How to do perfect J-turns and handbrake turns, by stunt ace Paul Swift

Published: 13 February 2017

► J-turns and handbrake turns
► A skid-by-skid guide
► Stunt pro Paul Swift shows us how

Precision driving – just how difficult can it be? We’ve hopped aboard a flat-spotted Ford Focus for a quick one-to-one masterclass with stunt driving maestro Paul Swift to find out.

Who is Paul Swift?

Seven times British Autotest champion, current points leader in the British circuit rally championship and son of another precision driving legend, Russ Swift. Even if you don’t know him by name, you’ll almost certainly have seen his handiwork in countless TV adverts, films and shows.

Paul Swift

He made his first public stunt driving appearance at the age of seven on his family’s ride-on lawnmower in 1987 at Donington Park’s British Truck Grand Prix and, 30 years on, will perform again at this year’s Donington Historic Festival.

It’s at Donington where we join Paul Swift in a Ford Focus ST and Focus RS.

Ford supplies the cars Swift uses in his stunt driving experiences and many of his displays – ‘they don’t pay me, but they do provide the vehicles, which helps!’ he says. ‘All we do is put tyres on them and put fuel in them.’

Paul Swift

How to perform a J-turn

What is a J-turn?

A reverse 180 flick, accelerating in reverse gear before dipping the clutch and spinning the front of the car neatly (in theory) around to face the other way. Paul demonstrates, making it appear deceptively easy, then we swap seats to have a try ourselves.

1) Which way to turn?

Ideally, you should be sat on the car’s inside – so if it’s a right-hand-drive car, as in this example, you’ll be turning the wheel to the right. ‘You can roll the car if you’re not sitting on the inside’, explains Paul.

2) Lock your arm in position on the steering wheel

Put your thumb under the wheel’s left spoke, and lock your elbow into position opposite it. ‘If you don’t keep the front wheels locked in place, you can get into a tank-slapper,’ says Paul.

Performing a J-turn

3) Don’t look at the mirrors

‘They can disorientate you – turn your head to look through the rear screen instead.’

4) Pick up some speed

You’ll need some pace, to get the momentum you need for the front of the car to slide as the weight transfers from rear to front.

5) Dip the clutch, spin the wheel

Exactly half a turn, keeping your elbow locked in place. All being well, the front will slew round in a perfect pivot. It helps if you’re in a car with power steering, of course…

6) Find first gear, you’re away

As the front slews round, select first gear, and you can drive smoothly away without losing momentum. Just don’t hook reverse again by accident…

Performing a J-turn

How to perform a handbrake turn

You know this one. It’s not as easy as it looks…

1) Get your hands in position

Again, assuming you’re in a right-hand-drive car, put your left hand on the handbrake, and your right on the steering wheel, with your thumb hooked under the left spoke (as in J-turn, step 2.) You’ll be turning the wheel around half a turn again, to the right – again keeping the driver’s weight on the inside of the car to avoid destabilising the vehicle too much.

2) Build up speed

More than you might think, to get the momentum you need to get the rear to pivot around fully. Paul tells us to get close to the rev limiter in first gear

3) Dip the clutch

You don’t want to stall now, after all…

Paul Swift handbrake turn

4) Cross the line

‘Imagine you’re crossing an imaginary line in the middle of the tarmac,’ says Paul. ‘As the front wheels cross the line, pull the handbrake’

5) Pull the handbrake - hard

‘Honestly, you have to pull it like you want to take it with you’, Paul tells us. If you’re not forceful enough with it, the rear tyres won’t lock and you’ll end parking neatly, and embarrassingly, at 90deg to the road.

7) Drive away

Release the clutch pedal as the car straightens up and drive away, with an optional flurry of wheelspin if you like. Success!

Paul Swift driving on two wheels

Driving on two wheels

We’ll leave it to Paul for this one...

Your turn!

At the 2017 Donington Historic Festival from 28 to 30 April Paul Swift and his team will be giving similar lessons and two-wheeled passenger rides to ours – visit for details.

Photography: Matt Sayle

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, occasional racer