By on June 9, 2014

gearbox. Shutterstock user luchunyu

TTAC commentator M0L0TOV writes:

Greetings All-Knowing Sajeev,

I am looking for some insight on an ongoing issue with my workhorse. I have a 2003 Ford Focus ZX-5 with 160,000 miles. A little bit over a year ago, I had Aamco rebuild the automatic transmission on my car for the tune of $2500. Apparently, my car seems to have an appetite for transmissions, I’m on #4 now (original, warranty, junkyard, Aamco).

Lately, I noticed my car was leaving large puddles of fluid on the driveway, I checked underneath it, and saw fluid was accumulating around the transmission pan. I took my vehicle to my mechanic and he showed me what had happened. It looks like whoever worked on the transmission last (Aamco) had attempted to seal a crack in the transmission housing with silicone. From my understanding, silicone will not stand up very well to the heat and corrosive properties of ATF.

I passed by Aamco and they inspected my car, they acknowledged they had attempted a repair during the install. The owner of this Aamco franchise advised me that I would need a new transmission case and with parts and installation would cost me over $800.00. I’m a bit pissed because if they knew it was cracked, while the transmission was out, this part could have been replaced, now I have to go through a similar procedure to get this done again.

I really don’t feel like spending $800.00+ to get this done considering the age and wear on the vehicle. Should I:

  1. Try one of those additives that claims to fix leaks.
  2. Drain the transmission, clean the area, add JB Weld, and hope for the best.
  3. Have the crack welded.
  4. Try to find somebody else to do the job cheaper.
  5. Listened to my father and avoided Aamco.

I’m mechanically inclined but my skills are not advanced nor do I have the space and room to do this job myself. Besides the transmission issues, the car hasn’t given me any issues, the engine runs strong. I do have a little bit of sentimental value for the car since it was my first “new” car I ever got. I do I.T. work which requires a lot of driving and the car gets decent mileage.

P.S. Driving my Dodge Magnum R/T is not an option since it would eat me out of house and home gas wise.

Sajeev Answers:

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of problems with an AAMCO transmission franchise.  Or, heck, any franchised service shop.  Even worse, this is the second time I heard about a rebuilder cracking a transmission case.

What is the right move? Franchise owner eats the bill and hopes you remain a happy customer. If this only happens via running it up the AAMCO channel, so be it.  Hit up their Twitter or Facebook accounts and ask the store owner for his regional manager.   If it’s not too late, go do that.

If AAMCO doesn’t care, well, you are SOL.   There are plenty of reputable rebuilders that dropship refreshed unit to a recommended installer, complete with a good warranty. I’ve heard good things about Jasper and the B&B previously agreed.  Or get one from the junkyard and hope for the best, again. I’ve personally had a great Ford AOD rebuilt from a franchise shop, but I interviewed them, inspected their shop and asked them detailed questions about their AOD-skills. They passed the test and that made me happy.

Since you do like the car, I suggest getting a quality rebuild.  And if there’s a local shop with a good reputation and extensive knowledge of Ford specific transmission issues, give it another shot. Because the aftermarket usually fixes all the weak spots in transmissions, combine that with an aftermarket ATF cooler and you’ll be set for many years to come.

[Image: Shutterstock user luchunyu]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice. 

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53 Comments on “Piston Slap: Double A (Beep! Beep!) Em, Cee, Oh…...”

  • avatar

    I’d learn how to drive a stick shift and set that Focus on fire. 4 transmissions in just over 10 years is bonkers.

    • 0 avatar

      Couldn’t have said it better! Four transmissions is ridiculous; I’d junk the car in a heartbeat.

      Note to self, always avoid AAMCO, they are incompetent thieves.(Probably avoid Ford in the future too).

    • 0 avatar


    • 0 avatar

      That depends on how you drive it. If the roads where you drive have broad “stop here” lines on the pavement, hard acceleration will see the wheels spin when they hit that slippery stripe, then hit HARD on the torque converter when they it asphalt again. Depending on the torque you’re putting out when that happens, the TC dies pretty quickly. I went through three transmissions in 150,000 miles that way. (It’s why I drive a stick now.)

    • 0 avatar


    • 0 avatar

      Automatics aren’t the only transmisions that experience failure. My 2001 Outback is on its third manual transmission in 160k miles. First one quit at 138k, replaced with a transmission that had 140k. That one quit 22k miles later after experiencing torque bind. My next car will be an automatic and I’ll just have to be strict on the fluid changes.

