Car Trouble

Over the
stuck in reverse

ook at this! said my brother Tom, as he waved the gearshift lever in the air. He had been driving my new Blazer in a tricky situation that required lots of shifting between forward and reverse. The blazer had a standard transmission with a floor-mounted gearshift. While attempting to shift out of reverse Tom had pulled the entire gearshift lever out of the floor, leaving the Blazer in reverse with no way to shift.

We were on our remote West Virginia mountain property, variously called the "cabin", the "lodge", "Cheat" (for the Cheat River), and the "Wagener Retreat". This is (was) a small farm on both sides of Shavers Fork of the Cheat River between Elkins and Parsons, West Virginia, surrounded by the Monongahela National Forest. It has been at least 70 years since it was last farmed, and most of the land has returned to the luxurious forest of the area.

And the forests are luxurious indeed. A local forester claims that the area micro-ecosystem is arguably the best in the United States for hardwood growth; native oak trunk diameters could exceed eight feet at shoulder height. Logging is permitted in National Forests, so the area has been logged multiple times. The last logging in the area around our property was also about 70 years ago, but there still are many old logging roads on the mountains.

Fifty years ago those logging roads were still in pretty good shape, and there was no law against taking vehicles (jeeps, pickups, etc. - there were no ATVs at the time) on logging roads. Vehicles often used those roads, especially by hunters in the late fall. Tom had an old VW bug that we would drive way up the mountain on those roads. When ATVs appeared on the scene they turned out to be hard on logging roads; so the Forest service eventually outlawed motor vehicles (other than during logging operations) on National Forest property, and closed off access.

In 1974, driving our new 1973 four-wheel-drive Blazer, Jean and I headed for Cheat, where we met Tom and Sandy. One day we decided to visit an old homestead site on the property - only the cellar hole remained. It was just a short walk from the road, up an old lane, to the cellar hole; the lane then extended past the homesite a short way up the mountain to one of those old logging roads. The lane to the site was still passible, with four-wheel drive, and Tom wanted to test my new Blazer on it. Alas, I consented. (Tom's a good driver, so I had no worries in that regard.)

The homestead was in a nice location above the road, with a spring nearby and perhaps with a view to the river across a cleared bottom-land field. The lane to the site sloped up, roughly parallel to the road, until it was perhaps 10 feet above the road; at that point the lane turned sharp left and headed up toward the homestead site a short distance away. At the turn a few feet in the other direction (if one turned right) was a sharp drop-off (essentially a cliff) down to the road.

Tom's plan was to drive up the lane, past the homesite, and on up to the logging road. He was driving and I was in the passenger seat; the rest of the party decided to walk up to the cellar hole. So up the lane we went, in four-wheel drive, turned left, and proceeded to the cellar hole. Beyond that, however, the grade got steeper, and even four wheel drive couldn't negotiate the steep slippery conditions - the tall, thick grass was wet from the recent rain - basically the wheels just spun on the wet grass.

So we gave up trying to make it to the logging road. Tom carefully backed the Blazer down the lane, to the turn, close enough to the cliff so that he could shift into low and creep around down the final grade to the road. In the process of shifting he pulled the gearshift lever completely out. "Look at this." he said, with a big grin on his face, waving the lever in the air.

He had the clutch pedal depressed, and when he gently released it partway the Blazer was still in reverse - the only way the car would go was back, and a few feet back was the cliff. He quickly turned off the engine. What to do? There we are in the middle of nowhere, about to go backwards over the cliff.

I peek into the hole in the floor out of which came the gearshift lever. With the help of a flashlight from the car pocket I could get a top view of the gear arrangement in the gear box. "I think I see where the lever fit into the gears", I said, "let me see if I can get it back in."

So I grab the gearshift lever and poke it in, trying to get it back into place. No luck. The problem (or at least part of the problem) was that the lever itself obstructed the view where it should fit in. I studied the gear arrangement a bit more, then said: "I think I could shift this thing with another tool, one with an end similar to the gearshift lever but one I can see past while inserting it. Maybe that big screwdriver that I have in my toolbox - let's try that."

So off we trek back to the cabin and my toolbox to get that screwdriver, leaving the Blazer (almost) hanging over the cliff. This screwdriver, which I always carry and use mostly for small prying jobs, is a little over a foot long with a narrow (screwdriver-width) shank and a wide bit - the bit was basically the same width as the business-end of the gearshift.

So back we go to the Blazer, screwdriver in hand. This is better - I can now see enough to place the screwdriver in the gear-control-slot; maybe this is going to work. The technique now is to start the car with the clutch depressed, releasing the gears to be shifted (making the gears "shiftable"). Then, with the gears shiftable, I would experiment with moving the gears around, in effect shifting with the screwdriver.

Tom had now turned the driver duty over to Jean (co-owner of the Blazer). Jean depressed the clutch and started the engine. I looked at the gears, knowing they were in the reverse position, and gently tried to shift them into another position. It worked! Studying the gears some more, I then figured out which gear configuration was reverse and which configurations were forward. So I shifted into what I figured was forward low and said to Jean "Let's give it a try."

The moment of truth. Either I had it right and we could crawl away from the brink, or I didn't and we risked going over the cliff backward. Jean gave it a little gas and slowly let out the clutch. The Blazer inched forward!

Jean slowly pulled us away from the cliff, but did not have enough room to make the turn onto the lower part of the lane. "Stop with the clutch depressed, I'll shift into reverse, and you can back around a little." So she did, I did, she did. Worked great. She stopped again, I shifted with the screwdriver back into forward low, and this time she had enough room to head down the lane and back onto the road. On the way back to the cabin we even coordinated to shift into second gear to pick up a little speed. Who needs a gearshift lever?

Back at the cabin, with the Blazer safely in the parking area, I put away the gear-shifting screwdriver and tried getting the gearshift lever back in. After many blind tries it slipped into place. After that I drove mighty carefully until getting to a Chevy garage, where they replaced the defective gearshift lever holding mechanism. -jlw