By on May 18, 2022

We return to the Turbo-Hydramatic once more today, and our third installment sees us at a critical point in the timeline of the automatic transmission. Fuel economy pressure from the government and performance demands of the consumer increased considerably in the intervening years since the THM’s debut in 1964. That meant the creation of lighter, more compact, and cheaper versions of the Turbo-Hydramatic compared to its flagship shifter, the THM400. GM branched out into the likes of the THM350, THM250, and the very problematic THM200.

In 1987, GM stepped away from the traditional THM naming scheme and switched to a new combination of letters and numbers. Number of gears, layout, and strength combined to turn the THM400 into the 3L80. But the hefty gearbox was already limited by then to heavier truck applications; passenger cars moved on to four forward gears after the dawn of the Eighties.

General Motors was on its heels with the costly class-action lawsuit on the failure-prone THM200, filed in 1979. The General set its transmission engineers to make some changes to the THM200 with two goals in mind: To make it much more reliable, and more ready for upcoming passenger car needs.

To that end, every problematic component of the THM200 was replaced with an improved, redesigned part. While they were fiddling with the 200, engineers added a handy additional fourth gear with a ratio of 0.67:1. The improved box was called THM200-4R when it debuted in 1981.

The 200-4R used a multi-case bellhousing so that it fitted the various rear-drive cars in GM’s lineup. The multi-case featured a dual bolt pattern, in contrast to the single bolt pattern of a standard case that would only fit the specific vehicle for which it was designed. Mounting locations on the 200-4R matched with those of the THM400. The new four-speed was nearly the same size as the old THM350, and the 200-4R became an easy upgrade for older models so equipped.

GM was sure the 200-4R was a better transmission and was also sure their mainline cars needed a four-speed. Thus the new transmission was deployed in 1981 on the full lineup of full-size B-bodies. The likes of the Pontiac Bonneville, Oldsmobile Delta 88, and Buick LeSabre benefitted from the 200-4R. It was also used from 1981 in the larger C-body cars like the Buick Electra and Cadillac DeVille.

Additional usage of the 200-4R occurred in 1983 when it was picked up for midsize G-body cars like the Buick Regal and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. In 1985 when GM introduced their downsized front-wheel-drive cars, the C-body was renamed to D. There, the 200-4R continued on in singular luxury usage: The Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham.

The four-speed found a high-performance niche for itself in the Eighties, when it became the gearbox of choice for the Buick Grand National. In 1989 it was used for the Indy 500 Pace Car version of the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. The 200-4R had a good run but was phased out in 1990 after its last outing in the B- and D-body cars.

A year after the 200-4R another four-speed appeared: The THM700R4. From the 1982 model year, the 700R4 was used primarily in Chevrolet and GMC vehicles. It was more limited in application due to its single case bellhousing but was spread across many models given its developments. The transmission adopted GM’s new naming scheme in 1990 when it became the 4L60. Four-speeds, longitudinal layout, 60 strength rating. For our purposes, we’ll use the modern naming from here onward.

Additional improvements between 1984 and 1987 included updated internal components like the oil pump housing and ring gears. Late in 1986 the 4L60 also received a new auxiliary valve body. The next major change occurred for the 1993 model year, with the arrival of the 4L60-E version.

The -E suffix meant that electronic controls were added, which meant the transmission relied on the powertrain control module (PCM) to tell it when to shift. Newly modernized, the -E was implemented in GM’s trucks, vans, and SUVs in 1993. In 1994 usage spread into GM’s rear-wheel-drive passenger cars.

From there, the box was updated with a bolt-on bellhousing so it fit onto other vehicles in a much easier way. By 1998 all cars with a 4L60-E had a bolt-on bellhousing, and the box spread to more models. That year also saw the arrival of a new torque converter of a sturdier design. It was also revised in the Nineties to comply with new OBD-II regulations.

The 4L60-E found its way onto a staggering number of different vehicles between 1993 and 2013. GM really held onto four-speeds as long as it could, while other manufacturers upgraded to five-, six-, or even eight-speed automatics. Long-time lovers of the 60-E included the Chevrolet Suburban 1500, which made use of it from 1993 to 2009. The Camaro had four speeds in its F-body guise from 1994 until its cancellation in 2002.

