Automotive Transmission Repair Shops

SIC 7537

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in the installation, repair, or sales and installation of automotive transmissions. The sale of transmissions and related parts is considered incidental to the installation or repair of these products.

Industry Snapshot

By the late 2000s and early 2010s, developments in U.S. automotive technology and design had ensured that both manual and automatic transmissions were among the most reliable parts of an automobile. But the complexity of the transmission as a system of many precisely interrelated components, as well as the difficulty of diagnosing and correcting faults, meant the problems that did occur were unlikely to be tackled by drivers in their own garages. Instead, this situation created a market for professional mechanics specializing in transmission repair. Most repairs were down by small repair shops or major franchise chains such as AAMCO Transmission.

Organization and Structure

Routine maintenance demanded the periodic checking and changing of automatic transmission or transaxle oil, and possibly the replacement of the transmission filter. As with engine oil, transmission fluid could be checked by means of a dipstick. The detection of signs of contamination of the transmission fluid, by metal, dirt, moisture, or friction material from internal parts, was an important step because such contamination could lead to rapid wear of parts and to premature transmission failure.

Inspection of the transmission fluid also provided an invaluable guide to the diagnosis of existing or potential problems. Fluid that was milky typically became intermixed with the engine coolant; fluid that was blackened or had a burnt odor indicated serious damage to the transmission; and fluid with a light brown color usually had broken down, which led to a wide variety of further problems.

Manual transmissions required the operation of a clutch mechanism subject to high levels of wear and tear. Among the problems tackled by transmission specialists working on manual transmissions were pulsating or stiff clutch pedals; clutches that grabbed, chattered, dragged, or slipped because of improper clutch adjustment; a binding clutch release mechanism; a broken engine mount; or oil or grease on a clutch disc. Repairs to the clutch often required the removal of drive axles, transaxles, and even entire engines. Other problems found in manual transmissions were noise, leaks, grinding of gears during shifting, difficulty in making gear shifts, or transmissions locked in one gear or jumping out of the gear selected.

In automatic transmissions, the most common adjustments that could be made with the transmission still in place were adjustments to the transmission band, the shift linkage, or the neutral safety switch. More major internal problems required the removal of the entire transmission. In the removal and disassembly of all kinds of transmissions, the utmost care had to be taken to avoid damaging the component parts. In addition, any worn or damaged parts needed to be replaced, or else the reassembled transmission would soon require another disassembly for a future problem.

Background and Development

The earliest automobiles required constant but low-level maintenance. The earliest drivers were either enthusiastic enough to perform the necessary minor adjustments themselves or wealthy enough to employ a mechanic for this purpose. The earliest automobiles were also slow. Only with the advent of faster vehicles did transmission technology--designed specifically to maximize engine efficiency by adjusting performance in coordination with changes in speed--become an important feature of automotive design, and thus a sophisticated mechanism requiring expertise to maintain, repair, or replace.

The first transmissions were manual. Easier to drive but harder to fix, automatic transmissions began appearing in the United States in significant numbers after World War II. At first, auto manufacturers were reluctant to adopt what they considered to be an overly complex gadget, but its popularity with consumers soon convinced them.

By the early 1970s, transmission repair specialists were a solidly established sector of automotive mechanics. However, at this time the automotive repair industry became the number one source of consumer complaints about incompetence and dishonesty. In the field of transmission repairs, the heavily advertised AAMCO chain suffered from bad publicity due to the number of franchises found guilty of some form of systematic abuse of their customers. Some franchises offered free diagnoses, on the basis of which transmissions were dismantled and then not rebuilt until the consumer consented to the performance of repairs that often proved to be both unnecessary and expensive. Many AAMCO franchise holders were not experienced mechanics, so there was no guarantee that the work performed would be competent. All franchise holders were also pressured to achieve an assigned average repair order -- something they could not do without performing unnecessary repairs at least some of the time.