      • 0 avatar

        Agreed on potential manual failures as well. My 2002 Ram 1500 has an NV3500 5spd, which is a trans sized for a Wrangler-size vehicle and the aluminum case isn’t up to the task of full-size half ton trucks. The case flexes enough I can’t keep an output shaft seal sealing and I constantly have a film of aerosolized Synchromax stuck to my tailgate. Given that the fluid level is always somewhere below full unless I’ve just filled it it has a tendency to wear overdrive shaft bearings and spit out input shaft bearings. I’m on Trans #3 at 188k; first went for a rebuild at 12k under warranty when the oil left on a long highway trip and 5th whined like a beaten dog. That was replaced 4-6k later when the whining returned and the race they say was responsible was not able to be replaced due to its position within the case or some nonsense. After that I add oil to the trans every 3k and ran it to about 160k before the input bearing, which had been grumbling in neutral for years, finally bit the dust and I lost everything except 4th gear. Went to a small shop and they recommended a JY replacement, but the first trans they got in had 4th so badly chewed he immediately sent for another JY trans which is now in my truck, but the the early stages of input shaft bearing growl have been present since a few months after the trans was put in.

    • 0 avatar

      What’s up with Sajeev’s advice these days? The recommendation is to keep a transmission-munching econobox with more than 160k?! They sell on Craigslist for about $2300; how about selling the rotbox and use the proceeds to drive the Magnum for a year.
      Quick, Someone get Lang in here for a reality check, it looks like more effort went into the title of the article than the advice dispensed therein.

  • avatar

    6). Get rid of the frickin car.

    You’ve already spent more than replacing the whole vehicle would cost. Dump it at Carmax for a couple thousand and put that down to something that’ll endure the test of time.

    • 0 avatar

      ^^^ This. Or set it on fire as mentioned above.

      A car that goes thru 4 transmissions in 160k miles is either haunted, or I suspect has been in an accident and things are tweaked just enough to put pressure on that transmission/driveline and causing issues.

    • 0 avatar

      I went through the math this morning and I’m shocked that the owner still feels it’s worth the money. If they had the time and tools to do the work themselves, along with cheap transmissions being readily available, it might be worth the savings over a new(er) car, but in their current situation it doesn’t sound reasonable to keep throwing money at it. After the first warranty one I probably would have been looking to jettison it while it still retained some decent resale value.

      In ~10 years they put about 145k on the car, so they need a new or rebuilt transmission every 36k or so miles. With the current mileage, provided they constantly add ATF or seal the hole, they have a $3300 repair due in about 21k miles, or just a little over a year. Combined with resale value, that should be a decent down on a new economy car or an entire used car suitable for commuting.

  • avatar

    From my own experience with that company, they’ll charge you for a full rebuilt even if all you need is a torque converter. Honestly, your initial issues of 4 transmissions in that number of miles makes me think the torque converter is your primary culprit. However, that doesn’t cover your current issue.

    What I’m curious about is how the housing got cracked in the first place, followed by why the heck didn’t they tell you about it while they were working on it? This sounds to me like they’re covering up an in-shop accident hoping you’d never notice. (BTW, is there any mention of said attempted repair in your paperwork?) Now, personally I’m not a fan of litigation, but this sounds more like criminal fraud on their part–or at a minimum criminal negligence. They knew of a problem and chose not to tell you about it at the time.

    As such, I would go over the franchise owner’s head. Go straight to the company headquarters and tell them what’s happened. If the corporate headquarters does their job, they’ll audit the entire operation (such franchises are often multiple stores owned by one individual or corporate group) and potentially pull their franchise license. Any company that wants to maintain a good customer base can’t risk the bad publicity generated on the internet today and will actively work to resolve the problem. I’ve made this work twice for myself in the last decade where a given shop or manufacturer’s product fell short of “reasonable” quality. I’ve also seen a similar action performed on a shop I myself worked at about a year after I left, as the owner reverted to ever-cheaper parts to make his repairs. In that case, the shop got shut down and the owner arrested for overt fraud. (I got lucky and left when I realized new parts were, shall we say, less than ideal.)

  • avatar
    John Marks

    The car is more than 10 years old and has been driven over 100,000 miles. Have you replaced the soft lines to the brakes? There are literally dozens of things like that–and the brake soft lines are one, safety issues and two, rarely caught on state-mandated vehicle inspections–that impact the performance of a car and are for the most part too expensive to fix on anything but a luxury or collector car.

