Piston Slap: What To Do With The $550 Volvo?


Danny writes:


Last spring I bought a 2005 Volvo S60 with transmission issues for $550, thinking it would be an easy fix and flip that would provide a little extra spending money for my other car projects. At first, I installed a used transmission from a salvage yard, and the car drove well for a few weeks, then it wouldn’t move at all. The ATF looked like someone mixed chocolate milk into the fluid, so I returned that transmission and got my money back.

I then took the original transmission (Aisin AW55-50) to a rebuilder, who has had it since September. It took ages to source good rebuild parts for decent pricing, and now I’m still waiting for the transmission to be rebuilt, as the shop is backed up with other customer projects. My questions are:

  • Do I remain patient while this car takes up space in my garage?
  • Will the rebuilt transmission prove trustworthy?
  • Should I instead part out this extraordinarily clean (though boring) sedan, cut my losses and get my shop space back?

Sajeev answers:

The one perk of Danny’s situation is that there’s no wrong answer: buying an “extraordinarily clean” car for $550 means you don’t have a lot of money tied up into this investment. Hauling it off to the junkyard would be a net loss, but parting it out and selling the good stuff on eBay/Facebook Marketplace will likely earn you money.

Parting it is the smart move for your checkbook. But that kinda stinks, as most car folks prefer to save a clean car from doom. We enthusiasts are usually aware of a wide array of repair options, but unfortunately they all have pitfalls.

Danny’s experience hits on common problems with both local junkyards and local transmission rebuilders: accessibility to the right part at the right time is almost always a crapshoot. It’s not a big deal if you need a gearbox for a vintage Ford or Chevy, but it gets dicier the further you get away from a C6 or a TH400. I reckon your bad gearbox from the junkyard, and logistical issues with local rebuilders, is far from uncommon. It doesn’t help that this particular transmission from this era of Volvo doesn’t have the best reputation, either.

The superior alternative might be buying a low mileage, used transmission from an online parts aggregator like Car Part, or the publicly traded junkyard juggernaut known as LKQ. LKQ seems to get the best quality/age/mileage stuff for modern automobiles, shelves it in their warehouse, and makes it stupid easy to purchase. I’ve had reasonably good luck with clicking around LKQ’s website (or buying from them on eBay Motors) and just waiting for the stuff to arrive at my door.

Their warranty is pretty decent (especially if you pay a mechanic to install it) and sometimes they deliver the parts straight to your door. That’s what I recommend to Danny, and even though it’ll cost more, paying a shop to install it might be the smartest path given the warranty scenario. That’s the type of servicing that really helps on resale too, which I expect you’d do with this Volvo sometime in the near future.

Let’s step back and list all the choices in this particular automotive conundrum, with their pros and cons laid out for all to behold:

  • Local Junkyard: Limited selection, but sometimes you find a diamond in the rough for dirt cheap.
  • Local Rebuilder: You’re at the mercy of their level of staffing/customer service, but the convenience can’t be beat.
  • Online Junkyard: Parts will generally cost more, but you aren’t limited by local inventory and can spend more for something with less mileage.
  • Online Rebuilder: Can have a better quality product and customer service than a local, but it can cost more, and take more time when factoring in a local mechanic’s time for installation.

Odds are I’ve missed a few options in Danny’s sketchy transmission scenario, so I hand it over to you, esteemed members of the Hagerty Community.

Bonus! A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom.

Our very own Eddy Eckart brought up a compelling alternative for this particular application. So let’s get right to it:

“The Aisin five-speed autos found in these Volvos can be problematic. Sajeev has good advice above, and I’d add that finding the newest transmission that’s compatible with your car will help, too, as incremental changes were made over the years. Also, manual swaps are also an option, and they’re more reliable than the automatics in those cars. I have a 2001 V70 T5, and though I have been fortunate to make it over 160K miles on my original automatic box, a five-speed manual swap has always been on my radar if the need ever arose. Parts for the swap can be wrangled together for under $1500, and the car will need a tune. I’d be hard pressed to think that taking the automatic to get repaired would be any less.”

Have a question you’d like answered on Piston Slap? Send your queries to pistonslap@hagerty.comgive us as much detail as possible so we can help! Keep in mind this is a weekly column, so if you need an expedited answer, please tell me in your email.


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    I would definitely go the junkyard transmission route if you can find one. Automatics are complicated beasts, and finding people who can reliably rebuild them is tricky. Usually if a junkyard transmission is toast, you can tell by looking at the fluid

    #1 what caused the first transmission failure. #2 what caused the second failure?

    When you have an issue like chocolate milk that may be an indication of water in the fluid. The way that often gets in is due to a bad transmission cooler.

    You need to find what killed the transmission and find is it internal or external.

    If you buy used take a look at the new one. Pull the pan and have the transmission flushed to check it out. Used parts are a fish but that is why you save money. At time you may install more than one. But that is the risk.

    Not rebuilds have less failures but it can happen there too.

    In getting a used part many will have the mileage listed so check for that too.

    In some cases like a Ford or GM you can buy new for a reasonable price. But imports are seldom cheap as little aftermarket.

    If you are tired of the car, selling it or parting it out might be best. However if you love it, sourcing the newest transmission you can find is best plus as hyperv6 said you need to find the reason for the failures.

    If the fluid looks like chocolate milk it is because it has been contaminated with coolant. Most likely the transmission cooler is integrated into the radiator and there is an internal leak allowing coolant to enter the transmission fluid lines. There was nothing wrong with the first used transmission you installed, until it was destroyed in the same manner as the original one. Replace the radiator AND the transmission and your problem will be solved.

    Oddly, the fluid on the original transmission looked really good, and its failure symptoms were different than the one I got from a junkyard. The original would operate normally till the car was up to temp, then it would bang into shifts and flare between shifts. The junkyard transmission failed suddenly, and the car had no drive at all once it failed.

    While the first and second failure sound unrelated because of different symptoms the second is clearly connected to the common failure of the radiator to trans connection which are now usually aluminum with plastic. Whatever choice you make in terms of repairing the Transmission you definitely want to replace that radiator! No warranty will cover the trans if external sources are the cause of the transmission failing and radiator fluid in the trans will do that quickly and catastrophically. Best of luck.

    You might also want to get an opinion on your transmission dilemma from an aftermarket Volvo parts supplier or a shop that specializes in Volvos. As someone said earlier a $550 investment in a nice car needing only tranny work is not too bad a situation. But, how much longer are you prepared to wait for the rebuild?

    If it was mine… I’d do the 5-speed swap and go 24 hours of Lemons racing with a group of friends! 🙂

    A couple of comments:

    Depending on where you are in the country, there are very knowledgeable shops. There’s a specialist in Oregon that has done many of the auto-to-manual swaps and has the network (Rolodex, showing my age, still reach for that word though it’s been 30 years since I had one). I just redid the transmission and transfer case of a 1992 Mercedes 300TE. They were shipped out to different specialists in California, took two months, and now have 8k uneventful smiles on them. There are undoubtedly a handful of shops in California, Oregon and probably a few other states hording NOS parts. Get into the FB groups and either offload your not-running but cream puff S60 to someone who will literally need to bring a trailer or find the specialist and have it one-and-done. There’s enough of a following up here in the PNW that a running, clean S60 will fetch 7-8k and if it’s really a clean car, fettle it and sell on that site where people pay bananas money for the cleanest cars. Parting it out should be your last option.

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