Consumer protection groups and changes in legislation curbed the grossest of these abuses, but the entire automotive repair industry in the United States remained largely unregulated toward the end of the 20th century. In the case of transmissions, consumers had little choice but to trust that a given mechanic performed repairs in a conscientious and competent way. As Arthur P. Glickman noted in Mr. Badwrench, "The unknowing motorist whose car won't shift or shifts badly can easily believe that his car is in need of $250 to $600 worth of repairs, though the problem may actually be minor." Conversely, however, the complexity of transmission systems presented acute difficulties for mechanics who had to produce honest estimates before probing for problem areas among many interrelated parts.

In 1998, 10.7 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. came with a manual transmission. This decreased to roughly 8 to 10 percent by early 2008, according to data accumulated by J.D. Power and Associates in Auto Tech. This reflected a major shift from the 1970s, when, because of sharp increases in oil and gas prices, manual transmissions dominated the new car market. Manual transmissions were far more fuel-efficient, and were standard on small foreign imports, which became popular during the efficiency-aware '70s. But as prices settled and automatic transmissions became more fuel-efficient and increasingly advanced, they rose in again in popularity through the 1980s and into the 1990s.

According to Dun & Bradstreet figures in 2007, there were 10,162 establishments in the automobile transmission repair shop industry with total annual sales of nearly $2.2 billion and 35,936 workers. Sole proprietorships accounted for 14.5 percent of establishments while more than 62 percent had between two and four employees. California led all states with 1,376 establishments followed by Texas with 1,100 establishments.

By the mid 1990s, automatic transmissions appeared in more than 85 percent of new American cars though this increased to about 90 to 92 percent by the late 2000s. Historically, a gasoline price spike often swayed drivers to switch to manual transmissions as they had in the 1970s due to their better fuel-efficiency. While the new automatics of the late 1990s were smoother shifting and more fuel-efficient than their predecessors, manuals were at that time still more fuel-efficient than even the best automatic. However significant improvements in the next decade brought the fuel performance of automatic transmissions up to the level of manual transmissions.

Current Conditions

According to industry statistics, there were 8,726 establishments engaged in automotive transmission repair in 2009. These firms employed 32,644 and generated over $2.34 billion in revenues. Nearly three-fourths (74 percent) of establishments employed less than five workers, and nearly 95 percent employed less than 10 workers.

Times were lean for transmission repair shops during the late 2000s. The United States experienced an economic crisis beginning in 2008, which carried over into 2009. As mortgage foreclosures soared and the unemployment rate jumped above 10 percent, U.S. consumer confidence fell dramatically. As a result, many vehicle owners, in an effort to tap their spending, put off routine maintenance on cars and trucks and even let needed repairs go unfixed until the economy improved. In response, transmission repair shops cut overhead by trimming employment numbers and hours and attempted to lure in customers with special offers and discounts. As the economy began to right itself in 2010, with slow recovery expect in 2011, transmission shops were hoping to see some pent-up demand return to their doors as consumers attended to needed repairs and maintenance.

Industry Leaders

In the early 2010s, the leader in automotive transmission repair was AAMCO Transmissions Inc., headquartered in Horsham, Pennsylvania. The franchiser had roughly 900 independently owned and operated locations throughout the United States. AAMCO is a subsidiary of American Drivetrain Systems, which is itself a subsidiary of American Capital, an investment firm. Cottman Transmission is also a subsidiary of American Drivetrain Systems and is headquartered in Horsham, Pennsylvania. Cottman has about 190 franchise locations in the United States.

Workforce

Transmission specialists were generally regarded as among the most extensively trained and knowledgeable of all automotive mechanics. To perform their job adequately, they needed to be familiar with all features of transmission technology, including electronic, hydraulic, and computer systems. In addition, they had to understand automotive fundamentals outside their chosen area of expertise in order to distinguish between transmission-related problems and those stemming from some other source. In fact, transmission specialists had to achieve much the same level of coverage as National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (NAISE or ASE) certified "master mechanics" in order to perform repairs on what was arguably the most sensitive and complicated area of an automobile.

