It Could be Bad . . . But Sometimes Isn’t!

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A good friend of mine called me a couple of weeks ago, worried about her ’92 Toyota truck. The transmission was acting up. She couldn’t shift it into – or out of – gear. But only after she’d been driving it for awhile.

This gave me a good feeling about what was probably wrong with her truck’s transmission – because my gut (and experience) told me there probably wasn’t anything wrong with the transmission.

I suspected there was something wrong with what was in the transmission. Or rather, what wasn’t in it.

No enough of it, any rate.

Gear lube.

The fact that the transmission only acted up after she’d driven it for awhile suggested the hard-shifting was the result of increased friction, caused by increased heat . . . caused by not enough gear lube to keep things meshing smoothly. And sure enough – and luckily enough – when I removed the upper fill plug nothing dribbled out.

It’s supposed to dribble a little – if there’s enough lube in the box. You should at least be able to feel some on your finger if you stick it in the hole. I did – and mine came out dry.


I could have just topped it off. But that would have left whatever much-abused (overheated) lube was still in the transmission still in the transmission. It would be like not changing the oil filter when you change the engine oil – only worse because most manual transmissions do not have filters at all. So if you leave old, burned-up lube in the box, it – and all the fine metal shavings – will blend with the fresh lube and circulate freely, probably shortening the transmission’s life.

Besides, I was curious to see what the remaining fluid looked like. So I removed the drain plug – and found out.

A couple of pints out of the eight that should have been in there poured out like Dickenesian gruel – only I didn’t say, “Please sir – may I have some more?” The stuff was dark brown verging on black – probably because it had been cooked. I let it drain until nothing remained, saving the ugly pool of goo to show the truck’s owner.

Then I added eight pints of fresh – and honey-colored – lube to the transmission, which I swear made purring sounds as I did so. This job, if you’ve not done it, looks tough but is mostly just messy. It’s easier if you use a hand pump to transfer the lube from the bottle it comes in to the transmission. Or you can use AMSOIL – which comes in a clever squeeze bag which eliminates the need for the hand pump. But if you haven’t got a pump – and don’t use AMSOIL – you can use a section of flexible rubber fuel hose to feed the lube into the fill hole from the plastic bottle most other brands of gear lube come in. Cut a length of line to suit, put one end on the bottle’s nipple, the other in the hold . . . and squeeze!

This takes longer, but it’ll git ‘er done.

Be sure to fill until the transmission dribbles. Make sure you’re not getting a false positive. Wipe the area outside the fill hole clean to make sure. If a little lube is seeping from the hole, you’ve filled it. Now install the plug, being careful not to overtighten it. Most transmission cases are made of aluminum – and if you want a problem that’s not easily fixed, you don’t want to crack the case. A little more than hand tight is usually just about right.

I lowered the truck and started her up. But I didn’t drive – not just yet.

I let it idle in neutral for a couple of minutes (clutch out) to give the fresh lube a chance to circulate and deliver some much-needed lubrication to those parched synchros and gears. Then, muttering a prayer to the Motor Gods, I put her in first, let out the clutch and took her for a drive.

No trouble shifting into second, third, fourth or fifth. After half an hour – to make sure – I smiled, knowing my friend would not need a new transmission. That this “repair” – which was really just maintenance – only cost her about $60 for the lube and a home-cooked dinner for me.

Not $2,000 for a new transmission.

But it could have cost her that – if she hadn’t called me (or someone) to check. Small – and easily remedied – things of this nature can become big and expensive things when not remedied in good time. If she’d run that transmission 60 percent empty for much longer, $60 bucks and a home-cooked dinner would not have fixed it.

It’s analogous to paying attention – and doing something about – a weird-looking mole before it becomes more than just a weird-looking mole.

. . .

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  1. eric, I have trouble posting a comment and get a warning about the internet not being available. Good enough except it works for everything else. It’s like there’s something keeping me from accessing your site, esp. posting a comment. I have to do it multiple times, always with the same warning about not being able to access the internet.

    I fell for it the first time but had already noticed I wasn’t receiving any of the comments posted since sometime yesterday. I checked to see if I was still signed in….yes I was. There is something wanky going on for sure. I haven’t had this happen on any other site today.

    • I have been getting the below occasionally,

      Service Unavailable
      The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems. Please try again later.

      Additionally, a 503 Service Unavailable error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.

      Apache/2.4.39 (Unix) mod_hive/6.27 OpenSSL/1.0.1e-fips mod_fastcgi/2.4.6 Server at Port 443

        • eric, yours is the 3rd I’ve received. But something screwy is going on with my Mifi and has been since early. I’ve reset it and then removed the battery and restarted it and eventually it connected but it’s been at a speed more than 10 times normal and every time it does that it sometimes won’t do anything or does so very slowly.

