Civic 96 - second gear hard to engage

Hello. I’m fischermasamune. This is my first post, nice to meet you all.

The story is long, but I’m writing it all for completeness. You can jump to 3) and then decide if you want to read the rest. This is not a book but there are chapters:



My car is a Honda Civic 1996 with 174,000 miles and a manual transmission. It is my first car, and bought it 15 months ago. I bought it for about junkyard price knowing I would expend some money in repairs. I did a pre-purchase inspection (at a local Midas), so I knew I needed a battery, 4 tires, a muffler and a window regulator. However, they didn’t find all that could be found.

I’m male, young adult, living in Indiana. I know some things about the inner workings of a car but I wouldn’t consider myself mechanically inclined. After this period of ownership I can at least check all under-the-hood fluids and change some easy bulbs, but I never even used a jack. Anyway, I like the vehicle and want to keep it for at least 5 years, and get progressively more knowledgeable about it. Also, I don’t have people I know who can really teach me stuff, so I end up relying on information I find online and learning here and there when my car is in need. Recently, I got into the habit of following this forum.


It didn’t take long for it to show new problems. The one that matters here is that I was having the car getting out of gear, and then it wouldn’t engage again, needing to be towed. I took it to a transmission shop in my town, which is independent and has been around for decades (or at least they claim and I believe it). It was diagnosed as a burnt clutch, which was replaced for $750, with a 12-month warranty. Well, seemed okay.

Some hundred miles ahead, the issue persisted. Took it back to discover that I needed to rebuild my transmission! Well, it would be a lot easier if I knew it before! But at the end I trusted both transmission and clutch needed repair and that the shop was honest (they noticed the clutch was burnt and didn’t look at the transmission). At least they gave me a discount and got it done for $700. (Not sure how much it would be without the discount, but for what I knew at the time it seemed fair.) I was learning about cars as I went, and I regret not having pinpointed exactly what was repaired inside the tranny.

Some months later, the clutch pedal started acting up, becoming soft as paper and not disengaging. Next day I took it to the shop and they changed the master (or slave? I don’t remember) cylinder free of charge. Never had a problem with the clutch since then.


Basically, the shift lever was becoming a bit hard to move, especially but not only during the first shifts in the drive. Accordingly to discussion forums online (not sure I knew Car Talk at that time), this sometimes happen and is caused by the low temperature, and some people correct it by putting a thinner fluid.

At the same time, there started to have times where the lever would become very resistant in entering the second gear leg of the double H (sorry, I don’t know the name), making me cruise (clutch down, obviously) about 3 to 5 seconds (which seem an eternity) when going back and forth from neutral to second until I got into gear. This happens as I go from first to second, but never if I downshift coming to a stop.

A third thing that occurred was that there would be “false engagements” in second gear, where the lever would be essentially in second gear position but the engine would be disconnected from the wheels (as I would release the clutch and pressing the gas pedal would make the engine rev as in idle). So I would return to neutral and to second again, and then it would engage normally 3 seconds later (clutch down all the time).

Maybe two months later, I went to the shop again. (I couldn’t go earlier, and also wanted to have the most certainty possible it wasn’t merely impression on bad clutch control.) I told them all it was happening, and they took it for a test drive. They told me they couldn’t find anything wrong, but changed the fluid to something thinner, called “30 way gear oil” (for free). They also told me to come back before summer to go back to the normal fluid as this thinner one is a kind of “winter fluid”. They told me to drive a while to test it, and return within a week if the problem persisted.

Well, it did! I normally do about 5 or 10 city miles a week (in 1 or 2 days), but I drove more that week, making sure I needed to make the first-to-second shift often. The lever got way smoother, and I would say the frequency of the second gear “false engagements” fell a little, but they continued to happen. If I had to guess, I’d say there were about 1 or 2 per hour. The conclusion I made was that the new fluid really softened the shifts but apparently the second gear wasn’t perfect.

I took it back there, and told them to drive the car. They told me they couldn’t make the second-gear problem happen. I told them to drive more. They did, and couldn’t find anything. Then I went there to show them the problem, went to a test drive with the mechanic, and… the car was perfect! I really hate when the problems disappear when you’re showing them to a professional.

Those were the last days of my warranty. They told me to drive away, and they would leave a note for their insurance company (which pays for their warranty) that if the problem returned it would be covered as it was addressed before the expiration. They said they couldn’t look inside the tranny (I imagine it costs some labor) unless they presence the issue themselves.

Then I took the car home. There have been two months, and there were maybe three times where it happened. Sometimes by the feel I can tell it won’t engage even before letting out of the clutch.

In the end, I couldn’t find good reasons to return the car there, as I’m not 100% sure there is no human error, I’m not sure about how big of a deal it is, and I’m not sure they would be able to solve it. Also, going there would take time away from my activities. Plus $10 each cab trip.


