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Seeing red with some import transmissions

Going head-to-head with one oddball machine whose designers colored outside the lines.
Sunday, August 1, 2010 - 00:00

Going head-to-head with one oddball machine whose designers colored outside the lines.

Motor Age Garage 1993 Acura Vigor transmissions problems noisy transmissions no-starts vehicle won't start car won't start fixing vehicle repair shop training technician training automotive aftermarket

The 1972 Civic was so tiny that three football players at my hometown high school could pick it up and carry it with a cheerleader sitting in the driver's seat. The 1972 Civic (it was called the H1300 in Japan) almost didn't get off the ground. Honda had an earlier model, dubbed the N360, which had some serious problems that all but threatened the car company with extinction. There were a few different Hondas designed and built in the 1960s and marketed overseas. The name "Civic" originally meant "a car created for citizens and cities." It wasn't created for the service bay! I remember having to remove the driver side engine mount on the first Civic I ever worked on to replace the drive belt because the belt encircled it.

Having grown up in the 1960s and launching my automotive career in the early '70s, I still can smell the exhaust and feel the G-force acceleration of those muscle-bound Mustangs, Malibus and Chargers. The generation we call the millennials is made up of youngsters who are less likely to be poking around under the hood of a fire breather than the guys I rubbed shoulders with back then.

And today's "muscle car" tends to be an Asian or European make with dual overhead camshafts, fluorescent interior trim and a fat chrome muffler hanging low in the back.

Honda introduced the Acura brand to the U.S. market in 1986 with the goal of creating a separate luxury division for its products. They began with the Legend sedan and two Integra models. Some of the early '90s Acuras tended to be less than savory to the motoring public, and the Acura Vigor only survived production for three years — 1992-94. But there still are quite a few of these peculiar machines on the road.

If you know somebody who owns one, make sure they have the timing belt replaced before it gives out. The five-banger in this baby isn't a free-spinner, and the damage can be extensive. But engines are still available from online suppliers and salvage yards.

When it comes to transmissions, the principles of propelling a vehicle have remained fairly consistent (CVT and hybrid technology notwithstanding), but the Honda folks kind of colored outside the lines when they put this machine on their drawing board.

This month's article revolves around an Acura we tangled with at my shop. While there are other vehicles out there with vaguely similar powertrain configurations (Eldorados and Quantums), this one turned out to be a very interesting study and a nasty but beneficial learning experience.

One Car's Story

My brother-in-law purchased the Vigor for a family car as a one-owner cherry when it had just more than 130,000 on the clock. It drove like a dream with frosty cold air, crisp acceleration and a low center of gravity that gave it a good solid feel when driving down the road. His previous family ride had been a 1987 Accord, and because he had squeezed so many miles out of that one, he figured he couldn't go wrong with the Acura.

He drove the Vigor for a week before the engine locked up and left him stranded on an interstate. He lives a few hours from my shop, so he had it towed to a shop he patronized in his area. The techs at that shop told him the Vigor had sludged up, starved for oil and the rest is history. Doing some verbal research at the Acura dealership, he was told by a member of the service department that the failure he had experienced wasn't all that unusual for a Vigor with that many miles on it. Whether that's true or not, it didn't give him good feelings about having paid as much as he did for the car.

It took $2,000 changing hands to get the Vigor back on the road with a new 5-cylinder powerplant. It gave another twitchy problem or two over the next 75,000 miles, but nothing major went sour until one day when it suddenly decided it wouldn't pull away from the gas pump. The transmission would make noise, but the car wouldn't move. My brother-in-law towed it back to his house, ordered a transmission for it from an online supplier and let the car gather dust for a while.

When we began our transmissions/brakes/steering and suspension semester here at the shop at school, he dollied the car down to South Alabama with the transmission on a pallet in the back of his pickup. I put a couple of students to work replacing it. How hard could it be?

With the red Vigor on the lift, the transmission hangs on the backside of the engine like a rear wheel drive platform but with no driveshaft. The output is a splined shaft pointing forward right next to the torque converter, and that shaft (with a master spline, no less) is fitted into a matching internally splined input to the final drive gearbox. The final drive gears are housed in an aluminum case that is bolted to the side of the 5-cylinder engine with the CV axles exiting the gearbox laterally as they feed power to the front wheel hubs. The flex plate bolts (there are eight of them) are 6mm and are removed by yanking an access plate from the bell housing below and behind the master cylinder. That's the big picture.

