Transmission Troubles after Father-in-Law

If you don’t want the story, skip this paragraph entirely. Recently my wife and I took a flight from a local airport, and to save on parking costs had my father-in-law go pick the car up later in the day after we left to keep at his place until we returned. He called us a few days into our trip telling us that the car had “suddenly” stopped working, and that he had a buddy tow it to a shop, who told him that the transmission was shot. After speaking to the shop manager, it turns out my father-in-law stopped to grab some fast-food and when he went to leave the restaurant the car wouldn’t go “in reverse,” and then it wouldn’t go at all. The mechanic, knowing that the guy who brought the car in wasn’t the owner and had no right to authorize service, hadn’t even looked at it, so had never said the “transmission was shot” to anyone. I had my father-in-law tow the car back to our house and park it in our garage until we could take a look at it after our trip. Given the fact that my father-in-law left out at least a few details, and that he supposedly diagnosed the issue himself, I really suspect that he did something to cause the problem, particularly since the car drove fine just six hours prior.

Here are my symptoms:

2001 Automatic Ford Focus

The car won’t move unless pushed/towed in neutral;
I can hear/feel it shifting when I change gears, shifter resistance is normal;
I can rev the engine like normal in all gears;
There’s a noticeable smell when the car runs, kind of like wet paint;
With the hood up and the car running, I can hear a fast, regular clicking sound;
All belts (that I can see) are attached and snug;
The transmission fluid is over-full, and burnt; (I definitely didn’t over-fill it, and I knew it was coming up on needing changing)
There’s no leakage coming from anywhere on the car that I can find;
Engaging/disengaging the parking brake works as normal;

I know that I’m going to need to take it to a shop to have the work done ultimately anyhow, since I lack the proper tools and know-how, but I’m trying to get ahead of this and avoid having a mechanic sell me on work that I don’t need and can’t really afford.

Does any of this seem to point to one specific repair more than another?

Based on the smell and burnt fluid complaints I’d say the transmission is fried.

It’s difficult to see how he could have damaged the transmission in such a short time but I have no idea where he went with it (foul weather and spinning the wheels…?) or his driving habits.

The transmission is 15 years old along with all of the seals inside the transmission which maintain various fluid pressures throughout the shifting processes. Rubber ages and hardens inside the transmission just like everywhere else.

If the transmission has never been serviced previously then I’d say it’s a coincidence and a failure that was overdue actually. Servicing the transmission every 30k miles can head off a lot of problems.

Father-in-law is off the hook. Transmissions can work one second and not the next. I had a Dodge Intrepid that just started squealing and died. A Chevy P/U that worked when I backed it out of the garage, but would not reverse when I got to work. A Nissan Pathfinder that self destructed and took out the case. None of these were over 60k miles and all were well maintained.

Did you look at the half-shafts and CV joints? How many miles are on it?

When the oil pump begins to fail there will not be adequate pressure to keep the clutches and/or bands fully engaged so they will slip, heat excessively and eventually result in total failure. A failed pump will result in the fluid appearing overfilled.

The driver might have sensed that there was some power loss and the tachometer might have flaired significantly higher than normal when accelerating but once at cruising speed there might have been no indication of a problem. But like the camel that seemed OK until that final straw was thrown on its back the transmission kept operating until that last attempt to pull away from a stand still.

I won’t ever use or drive anyone else’s car and I don’t let anyone drive my cars. Anything that happens is my fault and no one else to blame. Tranny overhaul time though.

If you want to keep the car looking to seeing what the newest year is interchangeable, will 2006 fit, and get one from the junk yard. If you have not had the oil changed in 150k miles the parts are in the bottom of the pan. There are machined surfaces inside and they keep parts aligned, when the oil is not changed the oil becomes abrasive and eats up all the parts. (Cup hits the bore) You will not be satisfied with the results and end up with a shift complaint with using all the old parts. They are hydraulicly worn out.

@charles5200 Do we possibly have a transmission expert now to add to the staff?? Since Transman left, we are greatly in need of one.

It seems son in law doesn’t trust his father in law.

I think your father in law is off the hook and blaming him because he self diagnosed it, is going a little overboard. How do you know he’s not right.
The only thing you are going on is that he understood that the tranny was shot…and he left out that he stopped for a burger. Give him a break…he was doing you a favor and your car broke down.

As others have said, transmissions can work great on the way out of the garage…and not shift into the next gear 20 feet later.

Have it towed to an independent tranny shop.


+1 to Yosemite’s comments.

Additionally, I would really like to know how many times that OP had the transmission serviced on this 14 year old vehicle. If the answer is not at least “four”, then he should look in the mirror in order to see the culprit who caused the trans to fail after…only…14 years.

It’s possible he was beating on the car and it caused a transmission that was already going to fail completely. Or it could just be bad luck and timing. When I was 18 my car broke down so I borrowed my dad’s car, which happened to break a CV joint while going through a drive through. I was by no means beating on the car at all, but trying to get my parents to believe me was difficult, especially since my car had just broken down.

Since you have to continue to deal with your F.I.L. (and live with your wife) I would give him the benefit of the doubt and just chalk it up to bad luck. If he’s a decent guy at all and feels some responsibility, I’d hope he would make it worth your while sometime in the future. Maybe just by not taking your wife’s side of things if you’re in an argument. Being gracious to people and not burning bridges ends up paying off IMHO.

I spent 13 years in remanufactory shop, where we would take 3 or 4 junk transmissions and build one. They went out of business in 2006, I got laid off in 2001 and I think the transmission shop closed in 2001 or 2002. I worked mostly on Ford ATX, AXOD, AXOD-E, AOD, AOD-E, C-6,C-4,C-5, about 8 FMXs, 1 boardwarner, 1 MX. The last 2 years we did other company transmissions. The guy next to me did GMC and Chrysler, so I got to see the insides. I did the clutches and gear train. The girls did the valve bodys. I got to see the insides. The reason they went out business is they used substandard steps and procedures and parts that produced substandard results.