  2. With that body, Toyota was doing different decal packs almost every year. Some of them were quite tasteful. Had forgotten that one….good to see it again.

    • Hi Mike,

      I love this truck; it’s like my ’02 Nissan but better because it has no got-damned air bags and does have 4WD (with the four cylinder engine). I try to stay on good terms with my friend who owns it… so she’ll give me dibs if she ever decides to sell it!

      • eric, I forgot to ask if you used Amsoil. I suppose that’s a silly question. I do know transmissions will operate much more smoothly with synthetic.

        I was driving a newly rebuilt(ha, just a couple parts or so)Pete with a 10 speed and the boss called to ask how it was doing. I replied, Chining like hell, and he got mad. I lived with it a couple weeks and got tired of it. I knew the home office would reimburse me for whatever I did to the truck so I picked up 5 gallons of synthetic fluid for it. It was the difference in night and day. I never mentioned it although he got a bill from a shop for putting it in. I was trying to miss as few loads as possible and keep that sumbitch alive.

  3. Where did the erl go? If it hadn’t ever been attended to before….it’s understandable- but better keep an eye on the seals/erl level. I’m sure you would’ve noticed a big leak…but if there’s a small one, the ol’ trasnny may need topping off every now and then to keep from getting 6 quarts low again.

    • That was my thought – usually there’s a sign of oil egress. Assuming it wasn’t a Jiffylube screw up and it’s not leaking around the drain or fill plugs, it’s most likely the output shaft seal. The output shaft seal may not leak while sitting idle but will provide a nice undercoating while driving around; a cheap and easy fix but a bit more involved and you will getting dirty. If not that then the input seal would be next – a lot more involved as you’ll need to split the transmission from the engine to fix; this may often be accompanied by clutch slippage. Worst case is a leak in the case itself, possibly a gasket between two sections of the transmission; I’ve owned one of these that was patched by the previous owner with copious amounts of RTV.

      • When we bought our Jeep off a used car lot, it supposedly had been recently serviced by one of those XXX-Lube places. But the transfer case was almost dry when I checked it! I had the oil changed again just in case.

        • Hi Anon,

          I have several such stories in my memory banks. Oy vey! I realize that most of these places probably do it right most of the time… one hopes… but… well, here’s one:

          Lady I know called me to see whether I had time to swing by her house to have a look at her car. Underneath her car, where she’d seen a puddle. So I do. I wiggle under and see the drip – it’s coming from the drain plug bolt. I touch it with my finger – and it’s loose. It’s wobbling. Because the XXX Lube guy had crossthreaded it and stripped it… then reinstalled it. Amazing it didn’t just fall out. I tapped it/rethreaded it and all was well; the SOBs denied they had done anything wrong.

          • Well, whoever had been servicing it hadn’t checked the TC in long, long time. The rear output seal is leaking but only very slightly. Still haven’t fixed it and it’s not getting low between oil changes.

            The shop I use now is a big tire place so they have some reputation to maintain and so far have been pretty good. It just doesn’t seem worth the work and mess to do it myself compared to $45.

      • In defense of chain quick lube stores, my work truck has been through countless oil changes at (important) the same quick lube for 325,000 miles. Never had an issue with them. But I’m there every month to 6 weeks and they work on all our fleet vehicles, so it’s in their best interest to do a good job.

        They’re also in a small town with a restaurant that features waitresses who open carry while on the job, so that might make a difference too.

      • Had my 09 Jetta’s engine erl and filter replaced at the local VW dealer a couple years back, while it was in for a little ABS warranty R&R work. Pulled the dipstick with the service guy standing there, it was overfilled by ~1 whole quart! “OK, what are you going to do about it, Mr Service Guy?” “Oh, it’s OK to be a quart overfilled…” I showed him the oil fill cap, and the Owner’s Manual, both stating in no uncertain terms cat converter damage likely with that degree of overfill. The VW 5 cylinder in that year Jetta is a 5+ quart fill, and the normal erl level is pretty close to the crank windage tray from what I gather. “Grumble grumble, OK, we’ll correct the level”. They did…and now it was 1/2 quart low. Took it home, never to see them again! Never, NEVER trust anyone on lubricant levels! Verify, verify, verify, or do it yourself!

        My MGB oozes 20W50 from its 4-speed manual gearbox. Always has, even after replacing the rear seal, Very, very slow, but I have to rememver to pull its dipstick (yes Gracie, MGB 3-synchro transmissions have a dipstick!) every 6 months or so. Proves I still love it, I guess.

