Why Is my Transmission Slipping?

Reader Question: I was reading one of your previous answers to a question about a cars transmission and changing the oil and filter (specifically related to older cars that haven’t been maintained)

“The old fluid was gritty due to metal shavings caused by normal internal wear and tear on the transmission clutches and was acting like liquid sandpaper. This “sandpaper” was producing the friction needed for the transmission to pull itself. When we changed the filter and replaced the old fluid with new fluid, the clutches inside the transmission had nothing to grab on to.”

I have a 1990 Plymouth Grand Voyager. It has a lot of quirks…and anytime I explain them to people they look at me like I’m retarded and driving around in a death trap. While that may be the case, buying another vehicle is unfortunately not an option. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to save up for years now – I’m 21, disabled, this my first car, and I was only able to “afford” it because my mother finally got another vehicle and kicked this one down to me for free. And I rely on it to get my groceries, go to the doctors, etc. and I’d like to finally be able to enroll in college but I have to be able to get there first…

It has had what seemed like transmission problems for about 6 years now. It would have trouble going into gear at first, but if you warmed it up it would drive just fine. Also, I know this seems bizarre, but it wouldn’t go into 3rd right away. You would have to drive about 40mph (to where it wants to shift into 3rd but can’t) then pull over, stop the car, and then when you turn it back on it would go into 3rd. Seems bizarre but it did this faithfully. The transmission had not been serviced regularly, but it had worked fine with those little quirks for so long that I was afraid of exactly what you were talking about – that if we serviced it, it would mess something up,

Well the other day I went in for an oil change. They noted that my transmission fluid was dirty and recommended I have it changed. But I didn’t have the money at the time, plus I’m a girl and I don’t doubt that I appear (or quite frankly AM) naive about car related matters so I didn’t want to agree to anything without researching it first. The car drove in there just fine (by its normal standards anyway). When they finished, I noticed it seemed more responsive and went into drive much easier. I pulled into a parking spot and went in to pay, but upon trying to leave, I couldn’t go in reverse. I ended up having to put it in neutral and have the guys there push me backwards. I drove to my next destination very smoothly and hoped it just needed to warm up/drive around a bit.

But I ended up wedged a few inches from another car, unable to back up, and had to be pushed again. I drove straight home and tried one last thing – driving up a steep hill, shifting to reverse, and trying to see if rolling backwards would make the gears catch properly and restore my reverse. It just stayed stuck like it was in park and didn’t go anywhere. It goes into drive fine and would roll backwards rapidly in neutral, but in reverse it was stuck. I looked at the fluid today and its definitely dirty…brown to nearly blackish. But I don’t know if changing it would help or make it worse

Any ideas? I would really love to not have to start off at square one, saving like I have been for years with barely any luck. Can this be fixed without a new transmission? :-/

Thanks for your time,

Hi there Maryssa,

Unfortunately what you describe is pretty typical of a worn out transmission. I think changing the fluid would be a waste of your time and money, although if you want to try it just for grins, you will not really hurt anything more than it already is. I am afraid a used transmission (which you take your chances with) or rebuilding your transmission are the only real options. And to be totally honest with you, I would NOT recommend you do either on this vehicle. The vehicle is 20 years old, and they were not very well made to begin with.

You will not get your money back out of this vehicle if you over hauled the transmission, and due to the age and vehicle model you will probably face other costly repairs in the near future. I would put an ad on craigslist.com and sell it for what you can as is. There are tons of shade tree mechanics out there and will buy this from you, if the price is right.

See if you can buy a 2-5 year old Honda or Toyota, or a Kia Rio. I saw a used 4 year old Kia Rio for sale for $4900 in good condition. You will spend at least $1700 on a transmission.

Trust me on this, I have seen this MANY TIMES. People in this situation fight tooth and nail against a newer car and spend more trying to save a worn out vehicle than if they cut their losses and upgraded.

You can probably get a NEW Kia RIO for less than $200 a month brand new and have dependable safe transportation for many years to come.

Austin Davis

Posted in: Transmissions

About the Author:

Austin Davis, consumer car repair advocate. "Hi there! I love to help people solve their car repair problems and I hope my site was helpful to you today. Thank you for stopping by."
  • Larry Halth

    This is good info! Where else can if ind out more?? Who runs this joint too? Keep up the good work :)