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Alternatively: How Joe Taught Me to Drive a Mustang Using Clicker Training


            Ever since I was a little girl, I have admired the Ford Mustang. I’m not sure why, but there was something about the car that made me feel awe, made me feel like owning that car would mean that I was more than who I was. No one I knew owned a Mustang, but every time I saw one, I would say to myself, “When I grow up, I will own one of those.”

2012 Mustang Boss 302

When I turned sixteen and my dad told me it was time to go car shopping, I told him that I would accept no less than a Mustang – my dream car. Like any naïve, sixteen year old girl who watches too much MTV, I figured that my ever loving father would croon and gush and go out and buy me the latest 302.

Of course, like most other sixteen year old girls that aren’t on MTV, I lived in the real world (that’s the real real world), and my dad told me I was out of my mind, “What’s a girl going to do with a Mustang? First of all, a Ford Mustang is your dream car? Don’t you think you’ve set your sights a little low? I mean, that’s a pretty inexpensive car for a dream car. And secondly, you shouldn’t be getting your dream car as your first car anyway; it’s going to get beat to shit. You’re going to run it into curbs and poles and other cars most likely. No, no way. You have no idea how much different a Mustang is from my Honda, it’s got too much power for you. And it’s not really a girlie car.”

No, the Mustang isn’t a girlie car, which is part of the reason I like it so much. As much as I adore my father, he can be very old school when it comes to women, and as I grew up, I was constantly hearing things like, “Well, softball isn’t really girlie though, is it? Maybe you should do ballet.” And, “Well, going to that rock concert without an adult would be okay if you were a boy, but it’s not safe for a girl.” And, “Sure I would let you backpack across Europe if you were a guy, but it’s WAY too dangerous for you!” To be fair, he was trying his best to protect me, but I always harbored a little bit of the, “A girl can do anything a boy can, and she can do it better,” mentality, probably due to phrases like this.

After days of beating my dad down, I finally got him to agree that if I could find a Mustang that was in decent shape that when it was all bundled up with titles and tags, it would be under $9,000, he would consider it. Of course, I assumed this meant that he would most definitely get it for me. So, I went on the hunt, and I managed to find a few candidates. We went and looked at one that even my dad liked, and we got it down to the right price. Then we called the insurance company.

Do you know what it costs to insure a Mustang with the primary driver being a sixteen year old girl living in Philadelphia? About $300 a month. And poof, the Mustang dream vanished.

Instead, I ended up with a four cylinder, Mitsubishi Mirage, an automatic, 80 horsepower, four door, reliable car with low miles that served me faithfully for eight long years. I loved that car, and when I had to get rid of it because Joe told me it wasn’t going to make it much longer, I cried.

2000 Mitsubishi Mirage - my first car, her name was Phoenix

I started looking for cars again, this time on my own dime. At first I started looking at “practical” cars. I’d moved in with Joe, we had Smokey and were thinking about getting a puppy. I figured if this car lasted as long as my Mirage did, then Joe and I might be married by then, we would possibly even have kids. It made sense to think Jeep Liberty. So I looked at them, and I looked at some Mazdas, some Hondas, but nothing made me excited. To me, it felt like, what was the point of getting rid of my Mitsubishi to replace it with something exactly like it? Why not just keep it and put the work into it and save myself the hassle?

Jeep Liberty - practical, especially now with two German Shepherds, but not as much fun ^.^

Then Joe said, “Babe, this may be the last time for awhile that you have the opportunity and the money to afford what you really want. Why don’t you at least go look at a Mustang?”

“Well, but…I mean, but…” I wanted to so badly, but I knew that if I started looking at Mustangs, I wouldn’t be able to look at anything else. Joe knew it too. Still, I decided, he was right. So I started looking at Mustangs. Within a few days, I had found a couple, and I scrolled through the pictures online with Joe.

“Sweetie, these are all manual.”

I nodded, “Yeah, a Mustang is meant to be driven manually. I won’t buy an automatic.”

Joe chuckled and said, “But you don’t know how to drive stick.”

I shrugged, “So you’ll teach me.”

“Oh…will I?”

Everyone who drives stick shift likes to tell the story about how they got in the car and they made it work the first time. It was just an innate behavior that they somehow automatically knew how to do. You always hear this mystery phrase about, “I just felt the car and listened to it, and I drove.” I always feel like that statement should be followed by a, “Yeah, man, right on,” and a long drag on a joint. If you ever hear this story, rest assured, you are hearing a load of crap.

