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I have a 1997 Caravan [short wheelbase, base model] with a 4-speed automatic transmission.

After it sits [off] for a few hours, the shifter will get stuck in park. A little jiggling and a hard pull down and it will eventually be coaxed into getting in gear.

The shifter, when it "breaks out of park" does make a harsh, plasticy sound, like I forced something in the shifter to move, when it really didn't want to.

However the transmission itself doesn't really clunk into gear after forcing it to shift. (Certainly no more than usual for a 14 year old vehicle with 108k miles.)

I thought it might be related to parking on a [very slight] incline at work, but it was tricky to get it out of park after letting it sit for 2 days on my completely flat driveway.

Any suggestions for resolving such an issue? Also what would it sound/feel like if the parking pawl didn't want to disengage because of an incline?

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When did you last have the transmission serviced, specifically the fluid changed? At 108k miles I'm sure it is due unless it has been done recently. Have you checked the ATF (Automatic Transmission Fluid) level? There should be a dipstick in your engine bay to do so, refer to your owner's manual for details. I don't know if that influences the shifting, but it will effect the overall health of the transmission. –  ManiacZX Jul 21 '11 at 19:13
    
I'll double check with my mechanic. It was just in for a new [rebuilt] power steering pump. He usually checks my fluid levels when the car is in the shop, and I think he would've told me if the ATF was low. I do know that this van only likes ATF+3, I've heard horror stories of what happens if you put Dextron II (or similar) in this car. Hopefully the previous owner didn't try to use the wrong ATF. –  Robbie Jul 21 '11 at 20:20
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1 Answer

When you put an automatic transmission into park it is applying a brake on the transmission (I don't know the details of this because I only drive manuals so I try to learn as little as I can about automatics :) ).

I've observed on automatics though that once you go into park and let go of your brake pedal, it shifts slightly until it "catches the transmission brake".

I would suggest trying to make use of your emergency brake to see if that relieves the pressure on your park brake and it is then able to shift out easier.

Try these steps:

  1. Put foot on brake pedal
  2. Move shifter into park
  3. Apply emergency brake
  4. Release brake pedal

When getting back into the car

  1. Put foot on brake pedal
  2. Move shifter out of park
  3. Release emergency brake

See how your shifter acts coming out of park with that method.

My thought is that the weight of the car against the parking brake is causing pressure making it difficult to release it, holding the weight on the emergency brake (typically the rear wheel brakes) should alleviate that pressure.

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the 'brake' you're thinking of here is actually a pin that is used to lock the transmission: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parking_pawl –  Oren Mazor Jul 21 '11 at 19:14
    
Thanks for giving the reference, as I said, I know the general concept of what the automatic transmission is accomplishing, the logic, but not how it is mechanically achieving it as I only have my manuals. –  ManiacZX Jul 21 '11 at 19:20
    
Sounds like the Wiki agrees with my theory "Most vehicle manufacturers and auto mechanics do not recommend using the transmission's parking pawl as the sole means of securing a parked vehicle, instead recommending it should only be engaged after first applying the vehicle's parking brake" –  ManiacZX Jul 21 '11 at 19:24
    
ManiacZX: I live in Wisconsin, which is notoriously not very hilly. No one I know uses the PARKING BRAKE to park their car... I personally do (or try to), but in this vehicle, the parking brake is misadjusted and does not work. It puts tension on the cable, but I don't think the shoes are hitting the drums. (It rolls away, but you can hear it try to scrape the drums.) –  Robbie Jul 21 '11 at 20:18
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@Iszi - In my steps, I have the actual brake pedal held down, so the order shouldn't matter as applying the e-brake will hold the position that the brake pedal is holding. Since most automatics I believe require you to hold down the brake pedal when going in and out of park, on the wiki quote you'd have to have the brake pedal in too. –  ManiacZX Jul 22 '11 at 20:28
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