Craftsman Lawn Tractor Won't Go Forward Or Reverse? (Fix It Now!)

Dennis Howard
by Dennis Howard
Craftsman lawn tractors are generally dependable, but they can run into mechanical errors and won’t go forward or reverse. Causes include everything from a damaged drive belt to a dysfunctional transmission. Whether it be the shift linkages or hydraulic fluid, let’s take a look at the causes and fixes for a Craftsman tractor that won’t go forward or reverse.

Nothing is more frustrating than starting a piece of lawn equipment and finding it won’t work. Frustration can be a minor factor if the problem is expensive equipment like garden tractors. One issue that constantly comes up is a Craftsman lawn tractor that won’t go forward or reverse.

Craftsman garden tractors, like most other manufacturers, use a hydrostatic transmission to drive the tractor. These hydraulic transmissions are usually reliable when properly maintained. However, some known issues preventing a Craftsman garden tractor from moving forward or backward. You may experience problems with the drive belts, hydraulic pump, disconnect linkage, or the tractor’s brakes.

Getting your Craftsman lawn tractor back on its wheels and running properly is a priority, especially during the height of mowing season. Before you load up your lawn tractor and head to the repair shop, there are a few things to check. Most homeowners can perform these routine steps and save a repair bill.

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How Does a Hydrostatic Transmission Work?

A hydrostatic transmission is a hydraulic drive system. The engine of your Craftsman lawn tractor provides power to two devices. One is the mower deck that cuts the grass. The other is the hydraulic pump in the transmission.

The engine turns the hydraulic pump via a drive belt. The pressure the pump creates in the hydraulic system turns the differential, sending power to each back wheel. A hydrostatic transmission is compact, relatively simple, and works well on small garden tractors.

What Can Go Wrong to Keep My Lawn Tractor from Moving Forward or Backward?

Several things can prevent a Craftsman garden tractor from moving in forward or reverse. Some of these things are obvious, while others may not be so readily apparent. The trick to diagnosing problems with a Craftsman lawn tractor is to work methodically and check for each possible problem. Our step-by-step guide should help you find the problem and remedy it without a costly trip to the tractor shop.

Step 1: Working Safely Around Your Mower

Before you work on any power garden equipment, you should recognize and practice a few safety rules. To keep yourself safe, we suggest that you take the following precautions.

  • Wear your protective gear. Safety glasses are a must. If you start and run the engine in a closed space, some hearing protection is also encouraged. Wearing gloves can protect your hands. Lastly, disconnect the negative lead on the starter battery to prevent an accidental shock or engine start while working on the tractor.
  • Avoid running a gasoline engine in an enclosed space without adequate ventilation. The exhaust can build up rapidly from even a small engine in a closed shop.
  • Spilled fuel can be a safety hazard. If you accidentally spill fuel around or on the tractor, use an absorbent to soak up the fuel, dispose of it properly, and give any residue time to evaporate. Provide as much ventilation as possible to disperse the vapors.

Step 2: Is the Transmission Disconnect in the Right Position

Your Craftsman lawn tractor has a transmission disconnect at the rear of the tractor. This disconnect allows you to easily roll the tractor backward and forwards without starting the engine.

Typically, on Craftsman lawn tractors, this disconnect is located at the tractor’s rear under the hitch. The disconnect must be pushed in completely to engage the transmission and pulled out to push or pull the tractor freely. Most Craftsman lawn tractors require you to lift and then push the disconnect to engage the transmission fully.

It is rare, but debris can jam the disconnect in the dis-engaged position and prevent you from re-engaging the transmission. Check the linkage for damage or debris that prevents the disconnect from operating properly.

Your user manual gives detailed instructions on how to use the transmission disconnect. If the disconnect is not engaged, the tractor won’t move in either direction. Disengage the disconnect and then re-engage the mechanism, start the tractor, and see if it works.

Step 3: Check the Shift Linkages

Check the entire linkage between the shift lever and the transmission. The linkage may be bent, broken, or damaged. Occasionally, debris will jam the linkage preventing it from operating properly and shifting the transmission.

Clean the linkage and repair any bent or broken parts. Lubricate the linkage per the instructions in the user manual. If everything seems to be in order, re-test your Craftsman lawn tractor for proper transmission operation.

