The 13 Reasons Why Your Van Won’t Shift Into Gear

Here’s how to get your van to go into gear if you’re having problems with:

  1. Damaged, Old, Leaking, or Low Transmission Fluid
  2. Clogged Transmission Filter
  3. Torque Converter
  4. Shift Interlock Solenoid
  5. Misaligned Gears
  6. Electronic Sensor
  7. Linkage Wire

With a manual transmission, the problem could be the clutch, clutch master cylinder, or synchronizer (synchro) ring & hub sleeve.

It’s frustrating. You purchased a used van, and after a few hundred miles you’re noticing that it’s having trouble shifting gears.

Maybe it’s taking a long pause when the RPMs get to a certain level, or maybe it’s refusing to get into gear altogether. You’re going down the highway, and the van jerks forward when shifting, negatively affecting gas mileage and performance.

What’s causing these problems?

It depends on whether you have an automatic or manual transmission. As you’ll see below, different transmission types have different problems.

While transmissions usually last the life of the car, poor maintenance, extreme climate, and extreme driving conditions can accelerate the wear on the transmission’s components. Here’s a list of what might go wrong in your van’s transmission.


Automated Transmission

1. Old or Damaged Transmission Fluid

If the van wasn’t serviced at the manufacturer’s recommended intervals, you could have bad transmission fluid. This fluid is necessary to keep the transmission lubricated and running smoothly.

As the van runs over time, this fluid can start to degrade due to heat and friction, leading to excess heat in the transmission and, if ignored for a long time, damage to the transmission. Metal shavings inside the transmission can also clog the transmission’s filter.

Check for particles in your fluid. If you see small metal particles in the fluid, this is normal and increases over time. However, too much metal means old fluid, and it needs to be changed.

Good transmission fluid should be clear or pink and mostly odorless. If, however, it’s dark or has a burning smell, it needs to be replaced.

This is a problem you might experience for both an automatic and manual transmission. If the van has an automatic transmission, you might experience jerking or shaking when shifting gears.

In a manual, assuming correct technique, these symptoms could be indicative of a more serious problem, potentially related to components that may need to be replaced (see the section for manual transmission below).


2. Low or Leaking Transmission Fluid

If your transmission fluid isn’t in bad condition, it could just be low or leaking.

Locate your transmission’s dipstick, the stick that allows you to measure the fluid level, and pull it out. Wipe off the end that shows the level, and reinsert it all the way for a few seconds.

Pull it out, and check the fluid level.

If it’s low, top it up and repeat this procedure. If it drops again after a few days of driving, the transmission is likely leaking fluid, and the car should be seen by a specialist to determine where the leak is occurring.


3. Clogged Transmission Filter

If your transmission’s filter isn’t changed whenever the fluid is changed, the filter may become clogged, resulting in additional strain on the vehicle’s transmission.

Even if it is changed at regular intervals, a large particle can clog the filter, leading to the same result.

A clog can result in lower hydraulic pressure leading to poor performance.


4. Torque Converter Problems

There are more serious problems to watch out for. One of these is a problem with the transmission’s torque converter. In an automatic transmission, the torque converter transfers the power from the engine to the transmission.

If there’s a problem with one of the torque converter’s components, the transmission might slip when shifting gears or not be able to shift gears at all.


5. Damaged Shift Interlock Solenoid

The shift interlock solenoid is what keeps you from shifting out of park without pressing the brake pedal. If this is damaged, the van assumes that you are not pressing on the brake, and thus won’t allow you to move the gear lever at all. This is relatively easy for a mechanic to diagnose and repair.


6. Misaligned Gears

Another mechanical issue that could prevent the van from shifting gears is a misalignment of the gears.

Gears generally become misaligned while being installed, but gear misalignment can also occur over time under normal operating conditions. If you hear a grinding noise, this is a good indicator of gear misalignment. You should get the transmission looked at by a mechanic.


7. Electronic Sensor Failure

If your van was built in the last 30 years, there are likely electronic sensors controlling the transmission.

If the van fails to go into gear when you’re pressing on the gas, a failed sensor could likely be the cause. A mechanic can diagnose this electronically and remedy the problem.


8. Severed Linkage Wire

It’s also possible for cables to become worn over time if they’re moving against metal edges inside the car.

If these wires are severed, components cannot communicate with each other. This is an unlikely cause, but it’s worth investigating if all other options lead nowhere.


9. Unusual Noise in Neutral

If you’re suspicious of a transmission problem, try putting your van in neutral and listening.

If you hear whining, groaning, or ticking noises, these are not normal and could be indicative of worn bearings or gear teeth. This is often a serious problem, and further diagnosis by a transmission specialist is required.


10. Check Engine Light Comes On

You may not have an obvious problem with your transmission, but a check engine light could be a possible indicator of a transmission problem. If your check engine light comes on, do not ignore it. Have the van checked out by a mechanic.

It may not be a serious problem, but by having the van diagnosed early, small problems can be resolved before they transform into big, expensive problems.


Manual Transmission

Although uncommon in the US today, many vans were sold with manual transmissions in the past. If your van has a manual transmission, there are several problems that you may encounter that are unique to manual transmissions.

Since you’re responsible for shifting gears yourself in a manual, there are additional parts that you have to interface with, potentially causing problems.

I once bought a 10-year-old Honda Civic with a manual transmission. Although it was in good condition, I noticed that first and third gears were sometimes difficult to engage. If this or other transmission problems happen in your manual van, here are a few causes to investigate:


11. Worn Clutch

This is the most obvious problem with manual transmission vans that fail to go into gear.

While clutches are usually designed to last for the life of the vehicle, riding the clutch (not fully releasing the clutch after shifting) and other bad shifting habits can wear the clutch prematurely.

It is very important not to be too aggressive when shifting and to put the vehicle in neutral when stopped in order to preserve the clutch.

Replacing the clutch is common, so this is an easily fixable problem.


12. Clutch Master Cylinder Problems

If your manual transmission van is modern, it likely has a clutch master cylinder and a clutch slave cylinder, essential components necessary in the operation of the clutch assembly.

This assembly contains a fluid essential for the smooth operation of the mechanism.

Unlike in an automatic transmission, this unit is sealed, so it is not necessary to add or check this fluid. However, if there is a leak or another structural problem, there could be issues when operating the clutch, making shifting gears difficult or impossible.

This is something that would need to be diagnosed by a professional.


13. Synchronizer (Synchro) Ring & Hub Sleeve

Even if you are able to shift the van into gear, it may be difficult to engage certain gears, often first or reverse. Even if you’re able to engage these gears, it may take several attempts or a lot of force on the shift lever. This is likely an issue of the synchronizer ring.

The synchronizer ring helps effortlessly engage the gears along with the hub sleeve, which is necessary for engaging the hub gears that sit in between the main gears.

Wear on this component can make it difficult for the hub sleeve to engage the gear, requiring tremendous effort to shift gears.


What Should I Do Now?

You now have a general idea of what to look for when encountering transmission problems.

If it’s something as simple as a replacing the transmission fluid, you may be able to rectify the problem on your own, saving time and money compared to taking the van to a mechanic.

However, other problems are much more serious. Replacing a transmission can be expensive, costing anywhere from $1,800 to $2,500.

An alternative to replacing a transmission is rebuilding it. It might sound cheaper, but a rebuild could cost $3,000 or more.

It is very important to maintain your van properly, and paying attention the symptoms listed above could save you money and your van.