Is This Really Death Metal... For My Car?
December 4, 2009 12:31 PM   Subscribe

While performing routine maintenance on my car, my mechanic noticed a hum coming from the (standard) transmission. He then changed the transmission fluid and noticed pieces of metal when draining the old fluid out. Crap. This car only has 85,000 miles. How many more can I realistically get out of it?

The car in question is 2002 Ford Focus, which has had a not insignificant amount of work done on it over the years (particularly around the tires, wheels and clutch) because a) it’s a cheap car manufactured with cheap parts and b) I’m primarily a city driver who drove the thing hard in its early years (when I was younger and just as stupid.)

When I asked my mechanic how long he thought it had, he was somewhat noncommittal and said, “Maybe a year. Maybe more or less.” I understand him not wanting to give me a definite time because it’s probably a hard thing to pin down, and he probably doesn’t want me yelling at him if it turns out he was wrong. While I’ve never noticed the hum he alluded to, I also fully admit that I’d have no idea what to listen for. To me, car acceleration sounds like car acceleration. I trust my mechanic implicitly, and don’t think for a minute he was trying to get me to spend more on additional work. In fact, based on the transmission issue, I ended up not replacing my timing belt, thinking it would be wasted money if the car only has a limited lifespan.

So, I guess my question to you mechanical folk out there is if you have any type of experience with this and if so, how long did the car last, and do you have any additional insight you think might be useful? I’m actually reading some information online which says that metal in the transmission drainage is actually normal. I’m tempted to trust my mechanic on this, however. At the root of all this is me questioning whether or not I should buy a new car. Eventually, I’m going to have to, of course, and now seems like a great time to buy one given the economy and some of the deals I’m seeing, but not if my current car still has a reasonable amount of miles still left on it. Thanks in advance.
posted by Rewind to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You will probably get more miles out of the car if you get a new transmission...
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:40 PM on December 4, 2009

Best answer: He's right. _Some_ metal might be ok, but in 15 years of doing car repairs on my own cars, I've never seen metal flakes in a healthy engine/transmission. It could be a year. It could be five years. It could be a month. There's really no way to tell.

If it's shifting OK now, I really wouldn't worry about it until it gets bad...unless you want to try to trade it in right this second and pass the problem on to another owner. Having been on the receiving end of those gifts, I wouldn't suggest it, though. But it probably would be the best solution from a financial POV. Or use this as an opportunity to shop for a known-good used transmission for the car. Changing it out isn't going to cost THAT much.

Repairing a broken car is almost always cheaper than getting a new one. I'd drive it into the ground if it were me.
posted by paanta at 12:45 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your car is a 2002 - it's still worth keeping the (more expensive) engine in good shape. You should change your timing belt.

Metal in transmission oil is not exactly unusual or dramatic (unless it is big chunks). It is, as you found out, completely normal. Almost all transmissions leave flakes and slivers on the (usually magnetic) drain plug and will most likely have been created in the first few thousand miles of running. Once the oil is drained, only repeated metal occurrence is an issue.

There is, at this stage, very little evidence that there is anything at all wrong with the transmission. The noise is not loud enough for you to hear it, even when listening for it, and 'hum's are very hard to pinpoint and even mechanics are fallible. Even if there is an issue with the transmission it is worth spending the money on a repair rather than scrapping the car (the path you seem to be moving towards).

My advice is as follows - do not in any way scrimp on other maintenance. At this stage, assume nothing at all is wrong with the transmission. Service the car normally and keep driving it. If the hum gets worse, it will be easier to diagnose in terms of location and fault type. If it doesn't, then nothing is wrong. At the most paranoid, I'd change the oil again in 3000 miles and check for more metal then - anything more than a few shavings could be an issue. Beyond that? Nothing wrong.

It is most likely that there is nothing at all wrong with your gearbox. Buy another car if youw ant to, but not because of this.
posted by Brockles at 12:47 PM on December 4, 2009

Best answer: I work in a customer assistance center for a major auto manufacturer, and it's been my experience that the transmission parts interact in a way where there are some metal shavings in the transmission fluid. I was told by a dealer (but have no way of verifying) that the plugs on transmissions are magnetic to catch and keep these shavings out of the way. So if you have kept proper maintainance on the veh, I'm not really sure if this is a problem.

Of course i have to do the obligatory, "i'm not a mechanic and without the word of one of our dealers diagnosis, i don't really have a way to tell what is occuring with your vehicle". So long story short, i could be entirely wrong, but i have heard that this may be normal.
posted by djduckie at 1:02 PM on December 4, 2009

Meaningless data point: when my 1989 Toyota ate gears 2 and 4, it had a galaxy of metal shavings in the fluid, not just a little bit, a whole shimmering sea of them. But I drove it on gears 1, 3 & 5 for two more years before replacing the transmission. So I'd just drive it for now. If you notice "clashing" or "grinding" on the gears then start to worry.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 1:11 PM on December 4, 2009

I agree with the above that a little metal isn't totally abnormal. Has the tranny fluid ever been changed before? Probably not, so who knows where the flakes came from.

I'm with Brockles. Also I'd baby it from here on out - don't grind the gears and do any hard shifting.
posted by Big_B at 1:32 PM on December 4, 2009

The plural of anecdote is not data. Having said that, I know two people with 2002 Ford Focus cars who had to replace their transmission after 88,000 miles.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:34 PM on December 4, 2009

Best answer: Okay, here's what I'm hearing:

#1: you have a standard transmission;
#2: you drove it stupidly and hard when you first got it;
#3: this is the first time the transmission has been changed.

So here's what you do: you keep driving it as your new, mature self, and don't worry about it. Honestly. There is indeed a magnet in the pan to catch shavings and keep 'em from causing harm. Do not let this bother you or stop you from doing maintenance, and in particular please do change the timing belt if it's time according to your maintenance schedule -- some (not all) of the Ford Focus engines are "interference" engines, where a broken timing belt will cause valves to collide with the pistons, turning a simple broken belt into a useless engine. Frankly, I'm a lot more worried about that on your behalf right now, since you said you haven't done it.

Incidentally, you should never, ever trust any service provider implicitly. Always get second opinions/estimates, because even the best service providers with the best intentions sometimes need extra business or let the quality of their service slip.
posted by davejay at 2:07 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Let me improve that last bit: Always get second opinions/estimates, because even the best service providers with the best intentions sometimes need extra business or let the quality of their service slip or simply make mistakes.
posted by davejay at 2:07 PM on December 4, 2009

Best answer: If you were my customer, I'd put in some Lucas synthetic gear oil. Lucas makes some great products that have helped out quite a few beat up motors and worn out transmissions for some of my customers that haven't had the money for a rebuild or replacement.

Also, the bottom line is that if there isn't any grinding or horrible noise, then your transmission is probably still ok. That humming could be something like a clutch release bearing which is something that'd be replaced as a maintenance item when your clutch is replaced.
If it doesn't grind when you shift, you're probably still ok.
posted by Jon-o at 4:16 PM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your excellent advice, and putting my mind at ease. It is very much appreciated. I feel much better knowing that I can hold onto the car, and that if anything is wrong with the transmission, the symptoms will most likely become more noticeable over time (as opposed to just conking out in the middle of highway 300 miles from home.)

I also double checked the Ford Scheduled Maintenance Guide and found out they don't even recommend changing the timing belt until 120,000 miles, so bonus there, I guess (I'd been following what I thought was conventional wisdom saying that it should be changed between 60,000 and 90,000.)

Anyway, thanks again.
posted by Rewind at 4:27 PM on December 4, 2009

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