        Houston Oilers, Houston Oilers…hey 8Southman! Remember that?

        • Hi Crusty!

          Amen. I try to tell people . . . there’s a reason these Iffy Lube (thanks, Nunz!) joints can offer “$20” oil changes… because of what they don’t pay the people working on your car. You want a competent mechanic? Expect to pay for one.

          • That’s another good point. You get what you pay for. The place mentioned above charges much more than $20 for an oil change.

            • Even Mobil 1 costs a lot more than that just for a big jug. Then again, they’re probably using something left over from the 60’s that’s non-detergent.

              My dad’s S 10 was daily driven in town, never got to operating temp. I changed the fuel pump one day. It came out with a huge “thing” attached. I started removing it with a screwdriver and it was the spring. Just to imagine what the rest of the engine looked like made me nauseous.

        • Crusty, I had to read every comment since none are coming into my inbox. Don’t know why since everything else is working fine.

          Yeah, I remember it well. Bum Phillips was a great coach when he turned the team around and won more games and championships than any other coach. He was a real guy, somebody you knew was going to simply state facts and be a nice person doing it. I still watched football back then, Bum being one of the main reasons. The Cowgirls always had so much drama you never knew what the hell they’d do.

      • Hey Eric!

        Ha! Michael67 saw that one coming! I wasn’t even thinking “Iffy” Lube. Didn’t think anyone who’d work there would be able to move a vehicle with a stick! I’d still keep an eye on the seal areas for her though- I mean, the erl didn’t get that funky if they had put it in there so recently- even if they put way too little. Iffy Lube probably just never even touched it…just charged her as if they did. Gotta remember to warn the non car-people not to EVER go to any franchise places- Iffy Lube, Walmart; Firestone, etc.

      • eric, Amsoil came out with those squeeze packs right after I bought a 6 or 7 quarts….dammit. I have to wonder how much that took off the life of that transmission although there’s no way to know.

        My dad always used one of those places. He got his S 10 done one day and luckily, drove about 80 miles and right to my house. The idiot light came on at the gate.

        He made mention of it so I checked it, not a thing on the stick. I added a quart, still nothing, I added another quart and brought it up to over a quart low. I didn’t have any more of that type of oil since I didn’t have anything I used it in.

        He drove it was less than 4 quarts to get another. I begged him on more than one occasion to just let me do it. I’d have used a Wix filter and some good oil(right before I started using Amsoil). It wouldn’t have taken me 20 minutes to check it all and grease it but he never would do it. Somehow he justified going out to eat in a nearby city(60 miles)by getting it serviced. The last thing he needed to do was justify spending money on anything but he was tighter than old Dick’s hatband and I guess that’s how he had plenty… He wasn’t rich but far from having to work an oil change into the budget. If he’d just let me know when he wanted it done they could have avoided paying for a meal since the wife and I both like to cook and loved to make a big spread.

        Well, I gotta finish this coffee, then go out and do the nasty on a deer I just shot. I’m surprised I hit it at 50 feet in the yard by the garden. I know, but I don’t enjoy hunting like I used to and just capping one in the yard is much easier.

        Damn, cats were flying through the air and waiting at the door. I guess that .243 made em a little jumpy. On the bright side, they should all have empty bowels and bladders by now ha ha.

        • Fantastic mental image of cats flying into the air…man, now I know how to make them jump, just let off a .303 Brit or whatever in the near vicinity!

          Good thing GM made that S-10 engine tough, eh?

          One of the kids had a friend back in HS with a Toyota Corolla. Drove it over to pick up the kid to go somewhere. I said, “Let’s see what’s on the dipstick before you yahoos go gallivanting around”…a spot of dirty goo at the bottom of the dipstick. “DAMN! This kids is why you CHECK YOUR OIL LEVEL AT LEAST WEEKLY! (insert rant here)” I think my rant scared friend with Toyota, never saw it back again. I think modern man fears lifting the hood, and thinks anything under there is self-maintaining, or something. We know better aroun heah.

  4. Shhh. Stop telling people this stuff. It is how I get my cheap beaters. 🙂

    Typical ad: Mechanic special. Car in very good shape, no rust, newer tires, clean interior but transmission acting up. $1000obo

    My beaters are usually automatics so a typical viewing scenario,
    Go to look at car, check trans dipstick. Dry. Stick extra long dipstick I brought in, get some oil, sniff it. If it is not black and burnt, probably a trans oil/filter change and fill to right level will solve the problem and give another 20,000 miles of service. Offer $200 less than asking and spend the $200 on changing ALL lubes.

    Sell car for $2000 a couple of years later or part out if it dies.