The shifter of a 2010 Mustang

It’s true that there is a certain amount of listening and feeling of the car involved, once you already know how to drive the car. But when you first learn how to drive stick shift, you pretty much can’t hear or feel anything, and for the most part, the car spends more time in the “off” position than the “on” because you stall it about every ten seconds. Anyone who tells you they just turned the car on and drove it and became a pro without ever stalling it is a complete and total liar. Everyone who drives a stick shift car has stalled their car about a thousand times. My best friend has been driving stick since she was sixteen years old, and she still occasionally stalls her car. When she isn’t thinking, when she’s sitting at a red light, forgets to put the car into neutral and takes her foot off the clutch, when she accidentally tries to start the car in third gear instead of first. It happens. It happens all the freaking time. But the beginning is really the worst.

Fortunately for Joe (and his car’s transmission), we had the power of positive reinforcement on our side when we began. You see, since we’d begun using positive reinforcement training with Smokey, we saw it start to creep into our relationship as well. We didn’t even realize it until much later, but we stopped fighting as much, we started complimenting each other more and cut back on the criticisms.

The first time I drove a stick shift car, Joe drove me out to a mall parking lot in his 2000 Mustang (yes, we are a Ford family, we actually have three Mustangs in our family now, a 1966, a 2000 and a 2006).

1966 Ford Mustang, Joe's is "midnight blue" but I still think it looks purple.

“Okay, you ready?” I nodded, and we switched seats. Palms sweating, stomach aflutter, I adjusted the seat, so I could reach the pedals. I looked down at the third pedal on the far left and thought to myself, “All right clutch, it’s you and me, you and me.”

“Okay, so you put your foot on the clutch, push it all the way in and then move the shifter to first gear.”

“All right.” I did as he said. The car heaved what seemed like an exasperated sigh and shut off. Joe laughed. “Okay, rule one, you cannot take your foot off the clutch without giving the car gas, or it’s going to stall.”

By the time we got to about rule ten and I had only made it around the parking lot once and only gotten it into second gear, I put my head in my hands and started crying, “Maybe my dad is right, maybe I can’t do this, maybe I’m too stupid to be able to drive a stick shift car.”

Joe consoled me then we drove home. I had clearly had enough for one day.

By lesson two and after a few days of emotional recovery from the last lesson, Joe had a new strategy. I was going to drive on the road. That made me want to throw up. But it was late at night, the road was straight, and Joe thought it would be easier for me. So off we went. As I sloppily ground through the gears, Joe grit his teeth but kept his mouth shut, then, as if by magic, I got in a clean shift, “That!” Joe exclaimed, and I was so startled, I hit the brakes, took my foot off the clutch and promptly stalled the car.

“That what? You scared me!”

“That!” Joe exclaimed excitedly, “Whatever you just did, that was it, that was perfect, do that again! Turn the car back on, come on!”

With a little bit of renewed confidence – maybe I wasn’t such a screw up after all – I turned the car back on. First into second, I winced, but Joe didn’t say anything, then second into third, still nothing, but the car kept going, a reinforcement all in itself. And then, suddenly, third into fourth, “That!” A stoplight came up, I put my foot on the clutch and slowed the car to a stop, “That!” Then, we started off again, the start off brought silence (as it continued to do for awhile, starting is by far the hardest thing about driving stick), but first to second got me a “That!” this time as did going from second to third. The excited, “That!”s increased, the silences decreased, and my confidence grew. By the time we got home, I was so ecstatic I was telling Joe I would be racing him in no time. At that point, he told me to take it down a notch, but the reinforcement was euphoric.

Equipped with his marker, “That!” Joe taught me to drive stick in no time. We had setbacks, of course, but by the time I went to test drive what would become my new Mustang, I was doing well enough not to alarm the dealer. When my dad came with me to cosign the loan, I took him for a spin in my new car, and he grudgingly admitted, “Maybe this car isn’t so bad after all. I still don’t think it’s a girlie car though.”

My 2006 Mustang, Caroline, on the day I bought her

Now, driving stick shift is as simple and second nature to me as breathing. I hardly even notice I’m shifting anymore (except, of course, when I’m pretending to be a stock car driver). I can’t even remember the last time I stalled, and Joe and I are planning that race for sometime this summer. He still thinks he can beat me, but I’m not so sure. I was, after all, trained to drive stick using a superior method ^.^