It was a commute like any other, winding to work in my 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon. I was nearing the office when I heard the crunch. Now, the transmission problems in the ‘02-’05 are pretty well known among Subaru owners. If I had known this, I might not have become one.
Nevertheless, second gear sounded like a WWI-era machine gun, and I wasn’t panicking. I wasn’t. Really. Primarily, because I’ve already had one of those “if I’d have known, I’d never have bought this” moments when a snap ring inside my center diff kamikazed itself and cost me $1,900, so the Subaru drivetrain didn’t leave much room to disappoint me further, even though my car hasn’t crested 160k. This was like becoming a parent, but for the second time. Still a big deal, but without so much shock. Secondarily, because I drive a manual transmission, and I can just skip broken gears if I want to.
Then I found an on-ramp and subconsciously shifted back into second, causing the rest of the gears to follow suit. I wasn’t going to get much more life out of this gearbox. It was time for a replacement. And since I’m poor and didn’t really care to pay anyone to drop the gears out of my car again, I decided it was time to learn the art of the transmission swap.
Actually, that wasn’t the first thing I did. First I did my taxes. So I could have some actual money to pay for a used transmission.
I didn’t expect my first problem to be finding one. Search as I might through forums local and national, scrub as I tried through Craigslist and Ebay, strive as I did to keep up with the KC salvage entries, I couldn’t find anything within my price range. Part of the problem was finding one with the exact final drive gear ratio of the bugeye WRX, which only existed for a few years. Sure, everything in the EJ engine series would bolt right up, but I’d have to replace the rear diff unless I got it right.
Finally I got a response on one of my “Please Help Me Not Have to Sell My Favorite Car in the World” threads: a phone number and a text request. The guy was local.
Yes, he had just finished a rebuilt transmission. Yes, he could sell it to me for $500. And yes, he would accept a deposit until my tax refund came back. Two hours later, I checked my bank account, and it had, only a week after filing. Sometimes things are just taken care of.
I picked up my transmission the next day, then spent a week researching and pleading with my gearheaded friends for help.
Only one of those friends, Chad, was available that Saturday, but he had a garage, and has owned and worked on his ‘66 Mustang coupe since high school, so I was thrilled. I’m used to doing all my work in the street. By myself. Alone. This would be the biggest job I’d ever attempted, so a smooth floor, a roof over my head, and a knowledgeable friend were all welcome.
Then Chad threw out his back. I could still use the garage, and Chad would provide what help he could, but I would do all the literal heavy lifting. Okay, okay, I was prepared for complications.
It was about 11am, and we set to work. Unbolting wasn’t difficult. The negative battery terminal, intercooler, starter, slave cylinder, these all passed in a blur. Smart guy Chad collected the bolts to put in labeled bags, even the stub of the one I broke off in the intercooler, so we could buy a replacement later.
Then it was time to jack up the car and get low. Here’s the part where we used pieces of wood on the jack to get as much real estate out of the jack stands as we could. It was tedious. The car in the air, we pulled the front wheels, then the CV axles, the exhaust, drive shaft, and most of the subframe. We drained the filthy, stinking, glittery gear oil from the old box.
Oh dang. It was time to pull the transmission. And the borrowed transmission jack, which is remarkably like a tiny toy scissor-lift, would not fit between the elements of the subframe which were actually holding up the transmission.
Believe it or not, we actually lost about an hour on this before we built a shim arrangement out of wood and bailing wire that would fit between the jack and the transmission. Somehow, it actually worked. Now for the bell housing bolts. Before I knew it, the only thing holding that transmission in was friction.
It’s an odd feeling when the instructions tell you to hit something with a hammer, but that was the next step. Brace a 2×4 against the pitch stop bracket on the transmission and start wailing on the other end. It’s an even odder feeling when it works.
Soon a had a tiny fissure appeared between the bell housing and the engine, and it grew and grew until I could get a pry bar inside. This I handed to Chad so I could lower and pull back the jack as needed.
Now it was free. I lowered the jack as far as it would go and moved to roll it out from under the car before very quickly realizing that it would never fit. With the already too-low car and the wooden shim, the transmission would have to be rolled off of the jack and onto the floor, which I then scratched dragging the 125 lb gearbox into the open. Sorry, Chad.
We had to switch over a few brackets, but we were moving now. We had officially reached halfway, and all we had to do was start rolling back downhill. After, of course, we got the new transmission up onto the jack and the shim, a problem which probably cost us another half hour.
Back to that downhill part. Planets aligned, I got behind the transmission and pushed. Everything stopped. We had a sizeable gap between the bell housing and engine and no idea why. Were we supposed to use the bolts to “press” the input shaft into the clutch? Perhaps the angle was off, and the two threaded studs coming through the bottom of the bell housing were holding things up?
I added pressure. We looked online. We hit things with hammers. The gearbox would not budge into place. As I was watching yet another youtube video, I glanced down to find that it was 12:30 in the morning.
We’d been working on this for thirteen hours, and even if we figured it out, it would still be another two or three hours before it was back together. I accepted defeat and Chad’s offer for a ride home.
Sundays are off-days. I wasn’t going to mess with that. Monday I couldn’t get up to the car, which was 20 minutes away. But Tuesday, buddy, Tuesday I was back up there, and with help in the form of my friend Trever, a guy who despite being several years my junior, has owned about a thousand cars and has big plans for his current F350.
And we knew exactly what was wrong. The splines just weren’t lining up. No big deal. Just put the transmission in first and rotate the output shaft until things locked into place, then slide everything home.
Except it didn’t work. We used the drive shaft as a wrench to turn the transmission, but it still wouldn’t budge. With the benefit of sleep on my side, I thought it through critically. Maybe there was just something in the way. I needed to investigate.
So we pulled back the transmission and I reached in. And sure enough, the path through the clutch and into the flywheel was blocked by a small piece of metal. Diagrams! Where are my bloody diagrams?
A quick lookup of the clutch system revealed that it could only be the pilot bearing, which must have slipped free from the center of the flywheel while I was hitting things with a hammer. I blame Clarkson.
Anyway, bearings are supposed to be pressed in, right? Gently and hydraulically? We settled on brute force with a socket, since we didn’t want to have to take the clutch out. I’ve never done a clutch, and I saw springs in there. I got shell-shocked flashbacks of the time I tried to work on drum brakes.
Thankfully, the bearing complied. We took our positions, Chad at the top to check on alignment, Trever on the drive shaft to line up the splines, and me at the jack to do the shoving. With a satisfying clunk, it all slid home. Easy.
I won’t say that bolting everything back up was rainbows and unikitties. Trever had a rather embarrassing time aligning a CV axle. We remembered the hard way that the bell housing bolts were different lengths. Chad broke his new screw extractor while trying to get that bolt out of the intercooler. And I put in way too much gear oil. You could have saved Amtrak with as much gear oil as we ended up draining back out of that transmission. Thanks, parts store guy.
But we got everything back together. Somewhere in the midst, we even got some shots with our kill.
Yeah, it was late.
It was really late.
Finally, the car was on the ground. I backed it out of the garage, thrilled that it worked. We had just changed a transmission, for crying out loud. All we do is win!
Before I was out of the subdivision, I knew something was wrong. But more on that soon, including a 500 hp Chevy Trailblazer ambulance and why I ended up in the hospital.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.