VW Beetle 2000 - 1st and reverse gear shifting problems

Hi All- I’m asking this question for a friend. It’s a 2000 VW Beetle. 2.1 GL. Five speed. “It’s difficult to get into first gear. I have to go down a little bit and then forward as though I was going into reverse. And then going into reverse is even trickier. I can’t do it sometimes for many tries although sometimes it goes right in. All the other gears are fine. It doesn’t pop out of gear once it’s in it stays in.” Any thoughts on what it might be would be appreciated.

The clutch master cylinder may be leaking internally.

When this happens, the cylinder doesn’t produce enough hydraulic pressure to fully disengage the pressure plate. So the clutch stays partially engaged.

Since first and reverse don’t have synchos, the gears are going to grind when you try to shift even with your foot on the clutch pedal because the input shaft into the transmission is still turning.


Wow! That sounds very plausible and better yet doesn’t involve the transmission. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Shutting off the engine while shifting the gears with the car stopped would be an excellent way to test your idea!

We’ll test it out and report back. Thanks for the suggestion.

First gear DOES have a synchro

But problems shifting into 1st or reverse seem to be common with this transmission. Check the shifter bushings for excessive wear.

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I am the owner of the beetle. With the engine off I depressed the clutch and I tried to shift. It shifted completely normally with the engine off but with the engine on it’s a whole different story. Does that mean it is the master cylinder that needs replacing?

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That indicates the master cylinder is leaking internally.



Wow. I had a mechanic looking for 3 hours, couldn’t find what was wrong and sent me on my way. I’m going to another mechanic on Monday. If this is what is wrong, you are a genius and I thank you!

The clues are definitely pointing to the clutch MC being the problem. There are other possibilities, but with that symptom, me, I’d just replace that part as the first (and hopefully final) step to the solution. I’ve had to replace that part twice on my early 90’s Corolla, similar symptoms. As a heads up, on my car anyway, it doesn’t take long between first noticing the symptom and the car becoming almost impossible to use. So don’t delay getting your shop’s assessment.

If you’re diy’er inclined, you may be able to replace the part yourself. The biggest problem is its location, usually in a difficult to access corner of the engine compartment. On the upside, this is a good opportunity to purchase some specialty tools. Suggest especially, rather than a simple wrench, to use a special purpose flare style wrench for loosening/tightening the hydraulic hose. You may need to use one w/a shorter than normal length handle. I use a pair of long nose pliers with the tip bent at an angle as well.

The thing was, I wasn’t sure if this was actually happening or maybe I somehow weirdly just forgot how to shift my car. I can’t even tell you how long it was going on. But yes it did get worse and then I realized that there was truly something wrong. I can get it into first gear by depressing the stick shift as though I was going into reverse but reverse is impossible to find now so I’m having to park my car on the road instead of the garage. Hopefully Monday this new mechanic can check that out right off the bat and get it fixed!

I discovered if I pumped the clutch pedal a couple of times early on in the symptom-phase, I could get it to shift when it otherwise wouldn’t. But like I mention above, time is not on your side. Eventually nothing will work and you won’t be able to shift at all.

Not being able shift isn’t the problem.

Burning up the clutch is.


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When the mechanic looked at the clutch he said it looked fine. I guess the problem is inside the clutch which he didn’t check. I hope the clutch will still be fine on Monday!

I presume you mean the mechanic checked the clutch operation. It’s not possible to see the clutch parts without first removing the transmission. I think you may be a little confused about how this all works: you are sitting in the driver’s seat and press the clutch pedal, which in turn pushes a small piston inside the clutch master cylinder (which is a part bolted on the engine compartment firewall). The piston’s movement compresses clutch hydraulic fluid, which flows in a hose from the clutch master cylinder to the clutch slave cylinder. You could probably see that hose run through the engine compartment, but the clutch slave cylinder is probably hidden behind the transmission housing. The clutch slave cylinder contains the mechanism which activates the actual clutch by forcefully pressing on the clutch release bearing (another part that is hidden).

By contrast, my 30 year old Corolla has a clutch master cylinder, but the clutch slave cylinder is located on the outside of the transmission. Instead of pushing directly on the release bearing, it pushes on a lever, and the lever pushes the release bearing. My prior 1970’s VW Rabbit didn’t even have a clutch master cylinder. It used a cable running from the clutch pedal to a similarly configured lever as is used on the Corolla.

I wasn’t there at the time but when I returned I asked him if he checked the clutch among other things and he said yes they are all fine I don’t know what’s wrong with it. But in answer to your question no I don’t know exactly how the clutch works thanks for the explanation.

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Hi George- Thanks so much for taking the time in such detail to explain how a clutch works. You’ve now empowered her to better ask questions of her next mechanic. It’s people like you and everyone else who has replied to this post that make Car Talk invaluable. Enjoy your Sunday.

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Okay so this is what ended up happening. It took four mechanics one of whom was a transmission specialist and unable to figure it out before I was able to find a European car repair shop that diagnosed it and fixed it. Turns out it was something called the gear selector and it was broken at the base of the housing. It was replaced and cost me more than $700 however it’s now fixed! Thank you for helping me figure this out everybody.

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Thanks for the update OP. Good news, clutch and clutch MC ok. Bad news was the broken gear selector, but now that’s fixed and you are good to go. I’m not exactly sure where that part is located. Manual transmissions usually are configured with gadgets inside called “shift rails” which are basically long metal rods; when you move the driver’s gear-shift lever (the thing with the knob you hold to shift) there’s a mechanical linkage from the bottom of that lever to the transmission itself , which in turn moves something along one of the internal shift rails to another position which effects the shift. So the problem was likely somewhere in that linkage between the driver’s gear shift lever and the transmission.

So happy to hear the problem was solved and “you’re on the road again” and you found a trusted mechanic. Hopefully, the $700 expense brings you peace of mind and another 23 years of shifting security…