Elsewhere, the Chevrolet Colorado used it from 2004 to 2012, and Australians found it in the Holden Caprice between 1994 and 2008. It was also used for the GMT360 SUVs, including the exclusive and very different Saab 9-7X. Its last usage was in the Chevrolet Express vans (vans still made today) in 2013.

During the 4L60-E’s heyday, a heavier duty version was introduced, the 4L65-E. It appeared in 2001 and was used exclusively with passenger vehicles that had larger V8 engines – usually the 6.0-liter Vortec. Primary usage was in the GMC Sierra and Yukon Denali, the Cadillac Escalade, and the ghastly Hummer H2.

It was also shipped to Australia for use in 6.0-liter Holden Commodores and was sent to Kentucky for the 2005 Corvette. Quick shout-out to the 4L70-E, which was a 4L65-E with an internal speed sensor.  The 4L60 and 65 were supplanted by the six-speed 6L80 and 6L90 after 2013. Back to THM400/3L80.

As mentioned last time, the 3L80 saw its last usage in 1990 in GM’s large vans like the G20 and Vandura. Though sturdy and popular, it was time for the three-speed to make way for a four-speed version. In 1991, production of the 4L80-E began. With electronic control, the four-speed was the first major change made to the old THM400 since its debut in 1964.

Unlike its predecessor which had to fill many passenger car roles, GM’s extensive use of the 4L60 meant the 4L80 was confined to pickups, vans, and commercial-type vehicles. All 4L80s were built at Willow Run Transmission, in Ypsilanti, Michigan (1953-2010). The 80-E was rated for up to 440 lb-ft of torque, with a max GVWR of 18,000 pounds.

GM put the 4L80 into use across its pickup line, in the 1500, 2500, and 3500 versions of the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, and the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana. It was also used in the near-forgotten 2500 version of the Chevy Avalanche. It lasted in van usage through 2009, and through 2013 in truck and SUV usage within GM.

However, like its three-speed forbearer, the 4L80 was used by companies outside GM that required a transmission capable of motivating big power and weight. Most of the users of the THM400 simply transferred to the 4L80 when it was available. One of the earliest manufacturers to buy the four-speed were Bentley and Rolls-Royce (then together as one company).

Bentley used it for the Eight, Turbo R, and all versions of the extremely expensive Continental coupe. Then under BMW’s guidance, they kept on using it for all versions of the Arnage between 1999 and 2006. Rolls-Royce used it on their Silver Spirit and Silver Spur (1992-1998), as part of their lineup still used the THM400.

In 1992 the 4L80 was added to the Hummer H1 when the military truck was edited for wealthy private consumer usage by people in Hollywood. A year later Jaguar added it to their aged XJS, where it would remain through the end of the coupe’s run in 1996. It was also the motivator for the high-po XJR between 1994 and 1997. And it was paired with the company’s V12 sedans (XJ12 and Daimler Double Six) between 1993 and 1997.

The British had one more usage for the 4L80 too; perhaps its most surprising. In 1996 Aston Martin (a Ford property) called up GM for some four-speeds for the new DB7. In fairness, the 4L80 was limited to inline-six versions of the DB7, as other flavors with V12 used ZF or Tremec boxes.

Of lesser usage was the heavy-duty take on the 4L80, the 4L95-E. It was designed for use with vehicles of up to 690 lb-ft of torque, and a GVWR of 18,000 pounds. The 85 was limited in usage to GM vehicles with the old 8.1-liter Vortec V8. It was used in the Express and Savana if they were equipped with a Duramax diesel engine.

It was also used for the Local Motors (2007-2022) Rally Fighter, the off-road dune buggy that was built between 2010 and 2016. The Rally Fighter paired a tiny 6.2-liter Vortec V8 to the 4L95 and was used in all 30 examples produced over those seven years.

And with the conclusion of the 4L60 and 4L80 in 2013, the history of the Turbo-Hydramatic came to an end. GM moved on to six-speed transmissions for its wares, which it didn’t design alone. Transverse applications saw the Ford-GM jointly-developed 6T70 and the 6L80 that was sort of based on a ZF six-speed. Any suggestions for which transmission Abandoned History should cover next?

[Images: GM]

Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by subscribing to our newsletter.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

25 Comments on “Abandoned History: General Motors’ Turbo-Hydramatic Transmissions (Part III)...”

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Interesting I did not realize that these transmissions were used in so many vehicles. My 2008 Isuzu I-370 used this transmission but then it was a rebadged Colorado/Canyon.

