A car’s fluids are all different colors so you know which is which without having to run a chemical analysis. I’m sure they all taste differently too, but I don’t recommend preparing a cheese platter to pair with them at your next social gathering.
But why does transmission fluid have to be red?
After seeing a puddle of it magically appear under my car after work, I’m convinced its visual similarity to blood is intended to strike fear into the heart of the automotive owner. Seeing a spill of gearbox oil evoked the thought of a loved one bleeding out on the duvet.
That’s not quite the thought that came to my mind, but that’s because I have no idea what a duvet is. But I did want to grab a handful of towels to stem the bleeding. But towels would only go so far. Eddie needed surgery and a transfusion.
The puddle of red drippings was really just the last nail in the “I have to do something about this” coffin. At times, Eddie’s transmission would slip, but only in the right conditions. Leaving the gear select in automatic, and turning left onto my home street, applying some throttle persuasion to carry on through the off-camber turn, the engine would rev up as if it were in neutral. After reaching about 3500rpm without actually going any faster than before, the computer would decide “Time for second gear,” and engage it. The gears would suddenly catch, engine speed is back down to about 1200, and I’m instinctively taking my foot off the Go pedal because I’ve just received a kick in the backside.
This was due to low transmission fluid. An automatic gearbox is a bit like me: it doesn’t work properly if it hasn’t got enough fluid. The difference between the two of us is that while the transmission needs Dexron, I’m much less picky. I can run on water, orange juice, Coke Zero beer, rum, whiskey, regular unleaded or the blood of my enemies. Always with ice, of course.
Adding fluid mitigated the issue, but when that problem returned, I knew I had a leak somewhere. I just had no idea how bad a leak it was until I’d stopped the oil leaks. Then, the slipping got so bad I added another quart of Dexron, only to find those frightening red puddles the next day. I knew then that a bottle of stop-slip wasn’t going to do the job, so it was back to that online retailer of auto parts. And because I had a coupon, I figured, “Why not do the tie rods, too?”
Tie rods are another of those parts that just wear out with age. They’re a critical part of steering the wheels. By that, I mean they actually turn the front wheels so the vehicle may proceed in the desired direction. If an end breaks… well, best case scenario is the car stops moving. Worst case is the car starts going in an undesired direction.
So after 15 years, I’m wagering Eddie could use some new ones. I don’t want him going in undesired directions.
And the last plan on my mind is replacing the output shaft seals. These are designed to keep the transmission fluid inside the gearbox while still allowing the axle to spin freely. My research found them to be a likely leak candidate. The parts being only $5, I figured it couldn’t hurt.
So, with a few cans of brake cleaner, Scotch-brite pads, disposable nitrile gloves, *all* the tools I own, and the parts I’d ordered, I made my way back to my parents’ house. I also brought a six pack for my dad as payment for borrowing his grease gun.
The day started off rough. After loosening the axle nut (and having to buy a deep well 30mm socket), standing the car on a few four-by-four wood blocks and taking off the wheel, I hit my first snag.
Contrary to the norm, the stock tie rod ends aren’t secured with a castle nut and cotter pin. For the uninitiated, here’s a picture of the standard setup. The pin runs directly through the bolt and the open spaces in the nut to keep the assembly from unraveling.
Instead, Eddie’s tie rods were secured with some kind of epoxy inside the nut, and no amount of penetrating oil would facilitate its release; only leverage would do. I didn’t discover this until after having to borrow a deeper 18mm socket than the one I had. Because I didn’t have an 18mm open-ended wrench.
Hey, I never said I’d had every tool I’d need.
So then came removing the tie rod from the knuckle. Funny, everyone online made it look so easy. One guy made it happen with a few taps of a hammer. So in my arrogance, I thought I could make it happen with less effort.
I’m starting to think my parents’ neighbors have begun to associate Eddie’s appearance with the sound of hammering on metal, because no one batted an eye as I wailed on this God-forsaken steering rack extension.
WD-40 wasn’t doing me many favors that day. When the tie rod wasn’t going anywhere, I cut out part of the already-punctured boot in the aim of applying oil from above and letting gravity help with the capillary effect.
While (I hoped) the oil did its work, I turned my attention to removing the axle in order to replace the output shaft seals. Two bolts keep the spindle firmly connected to the strut. They’ve got teeth around the shaft nearer the head, to keep them from spinning while tightening or loosening their corresponding nuts. The friction these teeth provide also make them difficult to remove without the use of a hammer.
