Auto Transmission would not engage until car was warm


we own a 2004 Toyota Highlander with 57K miles. As we live in France, it is driven only 4 months out of the year during the Summer and Christmas time. My wife returned yesterday and started the car, but could not get it to shift into any gear.

She checked the Toyota dealer this morning who advised that it may have “lost its memory after not being used for the past 4 months”, and we should let the car run up to operating temperature. After about an hour of this plus some engine revving while in “Drive”, she finally felt and heard a loud “clunk” and the transmission engaged.

When driving down our hill, she put on the brakes and they pulsed as if slipping on ice. This pulsing continued for quite a while when applying the brake, then disappeared. Now the car is running normally.

Is it possible that air got into the brake system and the interlock would not allow the transmission to engage?

My only suggestion for good measure is check the level of the automatic transmission(usually dipstick).

My other guess is if you left the parking brake on(bad idea long term) the brakes froze up and the revving allowed enough power to break the bond. Usually this happens when the brake pads essentially bond themselves due to (normal) rust.

The brakes were probably rusty from sitting for 4 months. Once they were used and the rust was scraped off (the pulsing) they resumed normal operation. I doubt there is any air in the system. Brake fluid absorbs water, not air.

I suggest you check the transmission fluid level. I don’t think it’s a “memory” issue. Letting the engine warm up does nothing for the transmission. If it takes an hour for the transmission to engage there is a serious problem.

So, after fooling with the transmission for an hour, then driving downhill with brakes that don’t work correctly, the car is fine and all is well.


Did you have the parking brake on during the months of winter? I am wondering if the transmission was engaging correctly but that a rusted and locked brake was holding the vehicle. When the engine torque got high enough there would be a loud ‘clunk’ as the struck brake broke loose. The later pulsing of the braking action would indicate that the brake pads and/or shoes where wearing off built up rust. Now everything is fine because the discs and drums are smooth.

Hope that is what it was.

Thank you. We did not have the parking brake engaged, but your theory is correct. Dealer did find a leaking RH transmission seal during the 60K maintenance.

Thank you. The dealer suspected that moisture rusted on the discs and froze to the pads which would explain the initial brake pulsations that later went away. Dealer did find a leaking RH transmission seal during the 60K maintenance. Car now running like a top.