TECH TIP Technical Index

Transmission Shift Rod Repair

By Mike C.

Gettin’ Shifty

I have not driven an air-cooled Beetle that didn’t have at least some play in the shifter. Most of it is caused by two things: one being the shift coupler that is located in the back, underneath a cover under the back seat cushion, and the other being the shift rod bushing that is located inside the hole where the shifter mounts. The lack of a shift rod bushing is what causes most problems with missed shifts and reverse.

As far as I know, there are two designs of the shift rod coupler. Up to about ’67 (???) the couplers are round and bonded steel/rubber. They were redesigned in ’68 as a stamped open-frame design with replaceable bushings. The bushings in the newer design were made of rubber and tended to shrink or deteriorate over a number of years. This caused looseness in the coupler, resulting in play in the shifter. A loose coupler will cause mostly front-to-back looseness and can cause missed shifts by not fully engaging the gears in the transaxle.

A deteriorated shift rod bushing will cause side-to-side play and could make it difficult to find the right gear when you have to shift or put it in reverse. If you have any of the above problems, go no further than to replace the bushing and coupler. The coupler is about $10 if you have a ’68-up and $40 for ‘67-down. The bushing is $5 for all years.

To do the job, you will need the following:

  • Small Phillips Screwdriver Scribe
  • 8mm, 10mm, and 13mm Combination Wrenches
  • 13mm socket/ratchet Wire Cutters
  • Mechanic’s Wire Safety Wire
  • Heavy Grease Loctite
  • Large Channellock Pliers or some very sticky fingers (not to be confused with any kind of theft!!!)
  • Lacquer Thinner or some kind of solvent
  • New Coupler or Coupler Bushings.

Shift Coupler:

  1. To get to the shift coupler, take out the rear seat bottom.
  2. See a cover over the rear part of the tunnel that looks like a speaker? Remove this by taking out one phillips screw, sliding it out toward you, and lifting up.
  3. After this, take your wire cutters and cut the safety wire off and remove the square-head retaining screw using the 8mm wrench.
  4. Now slide the shift rod off the coupler and pull it back a couple of inches. Take the 10mm wrench and remove the long screw that holds the coupler on the transaxle. You can rotate the coupler a bit for clearance.
  5. If you replace the coupler bushings with stock rubber ones, you will reuse the old cage in which they fit. If you opt for one of the red urethane replacements (which I recommend), you will replace the whole assembly.
  6. When you put the coupler back on, do yourself a favor and either safety-wire the retaining screw or put Loctite on it. I had the screw back out on me right in the middle of Covington Pike one evening, lost everything but first gear, and had a time finding a place to pull over. The retaining screw has a hole in the head just for safety wire, so not doing it would be certain suicide. The old style round couplers install as an assembly only and you only have to worry about the one retaining screw.

Shift Rod Bushing:

Now let’s move on to the shift rod bushing underneath the shifter. It will help if you take out the driver’s seat to do the job. I have replaced them with the seats all the way back, though. Also, the coupler needs to come out. You will have to take out the front carpet to gain access to the two shifter bolts.

  1. Take your scribe and mark where the shifter retaining plate was originally so you can get it back in the same spot. If you don’t, it won’t shift right and reverse won’t work too well, either.
  2. Remove the retaining plate with the 13mm wrench or ratchet. The shifter assembly just pulls straight out.
  3. Move to the outside and look under the car. There is a cover plate in the front of the frame horn that you’ll have to remove using the 13mm wrench or ratchet. If you have a standard Beetle, you’ll have to remove the small round cover on the front apron under the front bumper, as well. Super Beetles don’t have a cover on the front apron, and you only have to remove the one on the frame horn.
  4. Now just slide the shift rod out. It is about four feet long and will be slippery with dirt or old grease. Use the Channellocks to help you a little here.
  5. After the rod is out, clean it with the lacquer thinner.
  6. Grease up a new rod bushing and put it in the bushing retainer plate. You may have to fish it in there with a pair of needle-nose pliers. If you drop the bushing in the tunnel, it could be certain madness to try to fish it out.
  7. Now slap some grease on the shift rod where it moves in the bushing and slide it back in the tunnel, being careful not to push out the bushing.
  8. Reconnect the coupler
  9. Put some heavy grease in the hole the shifter ball goes in and lower the shifter back in place, lining it up with the scribe marks you made earlier. Check the shifter for correct operation. If it won’t go in reverse or won’t stay there, move the retaining plate around until it does, checking for regular shifting operation in first through fourth. After you finished all that, put the carpet back in, reinstall your seats, go clean up, and shift your way to the bratwurst burger joint.

Your VW Maniac and Tech Specialist,
Mike C.