  5. Man what timing Eric. I just purchased the 8 quart PML 6l80e pan for the silverado to swap the fluid. It comes with a drain plug so it is already head and shoulders above GM’s pan. The 6l80e holds 10-12 qts, with the pan holding 6 and the rest hidden in the torque converter and in the lines. Will do another 8 of fresh amsoil ATF another 1000 miles later. I dropped the pan once and put 6 back in, but had an EPA disaster in my driveway… Why in gods name do they not put drain plugs on these things? Anyways, should keep her running fine for a bit. I’ve seen a lot of forum posts talking about never changing the tranny fluid which is hogwash, its in the 100k maintenance guide.

    The Xterra on the other hand is getting its 2 year, 30k mile drain and fill too. I first changed it out and checked the magnet around 100k miles and it was rootbeer float colored. I did the poor mans flush by adding a hose to the cooler line and dumping it into a bucket. I didn’t fill it back all the way and got the symptoms your friend did, no shifting into gear because fluid was low and it would suck air. Just top it off and it is fine. Since 100k miles I have been changing it every 20-30k and it has come out cherry soda red every time which is a good sign for a high mileage vehicle.

    • On a side note the Xterra does have a drain plug on it’s pan though it is barely 1/2″ long, but it has a bolted fill/stick though to discourage the weak minded from messing with it. It’s filter is just some cheap wire mesh and never needs to be changed. The GM filters are similar to oil filters in function and have some material in them.

      • On a second note, compared to the Jatco CVT of today, the RE5R05A in the vq40 engine vehicles is fairly trustworthy if maintained. The solenoid body can break and have issues sometimes but I have seen people solder their own repairs on it. Individual solenoids can be bought for $60-80 I believe and the whole board goes around $700-1200. I think the RE4R01A in your Fronty is similar.

    • Oh, BB, imagine an auto trans that has a drain plug, but no fill port or dipstick! You check level by getting the running trans within a 10 deg C fluid temp range (35 deg C to 45 deg C), then pull the drain plug and see if any oil drips from the orifice. It has a removable standpipe in it, which is at the correct level for the specified oil temp. What a PITA! This is the Aisin TF-60/VW 09G in lots of ~5-10 year old VWs and others. I guess they figure the owner is too stupid to check trans level with a dipstick…well, maybe they have a point. It does make it a royal pain for the rest of us! It is filled through the drain plug by pumping/squeezing the 4-5 quarts needed in. Messy and yet another painful operation.

      On the other hand, the JATCO 4-speed auto in ~1999 Subies had two dipsticks (front diff and trans), a spin-on trans fluid filter, and drain plugs and fill ports for both front diff and trans! Man, that’s thinking ahead on servicing!

    • brazos, I bought a drain plug kit for my z 71 and then install it. What a stupid move. Now I need to drop it again and put the damn plug in. The filter looked good when I changed it and now I’d just like to drain it and fill it back again with Amsoil since I’ve had Amsoil bring automatic transmissions back from the dead.

      Maybe other synthetics would do it too but I use Amsoil. It’s quite a huge jump from regular ATF to a synthetic. I mentioned it to a son/father transmission shop who do a lot of bidness. They both acted as if I hadn’t even said anything. I laughed myself right out of the place. No way in hell were they going to put synthetic in a transmission, probably not in any that call for it specifically. Not good for bidness. They looked at me like STFU and go on. I did but with a big grin on my face. FEFEFH’s.

      • I started using Valvoline Multi-Vehicle Synthetic ATF for my two VW autos. They seem to love it, shifting has become more “positive” (not “positive” like a Torqueflite with the line pressure jacked up for racing, snap yer neck clean off “positive”, that is…just nice, like it should be). The 01M 4-speed auto in the TDI Beetle is known for crapping out early, but with the 40Kmile refill interval I’ve had it under, 98Kmiles now, still shifts excellently. I’m a believer in 40 Kmile fluid/filter change, and using the appropriate type of synthetic ATF. Amsoil is good stuff too, from what I hear.

        • Crusty, I recently read on a transmission specialty site where they encouraged owners of diesel and large engine automatic pickups that are worked hard to change the transmission fluid every 12,000 miles. I personally think synthetic fluid should be in every automatic and listed for that in the owner’s manual.

          • Yep, 12 Kmiles might also be more appropriate for auto transmissions in severe service…which, city driving is sure more severe for an auto than locked up in top gear on the highway for hours at a time. That auto is engaging and disengaging servos and clutches constantly in city driving. Good thought.

    • I don’t understand why they don’t have the transmission set up like on Duramax with a filter outside and a drain plug….makes changing oil and filter just like the engine but easier to get to.


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