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Can't shift, sometimes

I have a 1994 Saturn wagon that I’ve owned since 2004. Lately it has required a lot of muscle strength to shift gears, particularly 1st and 2nd gear - and reverse. The strange thing is that sometimes it’s not so bad and other times it is literally impossible to shift into first. When this happens I have to cut the engine, then shift into 1st, then restart the engine.

I’d like to know what’s going on? If it’s the clutch, I’m curious why it would only be a problem SOMETIMES? I’ve tried to consider factors like heat, cold, lots of driving, not driving for a while… but I can’t pin down any possible cause… can you help?

You don’t mention the mileage on this car but from the age of the car the problem could well be the clutch master cylinder. You have checked the clutch master cylinder reservoir? Have you noticed if the pick up point of the clutch engagement moves up and down? Does the transmission shift through the gears okey with the engine off?

Your description “…cut the engine, then shift into 1st, then restart the engine.” is classic for a failing master cylinder.

Hope this helps. Get back to us with answers to the above and we can help you further.

Thank you for your response!

In answer to your questions - the mileage on the car is about 131k.

I haven’t noticed whether the pick up point of the clutch engagement moves up and down mostly bc I’m not sure what you mean by “pick up point”. Sorry, would you mind describing that?

Lastly, yes, with the engine off the transmission shifts through the gears ok.

If it is the clutch master cyclinder reservoir, how much would that cost? The car isn’t really worth very much (other than its replacement value - that would be a bit high).

I don’t drive a whole lot (I’m a bike commuter) so I’ve been able to get by driving it with its current issues. If I continue just tolerating the annoyance of difficult shifting (and occasionally have to cut the engine to shift gears), what’s the worst thing that could happen?

Thanks again for your response!


The ‘pick up point’ is the position of the clutch pedal above the floor where the car just starts to move. Usually you will notice a change in pick up point when you launch with a jerk because the clutch engaged sooner that you are used to.

Sorry, someone else will have to give you an estimate on the cost. You might call an independent mechanic in your neighborhood and ask them what they would charge to replace a clutch master cylinder and bleed the system. They may want to also change the slave cylinder as they usually go bad at approximately the same time but if you want to save money doing the master cylinder is probably best. BTW, don’t go in telling the mechanic that you need a clutch master cylinder. Describe the problem to the mechanic, mention that you think it might be the clutch master cylinder and let him/her comfirm a diagnosis because I may be wrong.

By driving the Saturn with this condition, you a doing harm to the synchronizers in the transmission. Each time you force it into gear the synchronizer for that gear has to stop the input shaft turning because of the dragging clutch disc. Pretty soon the synchronizer will wear out and then you will be grinding the shift sleeve dog teeth against the hardened gear dog teeth until you can no longer engage that gear at all.

Hi again,

I have not notices any change in the pick up point of the clutch.

A friend of mine commented that it could be the flux capacitor… do you have an opinion about that?

Thanks for your precautions about harming the synchronizers. Duly noted!