    That car has given you more than its fair share of service, but it also has a dark side. You need a complete divorce from that car’s dysfunctionality. Don’t double down on a failure cascade.

    The money that went into the last transmission rebuild could have been the down payment on a Certified Pre-Owned, Honda, even a Lexus. Yes, every car maker has made problem cars, but, Ford historically has made more than its fair share. Every night the Ford family must says its prayer: “Dear Lord, Thank you for making GM make us look good, even if only by comparison to the worst.”

    Former VW salesman and independent foreign car garage employee

  • avatar

    Either you got stuck with a lemon, or you are one of the myriads who, before stopping in reverse, you slam the car into drive.

    Four trannys? To use a phrase, you get the “dummy award” for keeping the car that long! After the warranty tranny, I would’ve dumped it long ago. No third chance.

  • avatar

    My ex had an MY 00 ZX3 hatch. It had various issues including needing an engine replacement in 2010 and 160K. Last I saw it though, it was still running the original auto trans at 179K. Between the two of us we’ve seen two examples of the gen 1 Focus go through four transmissions and an engine at mid 100s. F that noise, dump the car.

  • avatar

    Ok If it was me I would dump it, but since it is you and you must be have a thing for pain after all you paid for two of the trannies, I would raise holy hell at Corp to make AAmco do the right thing. I can see I do not want a car payment so I will put in a tranny but it may be time to let the car go, and buy dad a good case of beer and tell him he was right about AAMCO

    • 0 avatar

      I would also go up the chain. They obviously new about when they rebuilt your trans. I also find it unlikely it was like that when you brought it in. They would have tried selling you a case to begin with. It’s pretty shady that they tried covering it up with silicone.

    • 0 avatar

      Yea, I’d be raising all sorts of trouble, they should have told him about that when the trans was rebuilt.

      If they rebuilt his transmission, I’d bet that the crack came from the junkyard transmission. That new of a car showing up in a junkyard is likely to be a wreck, and if it was a front end collision that would easily explain the crack.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, I would probably go up the chain as well. As someone who worked for that company in the past, I would give you decent odds that they will give you satisfaction. They will at least call the franchisee and attempt to work this out on your behalf if it looks like you have made no progress with the owner. That said, I can’t ever remember an incident where corporate actually forced an individual store’s hand.

      The more common approach I saw here (Canada, w/ solid consumer protection laws) was to take the individual owner to small claims court. The filing fees are low and the owners would likely loose. Most owners knew this and and capitulated long before any legal proceedings.

      Do you know where the case is cracked? If it a non pressure area, it could likely be fixed with epoxy — the only thing you must do is make sure the area is entirely oil free before you proceed.

  • avatar

    Kind of a tough choice now. Do you put another horse in the barn and hope the gate stays closed this time?

    If the rest of the car is in very good shape I’d do it, then never darken AAMCOs door again. If not, scrap it. You can probably pick up a good Focus with a 5-speed for $2-3k and if you have room for a parts stash you can strip what you may need from the old Focus first.

    My 2001 Focus is at about 130,000 miles, with one clutch change at 110,000.

    Honestly I can’t understand why more people don’t drive a stick, seems like AT problems that aren’t worth fixing kill most vehicles that I hear about…

    • 0 avatar

      My 96 Audi still had the original clutch when I sold it at 170,000 miles but the in the replacement 2001 Audi I had a slave cylinder leak at 87,000.

      Some newer manual transmissions have things like dual mass flywheels or combined one piece hydraulic slave cylinder + release bearing.

      $2700 later at an indy shop it was fixed, most expensive repair I have paid for. Sold it pronto.

      • 0 avatar

        Dual mass flywheels are a German-invented wallet extraction contraption. Just about every car that I’ve heard of that has one (mostly, German but not all) has problems with it. The recommended fix: put in a solid flywheel! Now that’s some solid engineering! (pun intended, you’re welcome)

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      I’m not really a fan of replacing a problematic car with one of the same age and model, unless it’s a classic. If he really wants a Focus, he should stick with the one he has…the devil he knows.

      Then again, having *four* transmission failures is unacceptable. A Corolla S with a manual can be fun, or so I hear. And MK6 Jettas are pretty easy to wrench on as well…

  • avatar

    If AAMCO doesn’t make it right, Jasper is a good option, as is an FAR (Ford Authorized Remanufactured) unit. Not sure which outfit is doing the Focus 4F27E boxes, but Ford doesn’t let them out the door with their logo unless they’re right.

