Handbrake Turns … and Other Naughty Driving Skills

Early marketers fooled men into buying Ford Model T’s because they claimed it made men more manly. This campaign strategy helped usher in the age of the car. It became a modern myth so successful that later generations of Freudians and feminists used the penis-substitute label to denigrate any man who owned a car for simply being, well, a man who owned a car. And they had a point: there is nothing particularly masculine about exchanging money for a product.

On the other hand knowing how to drive a car better than the next man is. Clever chaps in white coats have demonstrated that for women risk-taking in men isn’t an attractive trait but between peer groups of men it is. Risk-taking is hard-wired into us from our days as hunter-gatherers when not taking extra risks to hunt for food meant our tribe might starve.

So it doesn’t matter if you drive a Fiat Punto or a Bugatti Veyron; it’s the combination of skill, quick thinking, calmness under pressure and control at speed that are ultimately desirable and distinguish you from your average boy racer or the kind of hunter that would run in waving his arms and scare the monkeys away.

For any modern gent it’s not enough to only know how to parallel park and it’s unlikely the skills learned for your formal driving test will help you escape the clutches of Russian spies, dodgy London geezers, boyz in the hood or even ex-wife number six. And it’s not hard to learn the extra skills you need in order to achieve this. They take less than a weekend of study and are the kind of moves you see on the big screen and real-life police shows. You know, the kind of audacious moves that make tyres smoke like a campfire and make you squeal like a soprano in nipple clamps.

You can even teach yourself. For this you need three things: first a car you don’t mind hammering a little. It doesn’t need any special modification; a standard roadworthy car is just the ticket.

Second you need space. Lots of space. Such as a large empty parking lot or industrial area.

Third you need the stones to just have a go. You’ll be amazed how easy some of these moves are to execute, a little harder to master, but then this is one of the key themes of the book. Fear. It’s not always an easy thing to overcome but overcome it you will.

You can of course pay someone to teach you. They then provide the cars, the space and the expertise to make it all happen and, logistically, it saves a whole lot of headaches for you. A security professional friend of mine considers power slide days and stunt courses to be as good an option as any bodyguard’s driving course and they cost about a tenth of the price. So under the tuition of a firm called Dynamic Handbrake Turns Drivers I found myself in a disused airfield in the West Country. First out the bag …

The Handbrake Turn

Not just any handbrake turn but a turn into an empty space between two parked cars. Just like in the movies. To do this you need to find a suitable parking space. Approach from about 50 metres out and keep the parking spot on your right. In first gear bring the car up to around 3500 revs. When you reach the empty spot between the two cars put your left hand on the steering wheel at nine o’clock and spin it round to six o’clock. As soon as you begin to turn the wheel pull on the handbrake. Then correct any oversteer with the steering wheel.

You can also approach from the other direction. Just reverse your hands on the wheel, start at three o’clock and turn anti-clockwise. That’s it. Simple and effective. However it is easy to overcook it so you may want to practise a little before trying this anywhere near real cars or pedestrians.

For the handbrake turn, turn the wheel like this...
...whilst applying the handbrake like this...

To do this you’ll need four traffic cones. Lay them out just over a car length apart in your large empty area. Two on the outside edge representing the road side of the parked cars and two on the inside to mark out the area where pedestrians walk and manslaughter charges apply.

For hairpin bends we use the same principles. From whatever speed you’re doing drop down to second then first gear, turn into the corner, clutch down, apply the handbrake so that the rear wheels lock and the back end comes round. Once you’re pointing in the right direction it’s clutch up and back on the power.

The handbrake turn.

It might take you a few goes to master these techniques or like me you might get it right first time and then spend several attempts overanalysing things until you finally get it right again. But it’s a skill that once learned will never be forgotten. As is the following.

The J-Turn

This is the classic move from big screen car chases from James Bond to The Fast and the Furious. It’s also known as the Bootlegger. So if you want to feel like Steve McQueen this is the one and it’s surprisingly easy to achieve whether you’re using an automatic or a manual, front or rear wheel drive. Here’s how.

Manual transmission

Step 1. Find your straight line through the rear window. Fix your eyes on a spot in the distance, this should keep you on course.

Step 2. Pop it into reverse and floor the throttle.

Step 3. At around 25-30mph take your foot off the accelerator. This doesn’t need to be a pretty or smooth manoeuvre but it does need to be quick as the idea is to unbalance the rear suspension.

Step 4. With your hand on the steering wheel at seven to nine o’clock throw the steering wheel away to the right. This now unbalances the front end and the car will automatically fly straight round. If it’s a good J-turn the rear wheels will stay virtually still as the front wheels spin around to the front.