My Honda Civic 1996 has a problem where the second gear would falsely engage: the lever would be in position but not the gear. It is an intermittent problem, which happens sometimes, maybe 1 time for two or three hours of city-driving. So I need to go back to neutral and pull the lever again to second (while sweating and breathing deeply!). It only happens at upshift from first to second. I took it to a transmission shop, but the problem is sporadic and I couldn’t make it appear while in their presence (blame Murphy’s Law), and they couldn’t diagnose it.

So, someone tell me: what’s happening with the second gear? (Chapter 2 provides more background, and Chapter 1 mentions it has been rebuilt.) It is possible to rule out human error? As I said, it happens very rarely.

For those who read Chapters 1 and 2, do you think is the mentioned shop being honest? Most of the time I feel they are doing all they can do within reason in the limit of their knowledge and skills, but for me a transmission is an inaccessible box and I can’t know what’s happening except from what a mechanic tells me.

Finally, what should I do? (Chapter 0 can help you understand the situation better.)

Tough reading everything but, it looks like the synchronizers are going bad.

I only read the summary, but here’s an idea: check the linkage between the shifter and the transmission. Not sure how it works on your car, but on my Corolla there are two cables. Failures could occur where the cables attach to the shifter base, or where they attach to the transmission. Or the cables could simply stretch. On my Corolla at least when that part fails, you just replace the whole cable assembly. The cable ass’y is is widely available new either OEM or aftermarket and isn’t overly expensive.

Before considering digging into the transmission, I’d also do whatever’s necessary to make sure the clutch hydraulics are all working correctly.

I suspect that the “false engagements” are shifter linkage problems, possibly due to the former owner having forced the shifter when the hydraulic clutch controls began leaking (the master/slave cylinder problem) and he/she had difficulty shifting.

I also suspect that the synchros are shot, again as a result of the prior owner trying to drive like a NASCAR driver… with a clutch engagement problem caused by the hydraulic problem.

The good news is that it sounds like the clutch master/slave problem has been addressed.
More good news is that the mechanical assembly that controls the shifting if separate from the transmission, located under the console, and operates the gear changes via cables. Repairing or replacing it won’t require tearing the tranny apart.

The bad news is that the synchros might. Synchronizers are attached to the gears inside the tranny, and cause the gear being engaged to spin at the best speed for engagement just before the gears are engaged. However, that isn’t as bad as it sounds. Once the box under the console is repaired or replaced, the transmission can be shifted smoothly by learning to manually match the revs using the accelerator pedal. It’s an easily learned habit to form, and eliminates having to rebuild the tranny.

One more comment: clearly this Civic was not shifted with the best of care or sympathy. The clutch is probably pretty worn. It may start to slip in the not too distant future.

In summary, these problems are all wear and abuse related, and all repairable (the synchro can be compensated for as described above). It could be far worse.

Is the clutch worn even being new?

Also, shouldn’t the synchronizers that are about to be shot be changed in a transmission rebuilt? I’m kind of sad I don’t know exactly what was done.

I admit I can’t rev match well when going up (and actually I don’t do it well when going down either…), but I try to make the transition more or less smooth to avoid the jerk (by releasing the clutch in average speed, plus a beginner revmatch).

About the car history, according to Carfax, the first owner had it for 10 years, the second was a women who had an accident after about an year and sold it, the third wasn’t exactly my friend but I knew him and I think it’d be unlikely to him to race it. Maybe he was a bad driver, but I have no way of knowing. I’m the fourth owner.

EDITING TO CORRECT MYSELF: It’s not Carfax, but Autocheck. I’d be inclined to trust the titles/registrations are correct. The accident was by the first owner (and there are marks on the vehicle to confirm it), right before he/she sold it. Looking at some invoices I have from 2008, I think the second owner is a female who owned the vehicle for almost 2 years without using it too much and repaired at least the full right door assembly one month before passing it to the third owner, who’s someone I know but he’s overseas.

I’ve come to realize that Carfax is nothing more than gossip. Don’t listen to gossip.

A worn and/or out of adjustment clutch is the usual suspect with difficult shifting. This will be more noticeable in the lower gears as they do a lot of the grunt work and if gear gnash is involved it’s because the lower gears generally have straighter cut teeth with more bevel added in the higher gears so they will run quieter.

If the clutch is fine in every aspect then there’s likely an issue with wear in the 1/2 synchronizer hub and sleeve assembly.
Seeing as how an accident was involved it’s also possible that the linkage or a shift rail inside the transmission could be deformed due to the impact.

Rebuilding a transmission right can get expensive. If it ever came down to a trans replacement I’d find a used one or try a different shifting technique to see if that helps. Shift from 1st to neutral, pause a second, and then go on into 2nd.

In my experience, a worn synchro causes a grind going into that gear.

I’m also thinking a shifter problem, either external (stretched cable) or internal (worn shifter fork).

Heck, it’s not like you really need second gear.


Whenever I have major work done like that, I always ask for the replaced parts in a box and ask the mechanic to explain what was bad about the parts. Helps keep them honest and gives me an education.