Reader Question: Is My Transmission a Goner?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Susie writes: On the way home from work the other day in my 2010 Crown Victoria I began to notice what feels like a slipping clutch (I used to drive a car with a manual transmission) but my car has an automatic. When I pushed on the gas the engine would rev but the car felt like it wasn’t accelerating normally. This happened near home, luckily, and I got there ok and parked the car. I have not tried to drive it since and wanted to get your thoughts before I try to.

My reply: The first thing to do is not to drive it; your instincts were spot on. When an automatic begins to slip, it is sometimes just because of low fluid – if you’re lucky, because the fix is as easy as pouring in the correct amount of new fluid, which will only cost you a few bucks and takes no tools other than a funnel.

Automatic transmissions are hydraulic transmissions. They work of off fluid pressure. If the fluid is too low, the hydraulics don’t work – and the car doesn’t move. In general, if you lose more than two quarts or so, the transmission will begin to feel soggy and – as it loses more fluid – eventually it will “disconnect” entirely.

Fluid loss usually occurs via a leaky pan gasket, failed cooler line or a blown seal (usually at the front of the transmission, near the torque converter). All of these are relatively easy and relatively inexpensive fixes.

If you catch them in time.

The expensive fix comes from trying to drive the car with low transmission fluid. This can burn up the transmission in short order, something no amount of fresh fluid will fix.

So, the first thing to do is to check the fluid level. The dipstick is under the hood. If it is low, the next thing to do is fill the transmission to the correct level. The next thing after that is to see whether the transmission responds normally. If it does, the most important thing is to figure out where and why it is losing fluid – and correct that – before driving it again.

Hope this helps!

. . .

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  1. Be thankful if you have the older-school cars with the trans dipstick. A lot of newer cars don’t have this and make it a PITA to check the fluid level. The modern Honda Accord has a check bolt that’s more easily accessed from the underside, and to check the level you remove the bolt and a certain amount of fluid is supposed to drip out if the trans is otherwise properly filled. The owners manual for these cars specifically states to have the dealer check the level, for obvious reasons.

  2. My 03 Ford Expedition with 175k miles transmission has been slipping out of reverse into drive for about 18 months now. Pretty much ok at speed, though. Fluid is fine. Was told by mechanic that it needed “exploratory surgery”, meaning cost unknowable, which isn’t in the budget right now. Probably costs more than it’s worth. Welcome to hooptyville…

    • Hatt, is your shift lever floppy-sloppy? A lot of these Fords have a clamp-type thingy under the steering column which has two torx-head screws that loosen up or even fall out, that wreaks all kinds of havoc. Just had to tighten the one on my Excursion….as the linkage was getting so loose that it wouldn’t stay in park when I put it there…and I’d have to start it in neutral ’cause it wasn’t even registering that it was in park. Thought my cable was on the verge of breaking, or that something was wrong with the lever on the tranny that the cable attaches to. Googled for info, and found out about those screws…tightened ’em up, and she’s as good as new now.

      • I double checked the fluid today after reading this post and still full up. I’ll check these torx screws as well. Drove it today and still slippin’ but still truckin’ too. Like a lot of things these days…

        • Hatt, look for a vid showing where that piece is- it can be very tricky to find, even when ya know where it is- and the screws (recessed heads) are on the underside.

        • Hi Hattaras,

          Make sure when you check that you follow the MFGR’s procedure. There is often a difference between “full” cold and “full” hot – and also whether in Park or Drive. If the fluid level is definitely ok and the thing still slips, one thing you might consider doing is a complete drain and refill (along with filter change). Sometimes, that can cure an automatic if the valve body has some junk in it. Worth a try given the small cost.

          • Just did the process in the manual. Whoa! The dipstick isn’t even wet! Headed to NAPA for some fluid… it’s all I can do right now… thanks for the tip!

            • Where did the fluid go? Don’t relax yet… Check under the vehicle for wet spots. If no obvious signs of leakage, keep checking the dipstick every few days to see if the level is slowly dropping. You very well may have a leaking seal- could be a major one, like the main seal…or just a minor external one (hopefully)- but there’s a reason that the fluid went away…and it’s likely not good.

              • Definitely going to watch it closely. Hoping that the long duration of the issue without a complete blowout means a slow leak I can nurse, kinda like I already do with the engine oil.

                • Hopefully, that’ll be the case- just a very small seepage. If that’s the case, the tranny’ll probably last indefinitely if you keep on top of it. When main seals go…they usually just blow-out, and then ya can’t keep fluid in the tranny….so as long as it isn’t puking it out, it’s not apt to be your main seal.

              • Just under a pint and no more slip. Can’t even believe it. This has been plaguing me for months. Got some plywood underneath to see if anything drips out (hard to tell with a crushed stone driveway).

                • Hi Hattaras,

                  Yup! I’ve dealt with this many times over the years. Really important to check – and maintain – the correct fluid level. I’d also want to figure out why your was low. Based on experience, my bet is either seepage through the pan gasket or the front/rear seal. The leak may not be apparent with the car just sitting because the hydraulic circuit isn’t pressurized with the engine off. I’d let it idle and watch for leaks…

                  • I’m not a car guy but I change bulbs and am kinda handy with bondo. Most complicated repair I’ve done is swapping out a rusted/broken hood latch. I was taught how to change oil when I learned to drive in 91 but haven’t done it since about 94.
                    The thing that gets me is I have a reasonably priced “fast lube” shop that I’ve been going to for 8 or so years that I thought I trusted and when I asked them for a second opinion on the tranny fluid they just referred me to a repair shop that was clearly fishing for dollars. Nothing like what you reco’d, which made me doubt some internet research I’d done. I’m just glad I held out and didn’t pay anybody stupid money.

                    Will do on the idle check for leaks. Right now I’m celebrating with some circa 78 Dickey Betts on the box and a pint of that specially fermented human “fluid.”

                  • Bad news. Started out fine today but after 15-20 local and highway miles, back to status quo ante. Dipstick not wet. It was worth a shot.

                    I bought that Expedition new in 03 and had it all these years. If/when the tranny goes, I’m done with it. It’s scary rusty and no longer watertight to the elements. That being said, I’ve got another vehicle, a 14 TransitConnect van that I used to use for business that my wife drives, so if we go back to one vehicle I’ll live.

                    • Darn.

                      But wait! Your vehicle either has a transmission cooler, or a separate part of the radiator which provides cooling for the tranny. There are two thin metal limes that run from the tranny to the radiator or cooler (Which would be located by the radiator if so equipped)- They may or may not also have thicker rubber sections too- But, one of those lines- or the fittings at the tranny or at the radiator/cooler could be leaking the fluid…and if that’s the case, it is easily and cheaply fixable- so don’t give up yet!

                      Also, your radiator could be leaking internally, allowing the tranny fluid to get into the engine coolant. Have you taken a look at your coolant lately? Might be hard to tell, if it’s only contaminated with a pint or two amongst many quarts of antifreeze……

                    • Hi Hattaras,

                      Not necessarily! I agree with Nunz; check the cooling lines and the radiator. Look for seepage at the pan and at the front of the transmission, around the torque converter.

                      The good news is the transmission worked fine when the level was right. So your problem is the leak – not the transmission, per se.

                  • Eric
                    What is your opinion on AT fluid that purports to seal leaks. The owners manual had a pretty gnarly warning against using such products so I didn’t. My relative was pushing it pretty hard saying such a product cured his power steering fluid leak on a 12 Toyota FJ Cruiser.

                    • It works on some small leaks. If a seal is worn and seeping this stuff will gum that up and slow/stop a leak. Anything bigger or under pressure it does nothing.


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