How can you tell when a transmission is starting to weaken?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 01, 1997

Dear Tom and Ray:

I own a 1989 Ford Probe with an automatic transmission and 107,000 miles. I
have heard and read that the transmission on this car is problematic. I
purchased the car with 60,000 miles, and, aside from leaking in the rain
and squeaking and rattling a lot, it's been good to me so far.

My question is, how can you tell when the transmission is starting to
weaken? Are there any clues that a problem may be approaching, or does it
sneak up on you, and suddenly your transmission is a mile behind you in the
middle of the street? Every once in a while, my transmission will seem to
slip between first and second, or second and third. When this happens, it's
like the car is in Neutral for a second or two while the rpm's are still
climbing. Then the car will "catch" and jerk forward. Is this my clue to
"bail" and move on before major repairs are unavoidable? -- Chad

TOM: You got it, baby! The "slipping" you describe is a likely sign that
your automatic transmission is in trouble.

RAY: But I wouldn't necessarily unload this car on an unsuspecting in-law
or co-worker just yet, Chad. The first thing you want to know is, is there
enough transmission fluid in there? If not, filling it back up may solve
the problem. And if you've got a slow leak and you need to fill it up every
5,000 or 10,000 miles, so what, right?

TOM: Even if it is full, it's worth trying a transmission fluid and filter
change anyway. If the fluid is particularly dirty, and there are chunks of
transmission floating around, that could cause the slipping. And in some
(very lucky) cases, just changing the fluid and filter improves the
transmission's performance dramatically -- at least for a while.

RAY: And it's worth having that work done by someone who knows
transmissions, because they may be able to estimate -- just by looking at
the fluid and/or chunks that come out -- how many months, weeks or minutes
you have left on this tranny.

TOM: If changing the fluid doesn't help, then it's decision time. You've
got to decide whether or not you still love this car. If you do, you can
buy a used transmission from a junkyard and have it installed for 500 bucks
or so. And then if you fix the interior leaks and whatever else is wrong,
you'll probably (remember, a used transmission is a risk) have a working
Ford Probe with 107,000 miles on it -- which may be good enough for your

RAY: But if you've already fallen out of love with this car, then you're
welcome to use the slipping transmission as the "omen you've been looking
for" to start scanning the classifieds for some newer wheels. Good luck,

What's one secret of financial success? Driving a used car! Read How to Buy
a Used Car: Things Detroit and Tokyo Don't Want You to Know. You can order
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to Used Car, PO Box 6420, Riverton, NJ 08077-6420.

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