But these strut bolts weren’t nearly so stubborn as the tie rod end, so a few good whacks and they popped right out. There was still some residual friction between the spindle and the strut, so it took a bit of leverage to pry it free, but free it was. Some taps on the outside of the wheel axle had it loosened from the hub as well.
But being free of the strut wasn’t enough space to wiggle the CV joint out of the hub completely. The spindle needed a bit more freedom, and since I was already taking off the tie rod…
Nope, still seized.
A visit to the auto parts store later via my sister’s Golf, I had in my possession a borrowed tie rod end separator. That, along with the hammer used liberally earlier, finally made short work of the seized connection. What a satisfying “thunk” that was.
The outer end was indeed shot. No resistance in the joint, contributing to the loose feeling in the steering wheel. The inner joint was stiffer, but not by much.
Next was dropping the tie rod back into the spindle for added leverage so I could undo the lock nut.
Yeah, turns out the outer end wasn’t the only thing that was seized. And all the WD-40 in the world wasn’t about to undo fifteen years of elemental exposure without the assistance of some serious leverage.
Enter, again, the come-along. Yeah, seems like I can’t ever stop keeping that thing in Eddie’s trunk.
Wrapping mule tape around the maple tree in front of the house and clamping some lock pliers onto the nut, the come-along was hooked up in between.
It’s after snugging up the ratchet do I realize the only thing holding up the front of the car is a couple of four-by-fours. No, I’ve decided I’m not stopping.
Turns out an emergency brake is more than enough to keep Eddie from moving before the outer tie rod breaks free from the inner. Thanks, Physics!
With that loose, I counted the number of turns it took to get the outer end off and turned my attention to the still-seized nut.
At least, I should have. I should have taken a bucket of WD-40 and dipped the tie rod into the immersion for several hours. But I didn’t. Instead, I was so aggravated by the tie rod ordeal that I started on the transmission pan.
For all the research on the matter I conducted, I really should have discovered that there isn’t a drain plug for the transmission pan. Instead, armed with the assurance that “the fluid will come out somehow,” I started work. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the super-simple catch can (consisting of a piece of molded plastic which feeds into used 2-liter soda bottles) would prove insufficiently small for the amount of drippage that would take place.
So a mess was made. There’s probably still an oil stain where all that oil dripped onto the asphalt.
See, when I saw there wasn’t a drain plug, I thought I could contain the flow by positioning the narrower end downhill, and jacking the opposite side slightly higher. In my mind, that would minimize the spill if I undid the downhill bolts first.
Perhaps it did. Perhaps the smallest mess possible was the one I’d made. It’s still a lot of oil spilling everywhere, because I’d forgotten that when oil can potentially go somewhere, it will.
Regardless, I upgraded to a bigger catch can. When I say “bigger catch can,” though, I mean a two-foot diameter, two-inch high circular pan, the true purpose of which I could not imagine.
So, slowly opening the uphill bolts on the pan, I eventually got the spillage to the point it was all pouring into the pan. That made me happy.
Eventually, the dripping stopped, and I could completely remove the pan without gearbox oil splashing everywhere.
Free of the anxiety over unpredictable drippings, I could finally examine the problematic gasket. Being so non-uniform in its structure, I’m left to assume (post-operation) it’s a liquid gasket. That’s to say whoever applied it squirted silicone onto the mating surface, then squished the pan into place and tightened the bolts, but not too much.
This must be why the pan is leaking again. All the bolts I tested were loose. Clearly, the plan was to bring me back to the shop soon for more maintenance.
Thinking back, I remember a trip to Jiffy Lube while I was still in film school. The kindly manager told me I had a transmission leak. Those words scared me as much then as they do now, because I was about to embark on a project that would have me commuting 100 miles round trip each day for two weeks. If not for the voyage upon which I was about to embark (the next day), I would have waited for dear ole’ Dad to give me a second opinion. Instead, I saw the distance I must travel with this potential problem lurking, and ended up dropping $300 on what was initially a simple oil change. I now see that Jiffy Lube simply used liquid silicone to make a new gasket instead of calling around to local shops to see if anyone had a proper gasket for the 3-speed.
Five years later, I’m left with red puddles. The oil leaks might have contributed to the degradation, but I’m comfortable blaming the shop.