The many interrelated components of a transmission, and the different technologies regulating their functioning (hydraulics, electronics, and computers, for instance), means that transmission specialists have to be able to wield a wide variety of tools, including micrometers and telescoping gauges, special pullers, electronic stethoscopes, and transmission jacks. Transmission repair experts also face a variety of dangers on the job, from the weight and bulk of transmissions, the hot transmission fluid, and the asbestos from which clutch disc linings or friction material is made.

America and the World

Transmission specialists outside the United States were likely to encounter a significantly higher proportion of manual transmissions than their American counterparts. In addition, one important new design concept seen in some foreign cars was the continuously variable transmission (CVT), which featured an infinite number of driving ratios rather than the three, four, or five forward speeds found in traditional types. As James E. Duffy explained in Modern Automotive Mechanics, the CVT was "capable of increasing fuel economy approximately 25 percent because it keeps the engine at its most efficient operating speed. Engine RPM can be kept relatively constant. The engine does NOT have to accelerate through each gear, resulting in an almost smooth increase in vehicle speed." In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, automatic transmissions were beginning to make some headway in Europe, where most drivers still preferred manuals. But a new generation of high-tech, smoother shifting and more fuel-efficient automatics--not to mention congested roadways that make frequent shifting a hassle--had made the automatic transmission more popular overseas.

Research and Technology

Key areas of concern for the U.S. automotive industry in the 2000s included the automated manual transmission (AMT), which was a hybrid of automatic and manual shifting. AMTs have a typical manual transmission but employ an electronic shifting by a hydraulic system or electronic motor. This can either be done automatically or manually, via small paddles located on the steering wheel. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimated an efficiency improvement of 7 percent along with a savings over the vehicle's lifetime of $1,900.

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News and information about Automotive Transmission Repair Shops

New transmission-repair shop opens in the Spokane Valley
Journal of Business; October 24, 2002; 311 words
A specialty automotive-repair shop named% Cottman Transmission has opened in a building...Spokane, specializes in transmission and driveline service and...Penn.-based Cottman Transmission Systems Inc. That company...
TRANSMISSION SHOP OPENS
The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY); February 28, 1997; 170 words
Transmissions Plus, a transmission and general automotive repair shop has opened at 5781 Seneca St. in Elma. The new business is owned and operated by Jennifer L. Leatherbarrow.
ROCKDALE AUTOMOTIVE IS FULL-SERVICE SHOP
The Herald News - Joliet (IL); March 1, 1998; 310 words
...automotive shop? Rockdale Automotive is a complete automotive repair shop...is Rockdale Automotive's specialty...repair and transmission problems...only quality repair service and...automotive repairs, visit 22...
U of Colorado at Colorado Springs students give transmission repair shop a marketing tune up
Colorado Springs Business Journal; December 4, 2009; 700+ words
...business. One-Way Transmission, at 3470 Chelton...E, was a typical automotive shop -- cluttered and...to One- Way for transmission repair. Her mind immediately...said One-Way Transmission co-owner Robert...
Levant fire destroys auto repair shop
Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME); October 14, 2002; 586 words
...devoured his 3-week-old automotive repair business was too much...experienced."The Route 222 shop, A-1 Transmission and Automotive Repair, opened Sept. 26, when...customer vehicles and transmissions and parts to eight more...
LET ROCKDALE AUTOMOTIVE DIAGNOSE ENGINE PROBLEMS
The Herald News - Joliet (IL); February 22, 1998; 312 words
...automotive shop? Rockdale Automotive is a complete automotive repair shop...is Rockdale Automotive's speciality...repair and transmission problems...only quality repair service and...automotive repairs, visit 22...
Councilors can do business with town Houlton act calls for full disclosure
Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME); March 27, 2002; 612 words
...since Councilor Dale Flewelling, who operates an automotive transmission-repair shop, questioned if it was fair to penalize members...worth of work for the town to make an emergency repair to a police cruiser. None of the other councilors...
ASA Oregon to pursue shop licensing
Motor; September 1, 2000; 320 words
The Automotive Service Association...recently to pursue shop licensing in...motor vehicle repairs for a fee...that believe shop licensing should...limited to, automotive, collision and transmission repair shops. The Board...

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