Car Won't Go in Reverse

Reverse isn’t the sexiest gear, but when you need it, you truly need it. If you suddenly put the gear selector on the R and it just sits there with the engine revving, or you hear a disturbing Clunk noise and the car rocks into neutral, you know you’re in trouble.

If you’re lucky, it’s just bad transmission fluid or a faulty transmission position sensor, which are relatively quick fixes. If you’ve got buzzard luck, then vultures could soon be circling your bank statement while you deal with an expensive problem like a broken linkage or a blown reverse gear.

To find out just how dire your straits have become, we’re going to need to pick through the signs that our transmission is telling you. This includes taking a tour through how the reverse gear works, and what makes it different from the other gears in your transmission.

How Does the Reverse Gear Work in a Transmission?

While automatic and manual transmissions do the same thing, in that they transform power from the engine to create torque in the drive wheels. They go into reverse in different ways and have a few different components that could potentially go wrong.

How an Automatic Transmission Goes Into Reverse

Automatic Transmission, How it works?

When you put a car with an automatic transmission into reverse the reverse gear solenoid allows fluidic pressure from the valve body to build up. This activates the clutch pack and bands that control the reverse gear. At that point, power from the engine is diverted to the output shaft that powers the drive shaft to rotate in reverse. 

How a Manual Transmission Goes Into Reverse

Manual Transmission, How it works?

When you put a manual transmission into reverse, you take over control of the clutch. This starts with you pressing the clutch pedal to the floor and putting the selector into reverse. As you slowly lift your leg off the clutch pedal you feel the reverse gear engage, and the car will want to move backward.

Reverse is a separate gear from all the other forward-moving drive gears and uses a three-year arrangement. An idle gear engages when you activate the clutch and move the gear lever into reverse. The idle gear then slides into place to transfer force from the input gear to the output gear. This turns the transmission’s output shaft and drive shaft in the reverse direction.

9 Common Culprits that Prevent Your Car from Going in Reverse and How to Fix Them!

Low or contaminated transmission fluid can be the simplest reason why a car won’t go into reverse. On the face of it, this is what you’re crossing your fingers hoping for, as you might be able to remedy the problem without the enormous expense of having a mechanic open up the transmission case. Though there are certainly more serious mechanical faults like a damaged reverse gear that could be the root cause of the problem.

1. Low Transmission Fluid

How To Check Automatic Transmission Fluid

If you have low transmission fluid, there might not be enough lubrication or fluid pressure to activate the reverse gear. In an automatic transmission, this is a three-fold problem as it needs sufficient fluid pressure in the valve body to engage the bands and clutch packs that put the car in reverse.

It also needs the lubrication of the transmission fluid get the reverse gear to engage smoothly. Transmission fluid also helps move heat energy out of the transmission to dissipate it at the radiator.

When you have low transmission fluid any one or all of these problems combined can prevent the automatic transmission from going into reverse. Though usually, it’s that there isn’t sufficient fluid pressure in the valve body to start the gear-changing process.

In a scenario like this, you’ll likely notice other transmission issues. It might hesitate to engage first gear, or it might go into first, but then dumps it and randomly slips back into neutral. The transmission will likely overheat quickly, and you might get stuck in a gear. The lack of lubrication will probably also cause the transmission to make grinding noises.

How to Fix

On the face of it, you simply need to add more transmission fluid. You check it, the fluid level is low, but it’s pinkish and clean. You wipe the sweat from your brow. You top it up with a few small doses of new transmission fluid.

Then, if you’re a little lucky the car will go into reverse, and it shifts smoothly through all the forward gears. It would seem like the problem is solved.

Though the real problem is that transmissions don’t “Burn” or “Consume” transmission fluid. A lot of modern transmissions are completely sealed. So, the only reasonable way you could be low on transmission fluid is if there’s a leak somewhere.

If you don’t find that leak and fix it, you’ll end up with low transmission fluid again. Your inability to go into reverse will return, and it will likely bring a bunch of other serious transmission problems with it.

Where to Look for a Transmission Leak
Puddle Under Your Car or Truck? How to Diagnose Transmission Leaks

The first place to check is the transmission lines running to the radiator. Then check the transmission oil pan for cracks and punctures. Also, feel along the side of the oil pan. Sometimes the rubber of the gasket fails and simply needs to be replaced.

If you find a leak in any of these locations, a mechanic should be able to fix it without the enormous labor cost that comes with opening up the transmission housing.

A mechanic will charge you $175 to $350 to replace your transmission’s leaky pan gasket.

The cost to have a mechanic replace your transmission oil pan runs between $350 to $550.

You can usually have a mechanic replace your damaged transmission lines for $125 to $200.

2. Degraded or Contaminated Transmission Fluid

 Degraded or Contaminated Transmission Fluid

The lubricating properties of transmission fluid can break down over time which can also show up as a transmission that stubbornly doesn’t want to go into reverse. This is even more likely to be the case if you recently towed something heavy for a long distance or your transmission has been showing signs of overheating, making it hard to change any gears.

Without proper lubrication, the transmission won’t be able to get the gears to synch up. If the transmission fluid is also contaminated with particulate debris or flecks of metal from grinding gears, it could prevent the reverse gear from completely slotting into place.

This will also cause problems with other gears not wanting to engage. You might also notice hesitation when trying to change up from first to second or second to third gear.

How to Fix

How to Change Automatic Transmission Fluid and Filter (COMPLETE Guide)

If you check your transmission fluid and it looks dark, instead of a healthy shade of pink, or you see debris like flecks of metal in it, then it needs to be changed. Changing your own transmission fluid is relatively straightforward. Though you first need to make sure you have a new transmission filter, and enough of the right transmission fluid for your vehicle.

You can then change your transmission fluid using the following steps.

  • Step One: Jack the car up just high enough for you to get under it, block it out, and set the parking brake.
  • Step Two: Remove the transmission oil pan. Allowing the fluid to drain completely out of the transmission.
  • Step Three: Replace the transmission filter.
  • Step Four: Reinstall the transmission oil pan.

Make sure not to over-tighten the bolts holding it in place. If you crank down on them beyond their original level of tightness you risk deforming the metal flange on the transmission oil pan, which will cause the gasket to not fit properly. Thus, causing a new slow leak!

  • Step Five: Add the correct volume of transmission fluid via the filler port at the top of the transmission.

It’s important to note that this is a transmission fluid change. It’s not a complete transmission flush. There will still be some of the old fluid in the transmission. If your transmission fluid is overly dark and you can’t think of a reason why, or you see metal flecks in your transmission fluid, the wise move is to have a transmission specialist inspect the transmission. They can then determine if you need a total flush and can do it for you.

The cost to have a mechanic perform a complete transmission fluid flush range from $125 to $250.

If you’re seeing sludge or particulate matter in your transmission fluid, without metal flecks in it, then chances are good that you have a bad oil pan gasket or a faulty O-ring somewhere in the transmission. This lets road grime, dust, and other contaminants into the transmission fluid, which affects performance.

So, take the time to check the transmission oil pan and look for leaks after changing the fluid. If you see even a few stray drips, it means there’s an entry point where grime is getting, as it lets transmission fluid out.

The most likely cause here is a failure in the oil pan gasket. Especially if it was replaced before and you or the mechanic over-tightened one of the bolts. This can deform the metal flange causing an imperfect seal between the oil pan and the pan gasket itself, which lets road grime in over time. In a case like this, you might also need to replace the transmission oil pan altogether.

3. A Faulty Transmission Position Sensor

 A Faulty Transmission Position Sensor

A bad or failing transmission position sensor can cause the car to not be able to go into reverse and might also prevent you from selecting Drive. Also known as a transmission range sensor, it plays a vital role in letting the car’s ECU know when to engage reverse.

When a transmission position sensor starts to fail, you might have moments where you also can’t get it to go into Drive. There might also be times when you can’t start the car, as the sensor isn’t sending information not the ECU to confirm that you’re in park or neutral.

Sometimes when a transmission position sensor is going out it tells the ECU to change up or down at the wrong time. This can cause a lot of stress on the transmission, with hard gear changes and/or the engine revving up at the wrong time. In a newer car, this will usually cause the check engine light to come on and the car might put itself in limp home mode.

If the check engine or check transmission light comes on, it will throw a code, which might help you confirm that it is indeed a bad transmission position sensor.

Code P0705 indicates a Transmission Range Sensor Circuit Malfunction.

How to Fix

HOW TO REPLACE A TRANSMISSION RANGE SENSOR (NO SPECIAL TOOL)

Replacing the transmission position sensor is usually out of range of what the average DIY mechanic can do. Though this is a fix that you don’t need a transmission specialist for. Most general mechanics can handle the replacement for you.

The part cost for a new transmission position sensor ranges from $125 to $175.

The labor cost is an extra $120 to $150 for a final repair bill of $245 to $325.

4. Failure in the Transmission Lockout Ring

Failure in the Transmission Lockout Ring

Cars with a manual transmission have a special lockout ring to prevent you from accidentally shifting into reverse when you’re in gear driving down the road. Though it’s possible for this ring to fail, which would prevent you from going into reverse even when the car is in neutral.

In a case like this, you might have heard grinding noises the last time you tried to put the car in reverse. Then once you did get it in reverse, you might have had a bear of a time getting back into neutral or first gear. When a lockout ring is going bad, it might also pop out of reverse into neutral as you start feathering the clutch and gas pedal.   

How to Fix

A faulty or worn-out transmission lockout ring is something a capable DIY mechanic can handle on their own. Though it you’re out of your depth, there’s no shame in bringing it to a mechanic.

The part cost for a new lockout ring varies by make and model, but you can usually find a replacement for under $100. Depending on where you live, you might have to order the part, as manual transmissions are increasingly rare on North American roads.

Once you have the replacement part, you can replace your worn out lockout ring via the following steps.

  • Step One: Remove the shifter knob.
  • Step Two: Carefully remove the shroud/hood and any trim pieces. You might need special tools to remove trim without breaking the clips that hold it in place.
  • Step Three: Disengage the collar from the reverse lockout. The collar might have one or more clips that need to be released to get the lockout to come free.
  • Step Four: Slide the reverse lockout through the shroud/hood. There’s usually a slot or a tab that needs to be facing the rear of the car.
  • Step Five: Slip the whole works over the shaft of the shifter.
  • Step Six: Replace the lockout spring.
  • Step Seven: Connect the trim and shroud/hood back in place. Then reattach the gear knob.

If you’re not comfortable with replacing the reverse lockout ring yourself, a mechanic can do it for you quickly.

The part cost will usually be less than $100. Then the mechanic’s labor will cost you another $75 to $100.

5. Stretched-Out or Damaged Shift Cables or Linkages

Stretched-Out or Damaged Shift Cables or Linkages

@amberv7.3

Damaged or stretched-out shift cables, or shift linkages can make it increasingly difficult to shift the car into its reverse gear. The cable/linkage marries a direct relationship between the gear knob/selector and the transmission. As time goes on it can be stretched out or even broken.

If it’s the cable getting stretched out in a manual transmission, the gear lever will start to feel a little loose and sloppy. You’ll probably also have a lot of play in the lever when selecting gears and maybe grinding noises when it does finally slide into gear. If it gets to the point where it completely breaks, you might not be able to get the gear lever won’t go back into neutral on its own.

In an automatic transmission, you don’t get as much feedback from the gear lever. Though signs of a bad linkage can show up as hesitation shifting gears, the engine revving for no reason and possibly even the engine running hot. These are problems that will show up whether you’re in drive or reverse.

How to Fix

How To Fix A Car Shift Linkage Cheap and Easy

If you’re lucky, the problem is simply a bad collet on the end of the transmission linkage. You could then improvise a new collet by cutting down a rubber bushing and affixing it as an improvised collet. Though this is an improvised repair to get you by until you can get the entire linkage replaced.

If the transmission linkage is stretched out or completely broken, then you’ll need to have a mechanic replace it. Though this is something you can have a general mechanic do, which will spare you the higher labor cost of taking it to a transmission specialist.