For the J-Turn, turn the wheel like this...

Step 5. Look forward, clutch down and into first gear. Drive away.

The J-Turn

How hard is that? For automatics the final step is even easier as you don’t use the clutch.

Step 5. (Automatic) Look forward, change from reverse into drive and away you go.

You may find on the first few attempts that just before you change gear you instinctively hit the brakes. Don’t worry about this. During my training only one person managed it first time. Our instructor said he was the first in three months to do so.

To overcome the compulsion to brake in between each set, simply visualise the manoeuvre without the braking reaction in your mind first. Repeat until it fixes in your unconscious. This usually happens somewhere between the third and sixth attempts; suddenly you’ll find the front end whipping round in front of you with a satisfying screech of tyres and the stench of burning rubber before you accelerate away.

Practising J-turns beats sitting at home twiddling away on Grand Theft Auto any day of the week. But this is one exercise that will seriously beat up your car and especially your tyres, which is why it’s always good to use a vehicle you’re not worried about trashing or cars specifically maintained for the job.

If you want to take this move even further you could try upping the size of the vehicle; how about a double-decker bus or a single-level coach? Or my personal favourite: the golf cart – there’s nothing like scaring the boys in slacks. Even better still try a fully insured hire car. It’s even easier when it’s not your own car you’re spanking.

The Power Slide – Variations

Easily the most desirable skill to have is the power slide. It’s the one move that really gets your heart pumping and turns heads whether you’re a TV presenter, a Hollywood stunt man or just keen to try out your getaway skills. The idea is to keep the car moving at a constant speed through a corner. To do this you break traction by applying the brakes just before turning into the corner then reapplying acceleration so that the car appears to be travelling in a different direction from the one you’re actually going in, usually sideways.

It really looks the business but there are different ways to do it depending on the type of car you’re driving. In a front wheel drive you’re using oversteer to get you round the corner; in rear wheel drive or four wheel drive it’s the power through the back wheels. When you do this from corner to corner without regaining traction that’s called drifting.

FRONT WHEEL DRIVE: The Scandinavian Flick

While you can modify the previous hairpin handbrake turn to accommodate your edge of the seat needs, at speed it is easy to get wrong. Here’s a simpler technique.

Once again the aim is to unbalance the car so at speed drop down into third gear then quickly turn the wrong way into a corner to unbalance (that’s right, away from the corner you’re turning into) then immediately turn back the right way.

Now let the rear end slide out as far as your nerves can take and hit the throttle to power out of the slide. It takes a bit more to master this technique but it is well worth it. The initial shimmy where you turn against the direction of the corner feels totally counter-intuitive and, if you’re trying it on a mountain road with a precipice ahead for your first time, it’ll scare the hell out of you. Again it’s a perfect manoeuvre to practise in a wide-open space such as a disused airfield, industrial estate or race track.



Classic doughnuts are for show offs and are best performed in a rear wheel drive car. They are a useful step in building up to an RWD power slide. This is where you slide the back end of the car around in a tight circle so that the front end swivels around a circular central point. It could be described as doughnut-shaped, as could the smoking tyre tracks you leave behind.

Step 1. From a standing start select first gear.

Step 2. Lock the steering wheel over in the direction you want to go.

Step 3. Apply loads of revs.

Step 4. Release the clutch.

Away you go. Simple, perfect doughnuts every time. If you’re attacking it from a rolling start simply squeeze on the handbrake before hitting first gear and locking the steering wheel.  

Power slide in a circle

You will be going in a wider circle and this requires more skill than the simple doughnut. To begin have your car rolling in second gear then turn into the direction of steer and hammer the throttle.

Now comes the tricky bit: you have to balance the power with the steering and constantly adjust. Too much power and you’ll spin out, too little and the car will straighten up and you’ll lose the power and the slide.

Power slide into a corner

To put it all together, first turn into a bend at around 50-70mph to get the tail out then catch the slide and apply full throttle. Balance power with steering to hold the line round the corner and as you complete the turn ease off the power, straighten up and accelerate out.

Now take a deep breath and don’t worry about grinning too much. If you’ve taken my advice you’ll have practised all this in a big open space using a car you’re not worried about hurting. Better still you’ll have a professional there to teach you. You’ll make a few mistakes as you learn these skills but like anything good in life to do it properly you need to be prepared to make a few mistakes first. So get out there and learn to make your tyres sing.

See me work these moves in the Arctic circle on Nat Geo Adventure:  Arctic Rally Driving - Hot Laps

Or on DriveSchool on Youtube:


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