Does My Car Have Transmission Problems

Reader Question

I purchased a Buick Park Ave from my dad’s elderly cousin last April. It had only 31,000 miles on it, and we know it was well taken care of. I have put on 7500 miles since then.

Last week when I was driving it, it didn’t want to accelerate to more than 45 mph. At 45 mph it shook pretty hard. The rpm’s got pretty high, but I wasn’t going any faster. (Seems to me like it won’t shift.)

Within a few minutes it seemed to get better, and I made it home. Well, 2 days later, it did it again. (Both days were unseasonably warm for January–around 55-60 degrees.)

By the time I got it home, steam was coming from the hood, up near the drivers side door. I got out of the car and it smelled like burned plastic. No warning lights came on, and the gauges read normal temps.

It has spent 2 days at a GM repair shop where they have driven it several times with no problems. I have it back, but don’t trust it! Do you have any ideas?


Hello there JM,

Thanks for your email. With only 40,000 miles I would not expect there to be anything major going on…BUT, cars hate to sit. Low mileage cars that belong to elderly people that don’t drive them on a regular basis is actually harder on a car than if they were driven 300 miles a day.

Just like the human body, if a car sits for a long time without being driven any real length of distance for years then all of a sudden a new driver takes over and starts driving it everyday…problems show up.

The human body lays in bed for a few weeks and the bones and muscles get weak..if you were to jump up out of bed and run a 100 yard sprint your body would likely collapse because it has not been used that way in a long time. Same thing with this 13 year old car that has been driven an average of 2386 miles a year…and you have tripled that in less than a year.

So what happens to a car that does not get driven enough? Oil seals and gaskets begin to dry out…and start to leak oil once they are forced to “sprint”, water pumps fail, tires and any other rubber components quickly deteriorate, and transmissions start to slip and fail because the fluid inside them has been sitting up and all the intricate items inside the transmission have become varnished…or have developed a thin layer of sludge on them from the sitting transmission fluid.

I can’t say this happened to your car exactly, but I have seen this exact same complaint many many times with my older customers handing down a low mileage car they have never had problems with to their family members and then problem after problem starts to happen once the vehicle is driven everyday.

So…since you say the tachometer showed the RPM’s going high, but the car was NOT…I can assume the transmission was slipping. If you saw smoke (white smoke like steam, not blue smoke from burnt oil, white smoke would be burnt transmission fluid) and smelled a burning odor, the transmission probably was slipping and overheated.

When the transmission overheats it will boil out…spit out transmission fluid, sometimes from the transmission dipstick (look and see if the transmission dipstick was pushed out of the tube…or if there was pink or light brown oil on the ground under the car.

I would have the dealership smell the transmission fluid, transmissions that are worn out or have bad/dirty/burnt fluid in them have a very peculiar smell to them

You might try servicing the transmission fluid and replacing the transmission filter and see if that helps…..or it might be time for a transmission overhaul…although mileage wise it is premature, time wise it could be time for one.

Keep me posted,

Please share this with your friends,
Austin C. Davis

4 Comments on "Does My Car Have Transmission Problems"

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  1. ADM says:

    thank you so much for your response!!! i did bring it to a mechanic just today to have it looked over. they said everything looks fine and dandy as far as the engine and transmission goes. what a relief! they did say that because it’s only a 1.6L engine it’s just not going to have the same power as my old car (5.6L V8 Buick Roadmaster). haha yeah, even i knew there would be a big difference in engine performance between the two, i just didn’t know how this car should be feeling going uphill. so my car is good, it’s just a little putt-putt car. haha. anyway, i do really appreciate your response and i think your website is a totally awesome resource and so helpful and informative. i hope you keep going with it! thanks again! =)

  2. ADM says:

    i recently acquired a 1996 Honda Civic EX (automatic) with only 47,400 miles on it. i thought it was a great deal because of the super low miles… but after reading this question and answer i’m not so sure. everything on my car seems ok, but i live on a steep hill and feel like it’s gutless going up. you have to drive slowly as you approach the hill because of the residential area, then if i hit the gas pretty good it seems like it’s going to do fine, but by the top of the hill it feels weak again. i’ve never not made it up the hill and there doesn’t seem to be sputtering or smoke. does this sound like a bad transmission or should i be manually shifting it into D3 or 2 or something? i’m fairly clueless about cars and broke after this purchase so am quite stressed out. any info/advice will be greatly appreciated!!!

    • Austin Davis says:

      Are the engine RPMS going way up, but the car is not moving as fast as the RPM? If so, it could be a transmission problem with internal slipping and might just be low on transmission fluid? If the engine RPM is NOT going up then I would be suspect of a problem either with lack of fuel to the engine, or a problem with ignition timing….like the need for a tune up or the ignition timing is set too low, which will cause lack of power. I would have a mechanic check the ignition timing and all tune up parts for replacement….spark plugs, plug wires, distributor cap and rotor etc. after you have ruled out a transmission slipping problem.

      You can try leaving the shifter in 1st gear, but that really should not matter much if the transmission is working properly.

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