    • 0 avatar

      autojim: “but Ford doesn’t let them out the door with their logo unless they’re right.”

      I think Ford won’t let it out the door unless it’s the right part number and maybe they don’t even check that.

      Infuriated Former Ford Owner

  • avatar

    That’s interesting, that particular trans usually isn’t too bad.

    Well, the JB Weld option certainly couldn’t hurt as opposed to sinking in money for more trans work. Failing JB Weld or getting the shop to cover the work (I don’t have high hopes for this since they can simply state that the crack was pre-existing thus not their fault), I think it’s time to move on.

    • 0 avatar
      Don Mynack

      Another tale of woe, courtesy of the Ford 4F27E (and variants). This piece of junk ATX has an internal filter not on the pan, if I remember, and the fluid has to be changed a lot – I mean, often – to prevent the thing from burning out. I drain out a couple quarts every other oil change on my 2005 Mazda 3, and its always brown gunk in there. A complete fluid change (not a flush – which ruins the ATX – just a change) is a must once a year. These are so bad that a Mazda dealer (as opposed to a Ford one) won’t even rebuild them – they just order a complete factory refurb and swap it out. Dump the car or convert to a 5 speed.

      • 0 avatar

        “These are so bad that a Mazda dealer (as opposed to a Ford one) won’t even rebuild them”

        This really has nothing to do with the quality of the transmission but the fact that most Japanese automakers allow their dealers very limited repair options on transmissions, most are replace only.

        Maybe you and the OP had bad experiences with them, but the quality metrics on these units really weren’t bad at all.

  • avatar

    I think you need to decide what it is you want from the AAMCO people and then negotiate to get what you want. Further, I think you need to recognize that you’ve already begun a negotiation process with the owner and that his confession gives you something to work with. Most of the questions you are raising are irrelevant and are going to make it harder for you to see the facts clearly:

    1) No competent transmission technician would “rebuild” a transmission without addressing the cracked case.
    2) “Silicone” is not a standard or accepted repair for engine blocks or transmission cases. Did the owner really admit to doing this? (Did he use silicone sealant because his Elmer’s glue stick ran out?)
    3) The owner admitted that he tried to repair the case, therefore you already paid to have the case repaired and it was not repaired properly. It is not your fault that AAMCO did a piss-poor job of the repair.

    I think you should ask for something that would be a step towards making you whole or that would compensate you for some of the financial harm that has been done to you. E.g.,
    “By your own admission you didn’t repair the case properly, so now I want you to fix it properly and I don’t want to pay any more for it.”
    “I now have to take the transmission to a competent shop to do the work you didn’t do before, so I want a full refund.”
    “As a result of your incompetent repair the value of the car is drastically reduced. I want you to compensate me for this, etc.”

    He may refuse outright, but it is also possible he will make a counter-offer. (E.g. repair the case for a drastically reduced price.) If he stubbornly refuses to do anything then you should tell him you will do one of the things others have suggested: small claims court, complain to AAMCO corporate, complain to your State’s Attorney General Consumer Fraud office or State Auto Repair Licensing Agency, etc.

    It would be nice if people who admit to f***ing up also immediately offered to pay you for their mistakes, but that’s not how it usually works. He’s taken the first stop by confessing his mistake, now you need to take the next step by demanding some form of compensation or recompense.

  • avatar

    Hey Guys,
    I’m chiming in, I’m the owner of the nightmare. I think I will try forcing Aamco’s hand in this. I will add a few things as well, so I’m a bit clearer. The car was originally a dealer demo with under 3,000 miles, no accidents while they had it. The vehicle got some bumps in its lifetime but nothing major, nothing that could affect the tranny. Some people argue I should have gotten a manual, well, my parents got it for me while I was in college so I didn’t have a choice (beggars can’t be choosers).

    I *WAS* one of those people who would slam it into drive after backing out. After the first transmission went, I made sure I was completely stopped before shifting back into drive. On a bit of an ironic post, the time I had a “recommended” flush on the tranny….two weeks later it died. I learned an expensive lesson on that as well.

    Yes, this car has been a nightmare. Some say kill it with fire. Some could argue I could have gotten a new car with what I paid. While I agree with you guys, I was in no financial shape to buy a new car back then. I just bought a house so a new car would probably be a no go for me at this moment in time.

