When it comes to underperformed vehicle maintenance, transmission systems are one of the biggest casualties of neglect. Certainly, today’s vehicles are lasting longer and require repairs or maintenance less frequently, but as Randy Moore, president and CEO of Mr. Transmission, says, “the number one issue is that people don’t read their owner’s manual – the most published, unread book in the world next to the Bible – and they’re not getting their transmissions serviced.”
Most of today’s vehicles require the transmission fluid to be checked, changed and the system serviced between 80,000 and 100,000 km – basically within the first two to three years of the vehicle’s life.
Automatic transmissions, which make up the majority on the road today, are sealed hydraulic units. They no longer have dipsticks to check the fluid level, so it’s basically out of the sight of the vehicle owner.
These hydraulic systems use fluids that are very vehicle specific and contain friction modifiers to maintain the pressure in the unit and prolong the life of the transmission. Over time, like a good set of shoes, these units wear gradually. The brass and steel bushings within the unit degrade, releasing tiny metal particles that get caught in the filter and lie in the pan, recirculating within the system. To keep the unit’s performance at its peak, adhering to the OE recommended maintenance schedule for the fluid to be flushed and the system properly serviced is essential. Besides, would anyone get into an elevator – which operates on a hydraulic unit – if they knew it wasn’t serviced regularly?
But according to Moore – since transmission servicing is widely ignored – most customers only turn to the experts when they experience performance and drivability issues, or complete failure. Indeed, the signs and symptoms of transmission issues are often subtle.
The engine can slip in extreme weather conditions; the fluid could be low, old or contaminated due to external wear and overheating of the engine. And when a driver reaches that sweet spot with highway speeds, they could experience excessive vibration, which makes most think they have a tire issue and not consider checking the transmission system.
Small leaks can occur and most people think nothing of it. But low fluid levels play a big role in failure issues. “When the levels are low, you’re asking the hydraulic device to operate with only 70 per cent of its fluid capacity,” says Moore. “If people don’t get their fluid checked, too often the damage has already occurred when they finally get around to it.”
Another leading cause of transmission failure is when the engine overheats. “If the transmission gets too hot, it burns off the additives, which might cause friction wear inside the transmission,” says Moore. “This makes the transmission act erratically.” Many people don’t understand that if the engine overheats, the transmission system does as well because it’s on the same cooling system. When this happens the fluid needs to be changed immediately.
And now, with the extensive amount of computerized systems incorporated in today’s vehicles, diagnosing possible transmission issues has become a lot more tedious. Vehicles need to be scanned for any trouble codes. “If you get a code that’s related to the transmission you better be able to diagnosis it properly or get someone that is an expert to help,” says Moore.
This can be tricky for technicians that are not well-versed in transmission diagnostics. For example, if one sensor acts up, it can react to something else that may not be the problem. “If you take the number one spark plug out of a V6 General Motors product, it will probably tell you that it needs a transmission or that it’s slipping.”
Since more and more general repair shops are dabbling in transmission repair, what could have been a rather simple repair for a specialist, turns into something more costly because the technician didn’t know what he was doing. Denis Larmand, who runs a Mr. Transmission in North Bay, Ont., says, “You can get over your head really quickly in the transmission repair business. And when general repair shops get into something as complex as transmission repairs, you end up seeing more botched repairs. You need to know where you’re going before you even set out and you have to make sure you tackle it in the right order.”
Getting transmission-related issues in the shop door is one thing, but getting customers to follow through with the service or repair is a whole other feat. People naturally turn to general repair shops when their vehicles break down and panic when it comes to costly repairs. With transmission issues, too many turn to replacing with a used unit because it might be cheaper or they don’t feel the repair is worth it if the vehicle is older.
According to Moore, only seven per cent of the automatic transmissions on the road need to be replaced each year. And 50 per cent of the vehicles that Mr. Transmission fixes across the country can be repaired without removing the transmission from the vehicle.
“And 50 per cent of the time, if you take the vehicle to someone that knows what they’re doing, you’ll find out that it’s not actually the transmission itself, but an interrelated electronic or hydraulic issue,” adds Moore.
In Northern Ontario, the weather can be extreme, dropping well below zero in the winter and skyrocketing in the summer months. There aren’t a lot of high paying jobs and many rely on their vehicles for work. Larmand’s core business is with light trucks. “The people I get are getting by with the vehicle they have. If something goes, it’s a big concern, so you have to be flexible,” he says.
Offering options and alternatives for repairs is key. “First we need to get the vehicle in and see what needs to be fixed,” says Larmand. “Offering options and making the customer feel like a part of the process has closed more deals than not for me.”
With costly repairs, people sometimes need a little cooling off period before getting the repair done. “They may perceive the repair as costly, but it will keep their vehicle running and it’s cheaper than buying a new one,” says Larmand.
Moore agrees, “The price for repairs is about five per cent of the cost of a new car. If the vehicle is properly fixed by a qualified expert, that will add three to five years to the vehicle’s life. Besides, if the transmission isn’t good, the resale value of the vehicle won’t be good.”
For Larmand, word-of-mouth is what keeps business flowing through the door. “Every person is a potential customer,” he says. “And for those repairs that might first end up at a general repair shop, being on good terms and developing relationships with the shops in your area is really beneficial. If there is a transmission issue many would rather let an expert handle it.”
With so many aging vehicles on the road, the potential for transmission services has never been greater. For transmission specialists, fixing a vehicle right the first time means they’ll probably never see that customer again, unless it’s for maintenance, and that’s the way it should be.