Brown transmission fluid

I just looked at a 2002 Dodge Ram conversion van for sale, with a V-8 engine and 110k miles on the clock. I was not able to drive it on the road because it had no plates, but I was able to drive it around the parking lot, and it seemed to drive fine in first gear and reverse.

The one thing I saw that concerned me was brown transmission fluid. I pulled the dipstick, and the fluid on the stick was brown, just like motor oil. If I hadn’t known better, I would have assumed the stick was the engine oil dipstick based on the look of the fluid. Not black, just light brown. I smelled it, and it smelled pretty much like engine oil, too. Not particularly burnt, just a hint of sulfur as though smelling normally used engine oil.

Now, I’m not an expert, but as far as I know, transmission fluid is supposed to be red, not brown. Does brown fluid mean the transmission is (a) definitely toasted, (b) maybe toasted, but OK if a highway road test proves that it shifts normally, or © some other condition?

This is a nice van and I would buy it if it weren’t for the brown transmission fluid. If I took it to a local mechanic before buying, is there any way he could determine whether or not the transmission is damaged? Or would he tell me to forget about buying the van?

I would A) Stay away, or B) use it as a negotiation tool if you really like the van, but know its probably not going to last very long.

Are you 100% sure you pulled the trans dip stick?? I belive on the vans the oil dip stick is on the right and the trans is on the left. Brown fluid as you describe is not a good thing, and is in fact VERY VERY bad. Most likley the trans is toast, or will be very soon.

The seller is trying to hide something here. He clearly does not want you to take it out on the highway, that is why there are “no plates”. Swing by unannounced and see if it has plates on it then.

Yes a good mechanic could tell you whether or not the transmission is damaged and yes, he will tell you to forget about it.

BUT, if you get it out on the road and it shifts up normally, use the brown fluid to get the price way down, then do a fluid exchange after buying it and you might get a couple years out of it, but do NOT buy without a highway test drive, there may be other things wrong too, like shocks, struts, brakes etc.

OK, thanks. Yes, I pulled BOTH the oil and the trans dipsticks, and the fluid/oil color was identical. The sticks were both clearly marked on the handles, too, so there was absolutely no mistaking which was which.

The junior guy at the body shop that’s selling the van was there, but his boss was not. He offered to write a “temporary” bill of sale for me so I could put my own plates on it and take it for a drive, so I don’t think he personally was trying to hide anything. He probably doesn’t know anything about the van, though his boss might be aware of the problem. I told him I’d do a Carfax check on it this evening and think it over, and possibly return for a full test drive and checkout by a local mechanic. I didn’t mention the brown fluid to him, because I wanted to check with all you experts first.

But I will take your advice and do a highway test drive, and if it shifts OK then take it to a local mechanic, then use the brown fluid to beat the price down. And if it doesn’t shift right, I’ll just walk away.

Thanks for the help!

PS–The trans dipstick was marked “ATF+4”, and in doing some Googling on the subject, I found this excerpt from a Chrysler TSB about the ATF+4 fluid:


Mopar ATF+4® has exceptional durability. However, the red dye used in
ATF+4® is not permanent; as the fluid ages it may become darker or appear
brown in color. ATF+4® also has a unique odor that may change with age.
With ATF+4® fluid, color and odor are no longer indicators of fluid
condition and do not necessarily support a fluid change."

Whatever that means. (I think they’re trying to say that brown fluid isn’t necessarily bad, but who really knows…)

jesmed wrote:
He offered to write a “temporary” bill of sale for me so I could put my own plates on it and take it for a drive, so I don’t think he personally was trying to hide anything.

I definitely wouldn’t do this without checking with your insurance company first. I suspect that this car would need to be added to your policy. You do not want to drive an uninsured vehicle one foot on a public highway, unless you like risking all of your current and future assets if you get in an accident and get sued.

By the way, which plates would you use here? Are they offering temporary plates, if your state does that?

110K miles and burned tranny fluid…I would assume a transmission rebuild (this is a cheap, easy one) will be needed in the very near future and price the van accordingly…Express your concerns to the seller and tell him “I’m sorry, but this is all I can offer with the tranny fluid looking like that”…Stop by an independent transmission shop and get their price on a rebuild so you know exactly where you stand…

Caddyman, why do you say “this is a cheap, easy” transmission rebuild? Is this particular transmission easier/cheaper than usual to rebuild, and if so, why?

Thanks for your advice; I will check in with a local independent shop for a rebuild price.

2002, I bet it’s still the old 727 MOPAR tranny…What engine is in the van? 318-360? Then it’s the old Chrysler tranny for sure. This 50 year old design is a piece of cake for a transmission shop and the internal parts are cheap and plentiful…The RWD set-up in the van means the tranny can be pulled and put on the bench with a minimum of R&R labor…A complete rebuild should be under $3000, cheap by today’s standards…

It’s a 5.2 liter…and The Google tells me that 1 liter is worth 61 cubes, so that works out to 317 cubes. I’ll assume that means it’s a 318 cid engine.

Thanks, good to know that a rebuild shouldn’t cost more than 3 grand!

That power-train has been used in Dodge trucks (and cars) since the late 1960’s…It’s bullet-proof. The only problem with the trucks and vans are crappy paint jobs which leave them prone to rust…

A tranny rebuild should be well under $3000…

OK, very good, thanks all for the valuable advice.

My friend purchased a 727 online fully rebuilt, with shipping it was like $750. He put it in him self and it shifted like a dream.

Its NOT a 727. The 727 never had a lockup torque converter. It could be a 904, the 727’s cheaper and lighter duty brother, but I doubt its that one either.

Brown fluid tells me a transmission problem is looming. The part about no plates and not being able to drive it also sounds suspect. Surely a dealer has a temporary plate they can attach for a test drive.

Hand over the money, sign the paperwork, drive off with this vehicle, and see what happens when you have to return 5 minutes later because the transmission won’t shift. :frowning:

The Van likely has the 46RE transmission, it’s electronically controlled and will likely cost on the order of $1500-$2000 for a rebuild. Frankly I would touch this van.