  • avatar

    Why of course, the delightful Ford AXOD.

  • avatar

    Bucket seats in a Delta 88. Groovy!

  • avatar

    “engineers added a handy additional fourth gear with a ratio of 0.67:1”

  • avatar

    My wife’s ’98 Yukon went through three 4L60’s from new to over 150k miles. Each was a good transmission until, suddenly!, it wasn’t. That OD 4th gear at .67 to 1 did get us a reliable 14mpg highway from a 350 engine so there’s that.

  • avatar

    “It was also used in the near-forgotten 2500 version of the Chevy Avalanche.”

    As the (almost certainly) only person on this website who has actually owned a 2500 Avalanche, my time to correct the record has finally come. Unlike the related Suburban/Yukon 2500, where the 6.0L/4L80E was standard, the Av 2500 was exclusively available with the 8.1L/4L85E (not 4L95E). Great powertrain; I’d buy another today brand new if they saw fit to offer it.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Recently Hoovies garage did a segment on a 2500 Avalanche with the 8.1 that he purchased. He and the Wizard seemed to revel in its big block 3/4 ton mid gate oddness.

    • 0 avatar
      Bill Wade

      Ah, you have no exclusivity on a 2500 Avalanche. I had one too “affectionately” known as the “Gasolanche” due to it’s stellar 11 mpg around town with it’s 4:10 gears.

      On the plus side, awesome for towing.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, I loved mine for long haul towing, the seats were super comfortable and the 8.1 obviously had plenty of power down low. Mileage was bad of course but really no worse than my current F350 with the 6.2L/6R140.

        The midgate really was a great idea, I wish I could understand why GM didn’t continue it into a 3rd generation.

  • avatar

    Back, sometime in the aughts my brother had a Chevy 2500 with the 8.1 and what he called the Allison transmission. That was a very problematic transmission that had extra problems anytime it got really cold. So how was that trans related to the THM family, if at all? TIA

    • 0 avatar

      Completely unrelated.

      Allison was a GM division (now spun off) that manufactured truck transmissions, they decided to replace the 4L80E with the “Allison 1000” 5 speed in HD trucks starting with the GMT800s.

  • avatar

    Some ideas for Abandoned History – Platform Sharing:
    Ford Falcon platform – then the Fox
    Chrysler F/M
    GM B

  • avatar

    “The Rally Fighter paired a tiny 6.2-liter Vortec V8 to the 4L95 and was used in all 30 examples produced over those seven years.”

    In what universe is a 6.2 liter (378 ci) “tiny” ?

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    TREMEC T5.. honorable mention to the Doug Nash 7 Speed, but that’s a pretty short one.

    In all honesty though, you kind of have to do the Ford C4/6 now though, but a manual that was in seemingly everything 8n the 80’s and 90’s to include the pony cars from both manufacturers should get some love.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    For the record, I would give up a good chunk of range to drive an electric version of that Olds if they sold it today.

  • avatar

    What was the four-speed auto in the A-Bodies? THM425C?

    How about the Chrysler A797? Why did those always go into Reverse with an audible “clunk?”

    • 0 avatar

      A-bodies had the THM-125 and it was a 3 spd.
      It morphed into the 4T40 by the late 80s, early 90s.

      The THM425C was found in the Eldorado, Toronado, GMC Motorhome, and other FWD powered vehicles with the big block V8s. Then again it was also a 3 spd

      • 0 avatar

        The Js used the 125C, as well. The lockup solenoid was a common failure point.

        The A-Bodies had a four-speed overdrive transmission by the mid-1980s. Would that have been the 4T40?

  • avatar

    Mercedes first torque converter box.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • THX1136: Had a good friend, Brian, in high school whose dad had been a Pontiac dealer in their very small town....
  • DenverMike: The Beatles are way overrated. I’m 53 and not a hater by any means, but they sort between Steely Dan and...
  • bullnuke: I well remember the big Edsel reveal. Those were the days when the next year’s models were wrapped up...
  • bunkie: I could be mistaken, but I seem to remember that Thunderbirds didn’t carry any Ford badging at all, just...
  • theonlydt: I have two children still in booster seats, a medium sized dog, a relatively small garage (height and...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber