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Standard Transmission Tows

Dec 12th, 2009 | By | Category: Features

QUESTION: Standard Transmission Vehicle Tows… What’s the true safe way to tow a standard transmission vehicle? I always heard that as long as the shifter was in “N” neutral position your could tow safely with the drive wheels on the ground as many miles at any speed. I’ve always heard this but I’ve been towing vehicles for 3 1/2 years and if I pick up a standard rear wheel drive vehicle on the highway I always use dollies. I’ve just always wondered what was the truth behind this. Thank You and hope to hear back from you.

ANSWER: With few exceptions, the transmission of every car has limitations as to how far and how fast the vehicle can be towed before the transmission is damaged. This applies to automatic and manual transmissions.

When a vehicle is being driven, fluid is circulated throughout the transmission. Transmission fluid serves to cool, lubricate, clean, and in the case of automatic transmissions provide hydraulic power to operate the moving parts.

With the exception of some 4-wheel drive and all-wheel drive vehicles, a transmission must be in neutral if the vehicle is towed on its drive wheels. Since the transmission is in neutral, it does not circulate the fluid the same as it would if it was in drive or in a driving gear (manual transmissions) and during towing, the transmission can run hot. When the vehicle was being driven, it left residual fluid on parts that turn if it is towed or on some vehicles there is limited circulation of fluid that allows for towing within the speed and distance restrictions imposed by the manufacturer. If you exceed the speed or distance restrictions imposed by the manufacturer, the transmission can overheat and be seriously damaged. I have seen situations where transmissions got hot enough that moving parts were welded to each other and the transmission locked up. In one instance, the transmission welded itself and the drive shaft could no longer turn and it broke the differential on the car. When the tow operator was finished with this job, the transmission, driveshaft, and differential were all destroyed.

A few years ago, a regular customer of mine wanted me to tow his MG about 70 miles. My price for this job was more than he wanted to pay, so he had another tow company do the job for him. They towed the car from the front. A few days later, my customer got his car started but could not move the manual transmission shift lever at all. He called me and I told him that it had probably “welded” internally and that he should take it to his regular shop for service. Sure enough, the guts of the transmission had welded and a new one was needed.

The person or persons who have told you that you can tow a manual transmission vehicle in neutral without restriction are totally wrong and their advice could be extremely expensive to you. Unless you absolutely know for sure, never tow any vehicle with its drive wheels on the ground. To be sure that you are towing a vehicle on its drive wheels correctly, you can check the vehicle’s owners manual or some other source of quality information. Unless you can document the procedure for towing, do not assume that a vehicle can be towed on its drive wheels. Some tow operators use the A.A.A. Towing and Road Service Manual. The A.A.A. manual only covers the last 8 or 9 years. It is often provided free by A.A.A. to its service providers or can be purchased from your local A.A.A. office for about $30.00. If you tow in accordance with the A.A.A. manual, there would be very little chance of doing damage to a vehicle. Unfortunately, A.A.A. often tells towers not to tow a vehicle even though the manufacturer says it can be towed. Other towers use Johnson’s Guide for the Professional Tow Truck Operator. Johnson’s Guide was written by me and covers vehicles built between the years 1946-2003. The specifications in it are extremely accurate and will allow you to tow many vehicles that traditionally have not been considered towable. It is being updated and the new edition will cover most vehicles sold in the United States from the 1920’s through 2008. Hopefully it will be available by late 2008. The older edition is available for $34.95 but only a very few copies are available. The new edition will sell for about $80.

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