Step 3: Check the Drive Belt

This step may seem obvious but check the drive belt going to the transmission. The drive belt may be on the pulley but so worn or stretched that it won’t engage fully. A worn or stretched belt can easily slip on the pulley. The belt may also have slipped off the pully.

Our suggestion is to change all the drive belts each season and when they become worn or stretched. If the belt seems to be slipping on the transmission pulley, adjust the tension or replace the belt.

Step 4: Check the Hydraulic Fluid in the Transmission

If the transmission fluid is low, the hydraulic pump may circulate enough fluid to maintain pressure. Not only will this prevent your Craftsman lawn tractor from moving forward or reverse, but it can also damage the pump.

Following the manufacturer’s recommendations on checking and changing the hydraulic fluid is your best course of action. The user manual that came with your Craftsman lawn tractor will tell you what kind of fluid to use and how much you should add.

Step 5: Can you turn the Transmission Pulley by Hand?

Try turning the transmission pulley by hand with the tractor in neutral. Normally, you should be able to turn this pulley. If the pulley doesn’t move easily, there are a couple of possibilities. One of these is easy to diagnose. The other will probably require a trip to the repair shop.

Step 6: Is the Brake Seized up?

On most Craftsman garden tractors, the brake is on the side of the transmission. Several possible problems can occur with the brake that can cause your tractor not to move.

The brake linkage may have been bent or jammed by debris in your yard. Check the linkages for damage and repair any bent or broken parts. Make sure the drive belt didn’t jump the pulley and become wedged in the brake linkage? A broken belt sometimes happens and prevents the brakes from releasing.

Step 7: Check the Transmission

For this test, you need to jack up the rear of your Craftsman lawn tractor and support it securely. Lift the tractor and put blocks or jacks under the rear end so that the rear wheels are free to turn.

Put the garden tractor transmission in neutral and turn one of the rear wheels by hand. Watch the other wheel. If everything is working in the transmission and differential, the other rear wheel should turn in the opposite direction.

If the other wheel doesn’t turn or turns in the same direction, you have internal problems with the differential or transmission. These problems require the attention of a trained Craftsman repair technician.

Step 8: At the Other End of the Drivetrain – Power Problems

Though unusual and rare, your Craftsman lawn tractor may be suffering from power problems that can keep it from moving forward or backward. The engine on your lawn tractor may start and idle perfectly, but problems with the fuel system or the throttle system can prevent the engine from developing enough power to make the tractor move. These problems can include:

  • A dirty air filter – An air filter that needs replacing can restrict air from getting through the carburetor. A lack of air restricts fuel flow and power. The engine may idle normally, but when the throttle is engaged, the gas and air mixture leans out, and the engine can’t develop full power. Change the air filter if necessary.
  • Carburetor issues – A clogged or broken carburetor can have the same sort of effect on your Craftsman lawn tractor as a dirty air filter. The carburetor may not deliver enough gasoline to the engine. Unfortunately, the solution is often to install a new carburetor on your Craftsman lawn tractor engine.
  • Other engine issues – Any small engine is prone to leaking head gaskets, bad valves, or damaged pistons that can cause under-power problems. Internal repairs to these small engines are typically beyond most homeowners’ capabilities and require the services of a trained small engine mechanic.

Maintenance, Maintenance, Maintenance

The best way to keep your Craftsman lawn tractor running reliably for many years is routine maintenance. The user manual that accompanied your Craftsman garden tractor has a detailed maintenance schedule and instructions that you should follow.

Part of these maintenance routines addresses keeping the hydrostatic transmission on your Craftsman lawn tractor in top-performing condition. Unfortunately, transmission maintenance is an area often neglected by Craftsman lawn tractor owners. Take a look at this if your Craftsman riding mower won’t start.

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Getting Your Craftsman Lawn Tractor Back to Work

Don’t get frustrated or head off to the repair shop at the first signs of trouble with your Craftsman lawn tractor. Please take a few minutes to work through our troubleshooting steps. You may be surprised at how easy it is to get your Craftsman lawn tractor back in operation. Good luck and drive safely.

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Dennis Howard
Dennis Howard

Dennis is a retired firefighter with an extensive background in construction, home improvement, and remodeling. He worked in the trades part-time while serving as an active firefighter. On his retirement, he started a remodeling and home repair business, which he ran for several years.

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