Common Types of Transmission Problems

If you own a car, there is a good chance the words “Transmission Problems” elicit a feeling of fear and dread. A million thoughts rush through your head as you start to see the dollar signs flashing because you just know this will cost you an arm and a leg. But, what are some preventative steps to take and what should you be looking for when it comes to your transmission?

Basic Transmission Components

Your transmission literally has hundreds of systematically placed tiny pieces that makes up the entirety of your transmission. While all of these pieces are imperative to overall function, your transmission is really comprised of a few key systems:

Image - detail of automatic transmission shifter.

  • Bell Housing: this is the cone shaped metal case you see underneath your hood. If you’re driving a rear-wheel drive car, it will be mounted underneath the vehicle just behind the engine. If you have a front wheel drive car, it is to the side of the engine.
  • Gears – Even if you aren’t shifting them, an automatic transmission had gears too. They are split into main gears and planetary gears.
  • Fluid – Transmission fluid is extremely important to an automatic transmission. A majority of vehicles come with red transmission fluid which can be helpful when looking for leaks.
  • Filter – The fluid has to be clean in order to shift the gears at the correct time. To keep everything fresh and clean, your transmission has a filter to catch any dirt.

Now that you have a better understanding of some of the most important pieces, you can start to look at what may not be working.

Commonly Reported Issues

Little or No Response

Have you ever noticed that your vehicle struggles, hesitates, or refuses to shift into gear? If you have, there is absolutely a problem. As soon as you shift your car from drive, it should immediately go into the desired gear. When it comes to automatic transmissions, if you notice that when shifting into drive or park there is a delay before feeling the gear engage, this is a transmission-based concern. Manual transmissions may have some lacking response issues, but once you shift into gear, the engine’s RPMs will surge. The car won’t actually move as fast as the engine may sound like it is. This is typically caused by a faulty clutch that requires replacement, but could indicate more severe problems.

Leaking or Low Fluid

A benefit to a leaky transmission is that it is relatively easy to identify because it can be seen by mechanics and non-mechanics alike. Though it may be easy to identify, it should be fixed as soon as possible. Automatic Transmission fluid (ATF) is the life-blood of the transmission. It lubricates, cleans, and conditions the seals. Without it, or with low fluid levels, the engine could seize up and stop working altogether.

As mentioned earlier, this fluid is bright red in color and smells somewhat sweet (assuming everything is working properly). If you discover this in your driveway, you’ve got a hole that needs to be fixed – pronto! However, if the fluid is dark, or has a burnt smell, it is time to get the fluid changed and repairs may be required. You can confirm the levels of fluid by taking your vehicle on a short drive, and then checking the dipstick while on level ground. Unlike motor oil, transmission oil is not burned off or consumed by the car, therefore a low level is indicative of a leak. It is recommended to top off low level fluid, even with a leak present, to make sure there is enough fluid for everything to work properly.

Though it is quite a leap to assume this means there is a problem with your transmission, it always means there is a problem with something under the hood. There are sensors present in many areas of your vehicle’s engine that alert the computer if it senses unusual activity. The sensors located on a transmission are very sensitive and can pick up the slightest jerks and vibrations – even things you aren’t able to feel or see.

Check Engine Light Appears

If your check engine light rears its ugly head, don’t wait for it to go away… It won’t. Take your vehicle in for an inspection right away. A mechanic will be able to use diagnostic tools to check your car’s computer for errors, and then interpret what the errors mean. Whatever you decide to do, don’t assume the check engine light is meaningless because it might be warning you of a potentially serious problem.

Whining, Humming, and Clunking

It is tough to predict exactly what your car will sound like when there is trouble with the transmission, but if you can say to yourself “I’ve never heard that before,” you may have a problem worth investigating. Though the sounds themselves may vary between different makes and models, but you’ll likely hear a humming, buzzing, or whining sound.

AAMCO 800 Pieces Commercial - Transmission in pieces


Manual transmissions will emit slightly more mechanical sounds which are louder and abrupt sounding. A clucking noise when shifting gears almost always lies within the transmission, but if you’re hearing the clunking sound coming from the underside of your vehicle, the issue may lie with the constant velocity joint or the differential.

Keep Up Your Recommended Maintenance Schedule

It is important to always keep up with your regular maintenance schedule for your vehicle. Many times major repairs can be avoided by simply maintaining your car. Don’t wait until you have the time to address these issues, because they won’t get better on their own. Failure to regularly maintain your automatic transmission will almost certainly shorten the life expectancy of your transmission.

Other Articles About Car Maintenance & Repair

AAMCO – A History Built on Transmissions

Car Maintenance on a Budget

Watch this video – see a transmission explode in slow motion.