“Dude, my truck just broke down pretty close to your house.”
This was the text I received on a random Tuesday morning at about 8 a.m. I was just starting my day hanging with The Autopian team in Slack, perusing the local bottom-of-the-barrel automotive ads, and looking for my next backyard rescue. The guy who sent the text has been a good buddy of mine for decades and has done quite a few Solid Friend Moves for me over the years.
Not springing up immediately to help him out was not an option.
It turns out that while stopping at a convenience store about five or six blocks from The Evil Shitbox Rescue Lair (under that volcano in Wilmington, NC), his 240,000-mile beaten-within-an-inch-of-its-life ‘02 Z71 Suburban had stopped moving. Oh yes, the engine would turn on and rev, but the wheels would not turn.
Was it a busted driveshaft or a grenaded rear end? The chances of either of those things happening whilst pulling into a convenience store, (even in a treacherously mountainous region of the world like Coastal NC), is highly unlikely. What seems way more likely: a (finally) dead transmission.
Handsome SUV To The Rescue
Knowing that my buddy was in a bad spot and had to get to work, our close proximity allowed me to get him into one of my vehicles to keep his schedule on track. As you may recall from my intro article a couple of years ago, I have the mid 00’s SUV that brings DT to his feet with applause and that he has called a “styling masterpiece”—an ‘04 Durango. [Ed Note: Vomit! -DT].
I bought it six years ago for $400 with a bad compressor bearing and 220,000 miles. It has been probably the most reliable vehicle I’ve ever owned (out of 117.) She’s up to 245,000 miles now (I don’t drive much) and has a failing original radiator and no AC, but it is otherwise solid as a tank. You just need to drive it with the heat blasting and the windows down if you’re doing extended stop-and-go.
Laziness Explanatory Sidebar: Yes, I know the above is pretty stupid, but I don’t have a lot of free time, I work from home, I have 10 cars, and the radiator install job is mid-pack on a long to-do list with the rest of the Gossin Motors fleet repairs. I do already have the replacement radiator though. It’s a radiator for the Hemi (with extra cooling capacity), even though I have the 4.7 V8 (Gen 2 Durango/Aspen hot tip: both fit.)
Okay, enough with the Durango, since this piece is actually about rescuing a green Z-71 Suburban.
Read The Lay Of The Land
Having 10 of my own cars that each need a repair or four, along with usually having a backyard rescue vehicle on deck, I really didn’t have the time during the week or space to have him tow that massive whale of a Chevy truck to my place to diagnose it. And that’s not even taking into account my usual Autopian new-guy freelancer duties, such as making copies, brewing coffee for the team in the office each day, grabbing donuts, mowing Torch’s lawn, walking Patrick George’s dog, grabbing Matt’s drycleaning (in Connecticut) and watering DT’s plants.
We decided that a AAA tow of the Z-71 to a local trans shop that’s run by another quasi-buddy of mine was the right call.
Well, that trans shop doesn’t play around. They do good work, fast, which means that the cost ain’t cheap. One $125 diagnostic fee and 24 hours later, we were informed that the fluid was cooked and so was the unit. They quoted a rebuild at over $2,000. We both knew this was a non-starter since you can get running 20+yr old GM trucks for $3,500 all day (albeit with a ton of miles), and besides, the condition of this ‘Burban was wicked rough.
My forlorn friend realized his trusty green Chevy’s days were up, so he placed a call to the local Pick ‘n Pull, which yielded a payout of about $400, but he would also have to pay for a tow to get it there. That was met with an eye-roll and a resounding “hard nope!”
I agreed. Not in this economy, baby. Hell, I bought a 12-pack of Modelo, another of Heineken and a pack of smokes at a gas station last weekend and it was frickin’ 50 bucks. To receive $350 for almost 6,000 lbs of steel and an LS engine was too low.
Seek Enlightenment From Within
We needed a new plan and for inspiration, we channeled the prison guard from 12 Monkeys: “What you gotta do, Jimbo, is take it easy!” (You thought I was going to channel The Eagles, didn’t you?)
We don’t need a pittance from a local scrapyard or to pay more diagnostic fees to other shops and such! We’re men, dammit, and we’ll create our own fate (and possible downfall!) We’re going to take it easy and figure this out our way, on our time, with a style only we can provide.
The new plan called for us to again AAA tow the massive green beast, but this time to my buddy John’s place on the other side of the Cape Fear River. We’d break out some wrenches and beers the upcoming weekend and come hell or high water, we’ll figure this out one way or another. At the very least we can go down swinging and say that we tried our best.
Now, John’s a tile man and a general handyman (also one of the best drummers in The Cape Fear area). He did an awesome job installing subway tile in my house and can fix just about anything, although he has only dabbled with cars in years past out of broken-down necessity. That means he’s not super knowledgeable about automotive repair (really though, who is in these days of computerized everything?), but he has that analytical eye and mentality that you need to connect the dots on any DIY job.