Scotch-brite, brake cleaner and elbow grease had the mating surfaces clean and ready for the new gasket. The bolts also got a cleaning, because liquid gaskets can and will go everywhere. I’d also cleaned the outside of the filter, since it had fallen out of its mount when I was wrestling with the axle.
Which wouldn’t come out. Of course, the filter fell out on its own, but the axle is stuck in the output shaft. Granted, I didn’t have any tool that would have properly facilitated the axle’s removal. I suppose I was under the impression that an axle could be removed with confidence and a stern talking-to. But no.
Stuffing the axle back into the wheel bearing, I turned back to the tie rod. Yeah, that tie rod, the one that I didn’t dip in penetrating oil like I should have. That lock nut is so seized that trying to loosen it with the come-along just turned the inner tie rod itself. It was enough to get the outer one off, but because I couldn’t get that nut free, I couldn’t take off the inner boot, which is what stops me from applying the special inner tie rod remover tool. Daylight was burning, and the inner rod felt okay enough for me to put it on the back burner. For now.
With the lessons learned from the driver’s side, I attacked the passenger side. Made for about the same progress. And the same lack of progress.
The sun was about to start hiding behind the houses, so I screwed on the new outer tie rods, dropped them into the spindle and applied the castle nut and cotter pin. None of that epoxy-in-the-nut nonsense.
I then returned to the transmission pan. Had I used ramps to get Eddie in the air, I would have had more space to work with, but the floor jack I have is really only meant to get the car high enough to extend the suspension so the wheels can come off. It doesn’t allow much space for crawling around underneath. I also had to somehow keep the gasket lined up while positioning the pan for attachment.
Enter duct tape. Duct tape was my friend in that moment.
No, I hadn’t taped the gasket to the pan. That would have been stupid. Instead, I slotted some bolts into the holes and taped the heads to the pan. Those bolts kept the gasket in place while I held the pan against the housing and fumbled blindly for another bolt to thread by hand just barely outside my reach because I don’t fit under the car unless I’m flat on my back.
At this point, the cordless drill I bought is earning its keep. A 3/8” socket driver meant I wasn’t spending my time down there with a ratchet. Instead, it was setting the drill’s clutch and pulling the trigger until the thing stopped spinning.
The day’s charms were wearing thin on me, so I expedited putting Eddie back together and cleaning up the spilt oil with the grease-fighting power of Dawn and a hose. Worked better than I thought it would.
Driving Eddie to test, I knew right away he’d need an alignment done. The steering felt tighter, but tire noise was intrusive even at ten miles per hour. Also, while steering straight was fine, when turning right the car wanted to steer back to center. And turning left made the car want to turn left even more. Toe adjustment was definitely in need.
What I hadn’t noticed when driving to the shop was that Eddie wasn’t using all the available gears. That’s because I didn’t drive anything resembling fast when he was out of alignment. No, it wasn’t until I got onto an interstate after having the alignment done did I ask myself, “Shouldn’t it be in third by now?”
In a three-speed gearbox, third gear is kind of important. At highway speed, second gear has the engine turning around 4000rpm. That’s the peak of the torque curve, so it’s very sprightly and easy to overtake the left lane hog in a Camry.
Why is it always a Camry?
And the engine sound great at four grand. As long as it’s under load. Otherwise it’s just a loud drone, like a vocally-amplified economics professor.
Despite that, the steering feels good. Like I’m driving a car that’s eight years old instead of sixteen. I doubt I’ll ever get Eddie back to showroom condition without some real investment on my part, but I can do my best, can’t I?
Chatting with my car guy coworker, he suggested a bit of the gasket might have been sucked up into the transmission and was blocking a valve, preventing third gear from engaging.
I let it go, because I was tired. Also, my commute to work never has me exceeding 50mph, so the car is comfortable with second gear at that speed. Feels like I’m on a track day, only on my way to work.
I was prepared to let it go until I could get time to replace the transmission filter. Then, after a busy night at work, I was headed home and, upon joining Route 50, I noticed the engine wasn’t turning nearly so fast as before.
Third gear came back. All by itself. I’m now convinced this car is magical.
I’m still going to replace the filter, because I’ve no idea when it was last done. And yeah, I cleaned it, but it’s still something that I should have thought of replacing when I cracked open the pan in the first place, but I can only think ahead so many steps.
Also, that ABS light came back on…