Can You Tow An Automatic Car?

Is it possible to tow an automatic car? How do you tow an automatic car and what should you do? Here's a full guide.

The automatic transmission is by far the most popular in the US. Its ease of use means several perks for drivers, especially in cities and heavy traffic. But can an automatic car be towed?

The answer probably isn’t what you might think. You can’t tow an automatic with the driven wheels on the ground!

Surprised?

It’s true.

While you can pull a manual vehicle without trouble, automatic cars can’t be towed without a tow truck or trailer.

Continue reading through this guide to learn how to tow an automatic car.

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How Do You Tow An Automatic Car?

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You can tow an automatic car, but you must lift the driven axle (or axles) off the road. That is, you can’t pull an automatic behind your buddy’s truck, attached by a tow rope.

If your car is front-wheel-drive, the driven axle is at the front. If it’s a rear-wheel-drive, it’s at the back.

A four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive has two driven axles (for conciseness) at the front and the back.

Thus, when towing:

  • A front-wheel-drive car – lift the front of the vehicle. Leave the back wheels on the road.
  • A rear-wheel-drive car – lift the back of the car off the road. Reverse it onto the towing attachment, so the front wheels touch the asphalt.
  • A four-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive car – get a flatbed trailer. None of your wheels should be in contact with the street when moving.

You’ll need a professional tow truck for all three of these options. You’ll require a specific wheel lift tow truck for lifting only the front or rear of the vehicle.

If you’re in any doubt about your drivetrain type, call for a flatbed trailer. That way, you can be confident that towing won’t hurt your transmission.

How Do You Get An Automatic Ready For Towing?

Neutral Gear

Towing an automatic is entirely different from hauling a manual. In a standard transmission, you’ll pop it in neutral, and off you go.

When it comes to automatics, there are more factors at play. Instead of attaching a tow rope and carrying it on to the nearest repair shop, you need a breakdown company.

As mentioned, you can’t pull an automatic car with the driven wheels on the road. As such, the only thing you can do is park in a safe, accessible location and wait for help to arrive. Of course, you’ll need to give your breakdown company or a local mechanic a quick ring.

When the tow truck arrives, the technician will do everything for you. They’ll load your vehicle onto their flatbed or wheel lift model and take it – and you – to a local repair shop.

Don’t worry; provided you’re using a reputable company, they’ll be fully insured.

Why Can’t You Tow An Automatic Car?

You can’t pull an automatic car because of how the transmission works.

An automatic transmission is lubricated by transmission fluid. It’s usually listed in the store as ATF – Automatic Transmission Fluid.

A pump drives the ATF through the transmission, lubricating the gears and moving parts. The engine drives this pump.

ATF doesn’t simply sit in the transmission, unlike the gearbox oil in its manual cousin. Apart from any residual fluid left over from before you stopped, it’ll be utterly devoid of all lubrication when the engine’s off.

Thus, over a very short distance of engine-off towing – a couple of miles, at best – the transmission will suffer extreme damage. It’ll start to slip from that moment.

It’s not worth it. The cost of a transmission repair will far outweigh that of a tow truck.

Are There Any Exceptions?

Tow Mode

A few select manufacturers have built vehicles with tow modes. These include Ford’s Neutral Tow setting.

In emergency situations, of course, you might need to flat tow (all wheels on the ground) your automatic car. For example, you’ll have no choice if you’re in a convoy crossing a desert with no extra seats.

In the infinitely rare situation that you need emergency towing, you shouldn’t exceed 30 mph. Check your owner’s manual for advice.

If your owner’s manual tells you there’s a towing option, it’s safe to do. If a stranger on the internet tells you it’s okay, it isn’t.

Can I Tow An Automatic Car, Yes Or No?

Tow Automatic Car

No. Not even in neutral.

If there’s one takeaway point, it’s this: an automatic car can’t be towed.

Instead, you’ll need to call breakdown roadside services. A tow truck is your only option, except in extreme emergencies.

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Benjamin Kitchen

Ben is an automotive author from England. With experience in a fast-fit garage, he's an IMI-qualified light vehicle technician. He aims to help drivers worldwide with common automotive problems. You’ll often find him working with his 1.2 Vauxhall Corsa – it may have a tiny engine, but in eight years it's never once let him down!

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