    I will definitely keep you guys updated on what transpires as well as continue reading the comments. Hopefully next time I write it’s about doing something fun like a good place to get a supercharger for my hemi!

    • 0 avatar

      Try the JB Weld. I have seen that stuff work miracles. Even if it becomes an annual thing, it is all but free except for some time and effort. This is assuming you can’t get them to step up and make it right.

  • avatar

    If AAMCO won’t do it gratis, can your mechanic do it for $800 and do some routine transmission maintenance (fluid, filter, whatever) at the same time?

    If AAMCO won’t come through, I’m thinking you should spend the $800, drive it for a few months while you bank a down payment and then unload the thing before, it is to be hoped, something else goes $eriou$sly wrong.

    • 0 avatar

      Unfortunately, my mechanic doesn’t do transmission work. However, I’m lucky to have him, he’s very reasonable, and has done a lot of work without charging me. I wrote Aamco, so hopefully they respond, if not. Maybe I’ll just post a link to this.

  • avatar

    If Aamco doesn’t fix this, I would make a point to get to your local court house and take them to small claims court OR if you have a friend who is a lawyer, get a letter written to the Aamco owner explaining that while you would prefer to avoid the legal route, you’ll do so to be made whole.

  • avatar

    All this bad publicity should make Aamco want to make it right, just to get the positive exposure of a good post on here. Aamco is to transmissions what McDonalds is to food.
    Meanwhile, avoiding Aamco (and Midas) is just common sense.

  • avatar

    I’m curious as to why so many commenters think he has a case (hah) with getting Aamco to cover this. Is it simply because they’re a business with deeper pockets?

    I don’t think he’s owed anything beyond maybe a nice discount on the labor because it sounds like the crack they tried to repair was pre-existing. Sure, it would have been prudent for them to call him when they found it and let him know that he might need a case. They should cut him a deal on the labor due to the inconvenience of not having the case swapped during the first repair, but it doesn’t sound as if the shop is liable for the parts.

    Failing a deal with the shop, depending on the severity of the damage, JB Weld would probably work fine.

    • 0 avatar

      My simple point is that the shop should make good on their own mistake. Fix it and be done with it. All the rest comes up IF the shop refuses–at which point they lose their reputation as a place to take sick transmissions.

      My own experience with that brand is that they habitually charged me for a full transmission rebuild on two different occasions when all I needed was a torque converter. When I asked for the parts they replaced, I received a set of bands that still looked brand new–even to having the printing on them perfectly visible (worn bands would have been slick and had no sign of the printing. They would have also been much thinner).

      In other words, the brand already has a bad reputation but they are typically the fastest shop around when you simply can’t afford to wait for a proper repair.

  • avatar

    Cut and run, my friend. You own a house? Then you can get a car loan. Time for a new ride.

  • avatar

    Would you trust Aamco to touch it again? To be honest here’s what you should do;
    Write to Aamco, hope they make it right and fix it. (I see you wrote to them). Once fixed, sell it or trade it in for a newer car or a older reliable car (read 03 and up Corolla).

    If they do nothing, clean it up, JB weld, sell it or trade it in for a newer car or a older reliable car (read 03 and up Corolla).

    It’s a Focus that has no value, I understand you are in “love” with it. 4 transmissions in 10 years is a sign to dump it and run away. I hope youre not like this with women… I’ve had plenty of older cars and higher mileage vehicles (crown Vic with 250k) and all ran on the original trans. What is your driving style like? Also, let’s be honest, did you do a lot of neutral drops or any other shenanigans?

    As to your Magnum, why can’t you drive that to work? What’s your commute like, how many MPGs does Focus get vs the Magnum? Perhaps sell both and buy something newer?

  • avatar

    Wild. I had a 2000my focus zx3 with the 4F27e automatic. It went 121k miles in my hands with nothing more than regular fluid changes. Sometime after I traded it in, I checked up on it on CarFax and saw it went another 60k (181k total) without an indicated transmission failure.

    • 0 avatar

      My ex had a MY00 burnt red/orange ZX3 which needed a new motor at 161K which I had to source from a junkyard in Ligonier in 2010. She drove it for a bit more but I know the transaxle started to act up about a year later so I wouldn’t be surprised if she junked it after we broke up. I used to refer to her Focus as “eurocar” after seeing identical looking RHD specimens in Ireland the previous year.

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