Driving on low transmission fluid – 6 problems to look for

(Last Updated On: August 28, 2023)

If driving on low transmission fluid is your only option, then you need to be aware of the issues to look for. This article isn’t to be used as an excuse for you to drive your car with low fluid. We can’t offer such guarantees as every car, and every leak is different. But I’m sure you can guess that a slow leak may mean you can drive a little bit. 

A car gives lots of feedback and using your common sense; you should be able to judge whether it is ok to carry on driving. You may well end up needing to pull over and have the car recovered for repair. 

Ignoring issues that follow low transmission fluid could result in a hefty repair bill. 

6 different manual transmission fluid low symptoms 

The following issues are the most common to be aware of. Of course, this is not all the potential problems to be mindful of when driving at low transmission fluid levels.

Shifting issues 

The metal gears inside the transmission rely on the transmission fluid’s lubrication. Extremely low or no fluid can bring on shifting issues where it will be challenging to select a gear. It can even get to the point where the car will pop out of gear when driving along. Excess force is needed or having to ram the gearstick and force the gearbox’s selector to change gear is the most significant indicator. 

Overheating transmission

Overheating transmission will have the same effect as an engine overheating; there could be warning indicators on the dashboard.

But most commonly, a strong smell and smoke may start to rise from the engine bay. By popping the hood/opening the car’s bonnet, you will be able to identify where the smoke is rising from.

Unusual noises 

Unusual noises such as loud whirring and humming noises when driving along may manifest themselves. When changing gears, some crunching or metal-on-metal grating noises could indicate that the transmission box gears may be dry or damaged.

Warning lights

Pay attention to the dashboard; any of the warning lights connected to the gearbox in some way could start being erratic or illuminate. The engine management light would be the one to be aware of the most. If your windscreen washer level low comes on, it is not the transmission fluid and just a coincidence. 

Fluid leaking

If you find a safe place to pull over and suspect an issue check the ground for dripping fluid. If the transmission fluid leaks, driving the car is no longer an option. You should call your recovery company and have the towed to a garage for repair.

Jerking when driving at a constant speed

If when driving you feel like the car is jerking when driving at a constant speed, it could signify internals of the transmission are damaged. Rotating gear teeth that are missing teeth or chunks of the gear will not rotate smoothly, which you will feel when driving.


What happens if you run low on transmission fluid?

You might have no choice but to move the vehicle on low transmission fluid in certain situations. LOW transmission fluid where there is still a considerable amount of fluid in the gearbox will not cause any issues. The car can be driven with no risk of causing harm. There may be a leak that needs attending to or just topping up. The problem with this is how you know it is low without checking the level. If you get to a point where you are checking the fluid level, it’s just as easy to top up to the correct level. 

If the transmission is low to the point, there is virtually none left in the transmission; by driving the car, you can expect to cause considerable damage. This damage could result in not just the transmission needing to be replaced or rebuilt but multiple supporting components. Drive shafts, input shafts, and clutch components could all be added to the list of items no longer serviceable. 

The decision is yours; driving on low transmission fluid may not result in any repercussions. The effort required to check the transmission fluid level to determine whether it’s safe is just as much as refilling the transmission fluid.

Most fuel stations will have a small stock of transmission fluid on hand to purchase. Suppose you’re a dab handy under a car bonnet. In that case, you could probably check and top up the transmission fluid in the fuel station car park in 10 – 15 minutes (vehicle dependant).

How far can you drive low on transmission fluid?

This is like asking how long a piece of string is. But as we’ve already touched on, low transmission fluid where the box still contains fluid, a few hundred miles(km) journeys will not be an issue. With little to no fluid in the transmission, do not expect to drive more than 5-10 km before you start noticing problems. 

Gearbox repairs or replacements are not cheap, so avoid driving at all costs with no fluid. Even just to the garage for repair could cause more damage than was there. Most garages offer a collection service where your car is transported on a trailer. 

Final thoughts

Driving on low transmission is a flip coin scenario; on the one hand, you will experience issues and complete gearbox failure. On the other hand, you may experience no problems at all. Low fluid levels should be taken very seriously. A much wiser decision will be to not drive the vehicle and seek repair. If you are on the road, stop at the nearest gas station or garage and have a professional sort the issue. 

My name is Tom although my friends call me Tommy. Messing around with cars and bikes has always been a hobby of mine even from a young age. So I made it my day job 17 years ago. I am a fully qualified mechanic as you would expect. I've worked in all different areas of the motor trade, valeting, panel beating, engine repairs, I'm sure you get the idea. I enjoy sharing my wealth of knowledge and experience with others, which is the reason I spend a lot of time here writing for this website.

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