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Unable to get manual transmission into gear

I was recently driving my 1993 Volvo 240 wagon over the Bourne Bridge in bumper to bumper traffic (surprise!). Traffic was moving at 3-5 mph as I navigated the rotary and ascended the bridge. Needless to say, I was developing leg cramps as traffic crawled up the steep bridge incline. Once I crested the hill, I shifted to neutral (still 3-5mph to coast down the decline and give my leg a rest. After coasting for a few minutes I attempted to shift into second gear to re-engage the transmission. To my horror, I was unable to slip the gear shift stick into any gear! I continued to make sure that I was depressing the clutch all the way to the floor, but still could not muscle the stick into a single gear (by the way, I never smelled that “burning clutch smell”). After about a minute or more of mental disaster planning, I finally coerced the shift into third gear. A minute or so later, I was able to shift into second gear which got me around the accident causing the delay and onto the highway. From that point on, I was able to shift normally for the remainder of the 2 hour trip. What happened and what could I have done to solve the problem? (The car is now at the repair shop where they are equally perplexed).

More than likely the problem is with the clutch master cylinder leaking internally. As you sat in that hot slow moving traffic the underhood temperatures increased. Since the clutch master cylinder is mounted high on the firewall, the heat got to the point where the bore in the master cylinder expanded to a point where the seals within the master cylinder were no longer sealing. So this would be like trying to shift the transmission without stepping on the clutch.

Once you were able to start driving where air was now removing the underhood heat, the clutch master cylinder cooled back down, the seals sealed again, And the transmission shifted normally.


I agree. I had that exact same thing happen to one of my old Saabs - not on the Bourne bridge, though. That must have had you sweating bullets, knowing you have to navigate the rotary right behind the bridge with a bum clutch…

Sounds totally plausible (especially considering that I am NO expert!), it did feel exactly like I was trying to shift without using the clutch. Thank you so, so much! I had posed this scenario to several car savvy friends and relatives and heard varying diagnoses. One theory was related to “linkage…or bushings on linkage”? The mechanic working on it currently is replacing the clutch cable. He noticed that it was rusted and stiff and thought that might be the cause.

I will pass your recommendation on to the mechanic and have him look at the clutch master cylinder. I do not want to find myself in that situation ever again! Sweating bullets indeed!

I don’t have a clue. I drive ONLY automatics. BTW where is this Bourne bridge?? Just curious.

Cape cod. This is one of two bridges that gets you on the cape. A bit scary to the uninitiated as it is un undivided highway, two lanes coming and going, with people flying by each other without a strip at 65 mph.
It has a rotary right behind the bridge with this hedge trimmed to say “Welcome To Cape Cod”. It is the first thing you see when you drive onto the cape, right after your white knuckled ride if you’ve never done the bridge before.
The cape gets crazy busy this time of year. Not a place you want to stall out.

The cable clutch eliminates the hydraulic problem…But it sounds like the clutch was dragging for whatever reason…How many miles on this car? Has the clutch ever been replaced?

Mileage is around 190,000 and the clutch was replaced by the previous owner (actually by his son) about 80,000 miles ago but the synchronization has never been smooth. I picked up the car from the mechanic today after he replaced the clutch cable, however he was not convinced that it solved the problem. He suggested I try driving it “around town” for a few days to test the repair. I immediately had difficulty getting it into first gear. I am tentative to drive very far for fear of a repeat “shift lockout”. Mechanic suggested that the current clutch might be beginning to fail. What is the conventional wisdom here? I don’t want to spend the money to replace the clutch if the problem is a lesser cause.

Sounds like a gear synchro problem to me, if you know how to double clutch try that. If it shifts ok then, that’s your problem.

This EXACT scenario happened to my son’s car, a 1999 Accord with 196K miles, and it turned out to be the clutch slave cylinder. $300 later and everything is working great. The clutch works better than it has in years.

