were dead pixels in some of the displays. The timing belt hadn’t been replaced. The suspension could use some freshening up. The oil needed to be changed on a regular basis.

For what it’s worth, I think the Audi is the car that finally got me recognizing that oil changes were a thing that needed to be done, and the humble oil change was the first “working on a car” activity I ever did.

But many other things had to be done by a shop. I simply didn’t have the tools, the space, or the know-how to do any of it.

As it turns out, even when using independent mechanics, servicing an Audi ain’t cheap. I took the Audi to an independent service center three times for three grand in work, and at the end of it all, I still had a needy Audi with cruise control that still wasn’t working.

Getting rid of the car

I had the Audi for two years before I decided that enough was enough. I had gotten brave enough to attempt replacing the control arms myself before rust reared its ugly head and stopped me dead in my tracks. As no amount of PB Blaster seemed to some stuck hardware, I sent the car along to my mechanic once again, and when I got it back, I promptly put it up for sale.

The first person to come look at the car basically fell in love with it. I sold it to him for $5,000.

I don’t usually remember how much I’ve spent on a car, but I do with this one. I bought a car for $7,500, spent $3,000 on it, to end up with a car I sold for $5,000. I loved the way the car drove, but after this experience, I swore to myself that I would never, ever own another German car out of warranty. Any time a friend confides in me that they’re thinking of a B5 or B6 chassis Volkswagen or Audi, I make sure to share my tale of woe with my 1998 Audi A4. It usually does the trick.

I also learned that car fandom can throw a rose tint on one’s glasses at best, and blind oneself to reality at worst. After I sold the Audi, I couldn’t fathom how some people online could be so enthusiastic about their Audis, even as they were posting in fits of rage about something broken on their cars, or the arcane procedures needed to oust mechanical and electrical gremlins. It was a crash course in the dynamics of online car communities and fandom that I needed to have.

Of course, in the years since, I’ve found myself on the other side, lavishing love on ridiculous cars that would make even the most committed Audi fanboi wonder if I needed mental help.

My next car was going to be cheap and reliable. I had taken up autocrossing and decided that it was finally time to own a sports car.