The part cost for a new transmission linkage will range from $100 to $220.

The labor cost to have a mechanic replace it will add another $95 to $150 for a final repair bill of around $200 to $350.

6. A Clutch Problem

A Clutch Problem

If one of the clutch components like the clutch plate or pressure plate is starting to go out it will make it hard to put the transmission into reverse or first. This can manifest early on when reversing as most people have a habit of riding the clutch while backing up. Though failing clutch problems eventually rear their ugly head in other gears. 

Other signs of a clutch problem include squeaking sounds or rumbling noises when you push the clutch pedal down. The pedal might also feel spongy or fade to the floor. As the clutch gets worse, you might also notice it slipping causing the engine to rev and a momentary loss of acceleration.

How to Fix

How to Replace a Clutch in your Car or Truck (Full DIY Guide)

Replacing a worn-out clutch is usually something a DIY mechanic can’t handle on their own. You can get an entire clutch replacement kit that makes it seem easier, but most of the time there are other issues with the flywheel caused by the bad clutch. If you replace the clutch on your own, and the flywheel still has an issue, you’ll end up right back at square one.

The average parts cost for a replacement clutch kit ranges from $300 to $550.

Having a mechanic install it for you can add another $300 to $500 in labor.

If the flywheel also needs to be replaced you can expect that to add another $350 to $500.  

Though these are just average costs for parts and labor on domestic models. If you have a more exotic car or a rare foreign model the cost to replace a clutch with or without a flywheel replacement can soar to over $1,200.

7. A Problem in the Valve Body

A Problem in the Valve Body

A problem in an automatic transmission’s valve body can cause a clutch pack or the band for reverse to not engage. The valve body works in concert with the TCM to act as the brain of the transmission. Valve body problems tend to show up in lower gears like first and reverse.

Even the slightest clog in the workings of the valve body can affect the fluid dynamics preventing the process of shifting into reverse without ever moving the actual reverse gear.

A valve body problem will show up in other gears as well. You might notice the transmission shifting up or down on its own. As well as hesitation when shifting gears, only to finally hit the gear at higher revs causing it to shift hard. Valve body problems tend to show up in lower gears like first and reverse.

Most valve body problems will trigger a check engine or check transmission warning light. This will usually throw one of the following codes.

Code P2707 is for Shift Solenoid F Performance/Stuck Off.

Code P0715 is a general code for a loss of communication between a vehicle’s engine and transmission.

Code P0751 indicates a malfunction with the shift solenoid “A” shift circuit. This is usually related to a problem with shifting into or out of first gear, and valve body problems tend to show up in the lower gears first.

How to Fix

AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION VALVE BODY REPLACEMENT REMOVAL ON A CAR

It takes a transmission specialist to diagnose and deal with a transmission valve body problem. If it’s just an issue of a clog or minor internal damage they might be able to rebuild the valve body without having to replace it. If your car has high mileage, rebuilding the valve body will be cheaper, and makes more sense.

The part cost for a replacement valve body runs between $200 to $450 depending on the model.

It can take a transmission specialist up to 4 hours to completely replace it, which can add another $180 to $300 to the final repair cost of $380 to $750.

Though the final cost can be much higher for an exotic or high-performance transmission.

The cost to rebuild a valve body and/or remove a clog can range from $250 to $550.

Though chances are good the clog was caused by something else letting road debris into the transmission. This is usually a failure in the pan gasket seal or a bad O-ring, which will also need to be fixed, and added to the final bill.

8. A Bad Reverse Shift Solenoid

A Bad Reverse Shift Solenoid

@taurusautocenter

The reverse gear has its own separate solenoid, that can get stuck or fail, making it impossible for the valve body to activate the clutch pack and bands that engage the reverse gear. This is usually known as Solenoid F. When it fails the check engine or check transmission light comes on, throwing a code P2707 for Shift Solenoid F Performance/Stuck Off.

A problem like this usually starts out as the automatic transmission hesitating to engage reverse. The engine might even rev high and then suddenly slam into reverse. Once the reverse shift solenoid finally fails reverse simply cannot be selected.  

