There's Really No Shortcut on a Transmission Rebuild

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 18, 2018

Dear Car Talk:

My father left his grandson his '56 Ford Thunderbird. My nephew and a friend were restoring the car, but when they had the engine rebuilt, they didn't bother rebuilding the transmission. Now the transmission is going out, and our mechanic, who takes care of his T-bird, gave him the name of his transmission specialist. My nephew was told that this person can rebuild the transmission without taking it out of the car. I would really like a second opinion. Is this possible -- completely rebuilding a transmission without dropping it out of the car? Thanks. -- James

If your nephew's main concern is not spending much money, he can let this guy give it a try.

It's possible that this guy will get the transmission to function again, but it'll be an incomplete job. Without removing the transmission, you can't replace the front seal, which, if it's not leaking now, may leak later. And you can't replace the torque converter, which is a crucial transmission component.

What he's probably going to do is remove and clean up the valve body, adjust the bands and change the filter and fluid. If you're lucky, that could get the transmission working again, and your nephew will be set for a while.

But if the transmission's clutches are cooked, the gears are chewed up or the torque converter is failing, he won't be able to fix that stuff with the transmission still in the car. That would require removing the transmission and rebuilding it -- if you can find the parts.

So before your nephew spends anything, I would suggest that he track down his local T-Bird club. There undoubtedly are a bunch of guys around who either love old T-Birds, or who prefer tinkering with old T-Birds to cleaning their gutters. See if you can find them.

If there's no T-Bird-specific club in your area, any "classic car" club probably will do (or find the national club online). Then ask those guys how they approached this problem with their T-Birds. If there are 15 guys in the club, you'll get the benefit of at least 15 experiences fixing T-Bird transmissions.

If you can get the thing totally rebuilt, I'd suggest that you do that. Obviously, that'll cost more, but this car is not just any old heap, James -- it's a family heirloom old heap. And presumably, your nephew plans to keep it for a long time.

And if you run into a dead end, tell your nephew to sign up for one of those cultural exchange tours to Cuba. And see if bringing back a 1955 Ford transmission will count as a "cultural exchange."

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