93 VW Eurovan - hard to get into gear (when it's cold)

Hello. I have a 93 VW Eurovan with a strange problem that comes and goes.

The problem is that it is very hard to get it into low gear (1st, 2nd, reverse) when the engine is cold. Also, when I do manage to get it into reverse, the whole frame shudders. Like I said, this only happens when the engine is cold (ie: starting it first thing in the morning) or when it’s cold outside (“cold” being a relative term, since I live in San Diego).

The first time it happened the problem got worse and worse until I couldn’t get it in gear at all and had to have it towed to my mechanic. They thought that the problem was a worn shifter bushing and replaced that. That seemed to work wonderfully; the problem was gone and the van drove great.

A few weeks later though, and it was back. It started small but eventually, I could only barely get it into gear. This time, the mechanic noticed the problem when I first brought it in, but wasn’t able to replicate it. That is, it went away on its own. They thought that it might be a problem with the clutch but didn’t want to do unnecessary work without being sure. So they told me that the next time it happens to see if “pumping the clutch” helps.

When I picked it up it drove wonderfully again. They had done some unrelated repairs (replaced the rear transmission mounts) but nothing to address the hard-to-get-in-gear-shuddering-in-reverse problem. Well, the problem is back again and it is steadily getting worse. Unfortunately, pumping the clutch has no effect. However, I have found that putting into a higher gear, say 3rd, and then quickly down-shifting through 2nd into 1st helps. I don’t know if this implies a problem with the clutch or not.

So I’m basically just asking for advice here. Does anybody have any ideas on what could be causing my problem? Any idea on why it is linked to the temperature? As soon as I’ve been driving for 10-15 minutes and the engine warms up, the problem goes away so clearly something is either expanding or perhaps the oil is thinning out (a couple people have advised me to use thinner oil, but I’d be really surprised if that’s the problem because like I said it never really gets cold in San Deigo).

I trust these mechanics - they’ve done a lot of work on my van in the past. And I will be bringing it back to them soon for this as well as some other odds and ends that need looking at. I was just hoping that somebody out there in CarTalk Land could offer some insight into what’s going on?

Many Thanks.

Your clutch is not fully disengaging.

It could be a bad master or slave cylinder. They are old enough. Especially if you haven’t been changing the brake/clutch fluid every 3 years.
It could also be oil on the clutch disk due to a leaking crankshaft seal.