How to Fix

DIY transmission shift solenoid replacement!

A bad reverse shift solenoid will need to be replaced by a transmission specialist. Though this typically doesn’t require opening the transmission case, which means the labor cost is much more reasonable.

The part cost to replace just the shift solenoid is usually less than $100.

The labor time to have a mechanic replace it adds another $100 to $125 to the final repair bill.

Though the real concern here is what caused the reverse solenoid to fail in the first place. Since it doesn’t get as much use as all the other A through E solenoids for the forward gears, it won’t have any serious wear and tear. Chances are good that bad/contaminated transmission fluid, low transmission fluid, or a valve body problem caused the reverse solenoid to fail.

9. A Damaged Reverse Gear, Band, or Clutch Pack

A Damaged Reverse Gear, Band, or Clutch Pack

Reverse has its own gear in both manual and automatic transmissions, which can go out rendering the transmission incapable of shifting into reverse at all. If you have a manual transmission and a bad habit of fast shifting into reverse it can damage the reverse gear itself, the input gear, or the idle gear. This might manifest as a grinding noise when reversing, or jerking that gets worse until the reverse output gear, input gear, and idle gear can’t synch up anymore.

In an automatic transmission, the same thing can happen. Especially if you sometimes need to “Rock” the car to get it unstuck from mud, ice, or snow. In these scenarios, a band or clutch pack can go without warning. You simply put it in reverse, there’s an ugly “Clunk” sound and the car effectively slips into neutral even though the selector is on R.

How to Fix

Anytime you have a reverse gear, clutch pack or band go, you’ll need a transmission specialist to open the transmission up. This instantly incurs a massive labor cost. Usually to the tune of $800 to $1,000.

If you have a newer car, with low miles and it’s just the reverse gear, band, or clutch pack, then you can expect an added parts cost of $350 to $550.

If you have a higher mileage vehicle, the mechanic might recommend a rebuild or an overhaul. This will add yet another $500 to $700 or more to the final bill. Though you’re already paying the cost of having the transmission opened up. Having that rebuild done while they’re already at it, can actually save you a thousand dollars or more in the long run.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I Come to a Complete Stop Before Shifting From Drive to Reverse?

Shifting from drive to reverse at any speed over 5 miles per hour can severely damage your transmission in several ways. Not the least of which is damaging the reverse gear, or snapping one of the bands that activate the reverse gear. This leads to very expensive repair bills. The wisest move is to completely stop the motion of the car before shifting.

Is It Safe to Drive a Car Without Reverse?

If your reverse gear failed due to a snapped band or bad reverse clutch pack, then you might be able to safely drive forward without any risk of damaging the rest of the transmission. Though you’ll have to come up with a lot of creative parking, and eventually you’ll get yourself in a pickle. All the other reasons why you might lose reverse gear, like a bad valve body, low transmission fluid, or bad transmission fluid can also cause severe damage to other transmission components.

Conclusion

Low transmission fluid or bad transmission fluid are the two most common reasons why a transmission won’t go into reverse. The quick fix for these issues is simply to top up the transmission fluid or replace it. Though eventually, you’re going to have to find and fix the leak or the problem that caused the bad transmission fluid in the first place.

There are also some more serious transmission problems that can be fixed without the massive labor expenses of having to open the transmission housing. This includes things like a bad valve body, a stuck F reverse solenoid, or a worn-out linkage.

If you’ve been a little abusive to your reverse gear, shifting into reverse while still going forward and you damage the gear itself or snapping a band, then a transmission specialist will need to open up the transmission housing. These are the most expensive repairs, which teach you important life lessons!

Jason Farrell

Written By

Jason Farrell

Jason Farrell is a certified master technician, the editor of Mechanic’s Diary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Automotive Technology from Pittsburg State University. With nearly 18 prior years of experience in the automotive field, he has extensive knowledge about Domestic, European, and other foreign makes and models of cars and light trucks. Jason’s experience working as a technician and service manager at dealerships, gave him the experience and know-how of most aspects of inspection, diagnosis, and repair from engine and drivability to electrical, HVAC, brakes, steering and suspension and everything in between.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *