Should you park a manual transmission in 1st gear or reverse? Depends on whether you have front-wheel drive...and on whether you get towed.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Dec 01, 1998

Dear Tom and Ray:

Several years ago on one of your radio puzzlers, you had a case of a husband and
wife who had identical cars with manual transmissions that got towed. After the
tow, one car worked and the other didn't. Your answer was that one car had been
parked in First gear, and the other had been parked in Reverse. The car in
Reverse worked. As a result of that puzzler, I made my husband start putting our
'86 Nissan pickup in Reverse when he parked. In '96, we bought a Ford Contour SE
with a manual transmission. The owner's manual says to park the car in First
gear. Which gear should I park in? I don't want to find out the answer the hard
way. -- Jana

RAY: Gee, and I thought humiliating yourself by writing to us (and publicly
announcing to your friends and neighbors that you waste your time reading our
column) WAS the hard way. Oh well, what's done is done.

TOM: We happen to disagree with Ford's advice on the Contour, Jana. But this is
a complicated issue. The puzzler was really about a tow-truck driver who screwed
up and neglected to put the cars in Neutral. That's what he should have done,
but he didn't do it.

RAY: Both cars in the puzzler were front-wheel drive (they were Honda Civics, I
said). The tow truck lifted them from the rear end and towed them that way for
several miles. So the cars were pulled along with the front wheels turning

TOM: Since the cars were in gear, the drive wheels (the front wheels, in this
case) were connected to the engine. So when the wheels turned, the engine
turned, too.

RAY: The car in Reverse came out fine because with the front wheels turning
backwards, the engine was turning in its proper direction.

TOM: But the wheels on the car in First gear forced the ENGINE to turn
backwards. Remember, when you put your car in Reverse, the engine never turns
backwards. The engine keeps turning the same way. It's the transmission that
makes the wheels go backwards.

RAY: And forcing an engine to turn backwards can cause damage. In this case, it
made the timing belt jump and prevented the car from starting.

TOM: Now, this kind of towing accident should never happen to most cars, so the
issue is not something you should allow to break up an otherwise perfectly good
marriage, Jana. But if you want to make sure this doesn't happen to your manual-
transmission car, here's our advice.

RAY: Since First and Reverse are pretty much equivalent in helping prevent the
car from rolling, park a front-wheel-drive car (like your Ford Contour) in
Reverse, and a rear-wheel-drive car (like your Nissan pickup) in First.

TOM: And, most important, do everything you can to avoid parking in "tow-away

* * *

Wait! Before you buy a car, make sure you read Tom and Ray's guide, "How to Buy
a Great Used Car: Things Detroit and Tokyo Don't Want You to Know." Send $3 and
a stamped (55 cents), self-addressed, No. 10 envelope to Used Car, PO Box 6420,
Riverton, NJ 08077-6420.

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