As a side note on similar transmission situations, on the adjoining lift two of my other students had another red Honda, a 2002 Odyssey van with a 5-speed transaxle that exhibited a harsh and delayed shift to third gear. Our diagnostics and research led us to yank that one and send it out to have it rebuilt. We don't always send them out (another pair of students had an overhaul going on an F-150's E4OD in the unit repair area), but in the interest of time and other worksheets that needed completing, we shot the tranny to a really good transmission shop in a neighboring city.

Suffice to say that removing the transmission from any Honda isn't for the faint hearted. Labor guide time calls for eight hours on the Odyssey, and it took that long just to get this one out. The H frame has a lot of things connected to it besides mounts, control arms and the rack, and the transaxle itself has a gaggle of connectors and other stuff to unhook. And like the Vigor, this one has eight 6mm flex plate bolts.

One annoying part of the van transmission snatch was that our OTC engine support fixture wouldn't work on the Odyssey. The fender ledge we were used to seeing on most vehicles was almost nonexistent on the Odyssey. I had to break out the Lincoln crackerbox welder and build a custom designed engine support fixture for the van out of square tubing and flat iron. It wasn't perfect, but it worked.

The Failure — Finding and Defining

Back to the Vigor. When Frank, one of my students, got the transaxle out of the Vigor, he found the problem instantly. The splined shaft and its companion socket in the final drive are supposed to be well greased on assembly, and there is a seal in place to retain the grease. But this one had long since been running dry and had wiped out the splines on the transmission as well as in the final drive. Had this happened when the engine was replaced? It seemed likely.

It was good that we had a replacement transmission, but now we would also need a final drive gearbox. We located one with a warranty at an online supplier for just $95. That was peachy, but the shipping was another $60. One way or another, it was signed, sealed and delivered, and the internal splines on the new part arrived liberally coated with what looked like black molybdenum grease.

With the customer's OK, we decided to replace both CV axles for good measure. Getting the gearbox unbolted from the side of the engine required the removal of the A/C compressor and the lowering of one side of the H frame — it was a pain, but not without gain.

Now we had our components, but the wire harness from the original transmission had to be installed on the replacement unit.

Meanwhile, the Odyssey transaxle received seals, clutches and one drum over at the transmission shop, driving the original $1,350 estimate up by about $300. As a belt-and-suspenders measure, I talked the Odyssey owner into a new radiator for two reasons. First, the transmission had probably filed some metal particles away in the recesses of the transmission cooler, and second, it's never a bad idea to replace the plastic-and-aluminum radiator on a high mileage vehicle. We killed two birds with one stone on that deal, and the name brand radiator was a surprisingly reasonable $109 at our local parts supplier. We were getting the Odyssey back on the road, but it wouldn't be cheap.

Going Back In

Both the Odyssey and the Acura were ready to re-stab, and these two red vehicles were soon to be off their respective lifts and on the road. But there were some stripped and/or broken bolts on both these vehicles, (the Acura transaxle had to be removed to retrieve the snapped off head of a flex plate bolt because there's no room for it in the bell housing). Remember, the window for the removal of the flex plate bolts on the Acura is up top, so anything that's dropped disappears into that hole.

Frank stuffed a rag in the hole below each bolt to prevent this disaster from happening again, using new bolts with a gentle application of blue thread locker to prevent any self-removing bolt problems.

The transmission on the Odyssey went back in easily enough, but my support fixture didn't provide the raising and lowering of the engine that would have been optimum. The students had to work with a tripod screw jack and a transmission jack to jockey the powertrain into place for reinstallation of the H frame. One of the H frame bolts holes had fouled up threads, so we had to break out a 14mm 1.5 thread pitch tap to fix the hole. The Acura made it off the lift and back on the highway while students Lee and Amanda were putting the finishing touches on the Odyssey.

The Test Drive Hitch

With the Acura back in one piece and the transmission full of fluid, it drove like a dream, but the brakes pulled heavily to the right. Using some disk brake pressure gauges we found 1,200 psi on the driver side and 3,500 psi on the passenger side brakes. Something was causing the fluid pressure not to make it to the driver side wheel, thus the pull.

Figuring the brake hose had been internally torn (sometimes a caliper comes off the S hook and hangs by the hose), we replaced the brake hose but still got a disparity in pressures. The pull wasn't dangerous, just annoying. It was evident that the four months the Acura had spent waiting for the transmission swap had caused issues with the ABS unit. The owner opted to hope that steady use would melt that problem away, and as I drove the car a few more times the trouble did seem less pronounced.

Both Honda transmission jobs were very instructive and called on the students to be creative in the way they attacked the problems they encountered.

Richard McCuistian is an ASE-certified Master Auto Technician and was a professional mechanic for more than 25 years. Richard is now an auto mechanics instructor at LBW Community College/MacArthur Campus in Opp, Ala. E-mail him at rwm19@mail.com.

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