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97 SL2 won't shift into first or second

01-03-2012, 03:36 PM
My 1997 Saturn SL2 with 5 speed manual transmission won't shift into first or second gear. When I shift into the location where first would be the car is in third gear. It shifts into 4th, 5th and reverse just fine, though the shifter is in the wrong position for those gears. I can wiggle the shifter in neutral and get it to move into the position where 5th and reverse are normally found, but it is stiff and makes a clunking noise when I move the shifter over to the far right side. I have removed the center console and the bushing appears to be intact. Both cables are in their proper positions inside the vehicle and at the engine. One of the cables (the top one in the engine) has some wear and tear on the boot, but does not appear to be binding. Other than the stiffness and the clunking noise, the shifter seems to be working fine too. Any suggestions?

01-03-2012, 11:23 PM
Sorry to say, the only thing that comes to my mind is that one of the shifting forks inside the trans had gotten bent, or has skidded on the rod that it moves back and forth on. I know of no way to inspect this however, without removing the trans and opening it up. And if I recall correctly, you take the engine and transmission out together on the Saturn S series cars.
Still, I would remove the battery and its tray, and make certain both of the shifter cables still have their spring-clips to keep the cable housings from moving back and forth - instead of actually moving the cables and the control arms on the upper back side of the trans.

Good Luck, and I hope you let us know how it goes.

01-04-2012, 12:10 AM
Thanks for the response. Would the bent fork only affect 1st and 2nd gear? Wouldn't it also cause problems with the other gears?

01-04-2012, 01:14 AM
Thanks for the response. Would the bent fork only affect 1st and 2nd gear? Wouldn't it also cause problems with the other gears?

There will likely be three forks, one selects 1st and 2nd, the one for 3rd and 4th, with a 3rd fork for 5th.

However, if the fork is bad, then the other gears would still be in the same place on the gear lever.

Are you sure the cable has not moved, or come lose from it's fitting on, or near the gear box?

01-04-2012, 12:01 PM
I havent opened up my Saturn SL2 trans to see (it was refusing to go into 2nd without extreme pressure on the shift lever), if its a two fork or three fork setup. But the shift mechanism going into the trans does two things. One is to select whether you will be moving the forks for 1-2, or 3-4, or 5-reverse gears. Thats the job of the upper shift cable on the trans; and it is moved when you move the shift lever 'left-right'. The other cable moves the shifting fork (or forks) that give you either 1, 3, or 5; or give you 2, 4, & reverse; which happens when you move the shift lever 'fore-aft'.. Based on your description, I could imagine the mechanism to the upper cable is bent, or that something lying inside the bottom of the transmission has gotten in the way. The bad news in that case is that trans removal and disassembly is the only way to fix that.
However, I agree with the prior poster. A very likely failure could be that the spring clip holding the outer cover of the upper shift cable into its groove on the trans housing has come apart, and the end of the cable has moved half an inch 'out' of its 'socket'. If someone ever took that clips out, they arent the easiest thing to re-install. especially with all of the plumbing/wiring that is in the way.
I wouldnt think the shift cable could be faulty - since I think the usual failure (by corrosion) of a shift cable would mean you wouldnt be able to move the shift lever around without extreme force.

I got a JY trans for mine, and installed those shift cables and their retaining clips while the engine was almost-but-not-quite lowered into position. Easier, but it still was a slow job. Luckily new spring clips came with the new shift cables I bought. The old ones fell apart coming out.

01-04-2012, 07:53 PM
Thanks for the further information. As soon as I have a chance, I'll check the cable on the top of the transmission tower again.

01-07-2012, 04:54 PM
Thanks to your replies, I have figured out that the retainer clip for the shift cable on the transmission tower is missing. Any idea what size of clip this is and where I could get one quickly?

01-07-2012, 06:14 PM
It will likely by a clip specific to that model of gearbox, I have no idea what other cars they were used on, but first place to look would be a local wreckers.

01-10-2012, 10:49 PM
My 96 also had a missing clip on the upper cable. I wasnt able to find one of the same size, so I made one up using a small sheet of stainless steel, a hacksaw, cold chisel, bench vise and heavy pliers. It worked okay but since then I bought new shifter cables from, which came with new clips.
I had asked at my usual set of auto parts places - and got no leads. I would think that Dorman or Lisle or the "HELP" set of handy aftermarket goodies would have had them; but no luck. I didnt ask at the Chevy dealer though.
Like the advice you got; a junkyard. Each Saturn "S" series manual should have two of them on the trans.

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