It’s a cable clutch Knuckles, no slave cylinder or master cylinder or fluid leaks…

Try this Artsy: Will it drop into first okay with the engine off?? How about reverse? If it grinds badly going into reverse (engine running) but will slip in okay with the engine off, the clutch is dragging (not releasing completely) and must be replaced…If you continue to drive it this way, you will damage the transmission in short order…

You should be able to feel if it is the clutch. The clutch pedal has about an inch of free play, that is the pedal drops about an inch, then the resistance of the pedal dramatically increases. If the free play is suddenly a lot more, that is the pedal drops much closer to the floor before you feel the spring tension (resistance) or the spring tension is much less than normal, then there is a clutch problem.

There is the possibility I suppose where the clutch material is delaminating just enough where you might not be able to detect the decrease in spring tension, but the material keeps just enough pressure on the flywheel to cause the transmission gears to keep turning so that you have trouble getting into gear. Either way, its time for a new clutch.

Caaddyman: I tested the transmission tonight: With engine off it slipped into first or reverse with no problem however once the engine was running reverse was grinding and impossible and though first gear did not grind it was very, very difficult to get into gear (could be really ugly at a traffic light!). I assume this indicates the dragging clutch? Bummer.

I’m going to add another scenario. If the clutch cable was replaced with no improvement, have your mechanic take a very close look at the firewill of the car where the clutch cable goes from the engine compartment to the passenger compartment. If the firewall is cracked or damaged from years of handling the pressure of clutch action, the symptoms will be what you describe–a clutch that will not fully disengage.

Keith: I understand the “feel” of the clutch engaging (have driven a manual transmission forever) and have not noticed a distinct change, however I think this transmission problem has been a very slow deterioration. When I encountered the problem on the Bourne Bridge I felt no resistance (or “friction”) in the clutch at all. I was hoping that I did not need to replace the clutch, but it may be time to face that reality.

I am grateful for the time everyone took to help address my car problem. It’s been great having this “community” of knowledge so willing to help out. Thank you all. (Wish me luck!!)

Your clutch IS dragging (not releasing fully) It’s either the clutch itself or a problem with the cable as acemaster pointed out…Forcing the transmission into gear will damage it in short order. You need to have this fixed…

A situation that would cause a ‘dragging clutch’ that comes on suddenly and disappears is a seizing pilot bearing on the transmission input shaft. IIRC the 240 Volvos use a ball bearing to pilot the input shaft. If you spent a lot of time with the clutch pedal down and differential between the engine speed and equivalent vehicle speed large, that pilot bearing might have overheated if it lacks grease and has begun to fret rust. If that bearing heats up and seizes, the input shaft will still turn even though the clutch disc is disengaged from the flywheel and pressure plate.

The only way to verify the problem is to do remove the transmission and clutch; pull the pilot bearing; check it for roughness; regrease; and reinstall or just install a new bearing. You probably should just plan on replacing this bearing as well as the rear main seal during the clutch kit installation. Also, make sure the splines on the input shaft are clean; have no steps; and lightly lubed with high temperature grease.

Hope this helps.

For whatever it is worth; I drove the car today to test out the current symptoms. It was impossible to get the gear shift into 1st gear whenever I had to come to a complete stop (traffic light, stop sign, left turn on a hill…yikes!) also reverse was accented by loud grinding sounds. In addition it was a struggle to access random other gears during the brief trip.

I am bringing it to the mechanic tomorrow for a complete clutch replacement and hoping that it alleviates the problem. I will share the pilot bearing and rear main seal suggestion when I drop off the car.

Thank you to all!

Maybe check but that pilot bearing should be an inexpensive thing to replace with the clutch out. Even if it isn’t the problem, it may be worth replacing, along with the throwout bearing.
He’s there anyway and they tend to be relatively cheap parts.

I suspect you will find the clutch lining material breaking away from its mounting rivets or the “cover” has broken parts and is not releasing properly…