Middle-Of-The-Piece Side-Thoughts Sidebar: Speaking of mechanical ability, I always take the approach that you should know that there’s much that you don’t know. Arrogance is a killer in this field, from my experience.
I didn’t go to a trade school, but did take a great shop class in high school. I’m not ASE Certified, I can’t weld, I don’t have a 3D printer or AC certification, I’m not a diesel guy and I don’t have a lift. I’m just a regular dude who loves fixing cars to the best of his (limited) ability and loves learning something (mechanically or digitally) new. Some repairs are pretty intense, and others are more chill and low-impact. No matter what, all of them are fun and each one saved a car from the crusher. I’m willing to bet that there are quite a few of you membership-carrying Autopians out there who are in a roughly similar position on the repair skill spectrum — folks who find the skills of the pros too unreachable but who also are way past the beginner material.
Ok, back to the ‘Burban.
We met up at John’s place that next Saturday morning, which was the week right after I sold that sweet rescued X-Type. We agreed that we’d wait a few hours before breaking out the beers, as doing so too early can doom a wrenching day with half-drunk mistakes. The Autopian showcased my own dumbassery by doing exactly that when I blew an Ecotec head half-wasted on Stanley Tucci Negronis and my own hubris.
Make A Master Plan And Put It In A Safe Place For When You’re Drinking Later
We knew that big green leviathan had bad trans fluid, so getting it on ramps and jack stands to drain the cooked fluid was Job 1 (Ford style). That required removing the trans pan – basic stuff for a trans service. I figured that by putting in fresh fluid and a filter, we’d have 60-70% good fluid in it and could then get a better read if the unit was completely toast or salvageable. We hoisted the truck up on the stands, laid out some wrenches and drop cloths, put on some early ‘80s hard rock (John’s favorite) and looked under the beast. We then got a swift kick in the balls when we saw the exhaust Y-pipe:
It ran right under the trans pan and had to be removed before we could drop the pan. I could’ve gone to the grave of William C. Durant and given him a verbal wedgie (or swirly) in that moment of frustration toward The General. “Alright, so let’s just take off that exhaust pipe then, right?” John said, in total non-car handyman style. I told him he was correct, but to get ready for battle. Through all my previous conflicts with original exhaust on cars with 200,000+ miles, I knew we were in for a fight.
Snap, Crackle And Pop… A Beer
Three nuts on three studs on each of the top sections of the Y-pipe and two nuts on studs on the rearmost section. These looked to be original and had gone through enough heat cycles from ‘02 – ‘22 to rust and fuse the metal between the stud and the nut together. All we could do was try at this point in the game though. After a quick soak with PB Blaster, some extensions, a breaker bar, and a little luck, we got five of the eight fasteners off! I could barely believe it. In that moment I realized Rick Wagoner wasn’t such a supervillain after all and gave The General a heartfelt salute while celebrating with a Bud heavy.
We then started feeling good about where we were in the repair. We decided to sawzall/dremel/angle grind the remaining studs and if the trans was able to be saved, we could have an exhaust shop button it back up at that juncture. John dropped the Y-Pipe and we finally had access to the trans pan.
(Holds earpiece) “What’s that? We don’t?!”
Upon putting down my beer and getting back underneath that not-so-jolly green giant, I noticed that the wily General had placed the shift linkage attachment over the pan bolts and completely in the way! Forget all those nice things I said about Rick Wagoner above and let’s throw Alfred P. Sloan down that same flight of stairs while we’re at it.
This is supposed to be a simple transmission service! The dealerships were—are—supposed to do this every 60,000 miles for the supermassive armada of GM trucks that carried this drivetrain over the past couple of decades. What the hell! How was every extended maintenance plan that involved this procedure supposed to work without your service techs constantly considering submitting an application down the block at Honda or at Applebees? The General surely does not deserve a salute for this.
My father (who is a handy guy, but doesn’t do much more than simple tune-up work on cars) once told a younger version of me “If you stare at something long enough, it starts to make sense.”
Well, we stared at this shift linkage for a hot minute, trying to figure out how in God’s Green Z-71 Suburbia we could get the frickin’ trans pan off after what was becoming an entire day’s worth of time, just to do a simple transmission service on a GM truck.
“Dammit, I hate admitting that I’m not seeing the way forward here, but let’s pull up the frickin’ YouTube video,” I said. I never force anything (after learning that wrenching lesson the hard way), but in this repair, that was making less sense as time went on. Of course, the video says to get a pry bar and force-bend it away from the pan! Well, put me in a trendy leather jacket and call me Mary Barra at a presentation! Check it out at the 2:31 mark here:
If I was a bettin’ man (I’m not), I’d say the black, thick fluid that flowed out was straight from the bottom of the River Styx. It looked like the original fill fluid that was placed in the trans in the Arlington, Texas plant where the beast was born. Nasty stuff that you can’t release yourself from the clutches of its stench for at least a day.
Apparently, it’s a known, commonplace occurrence for these 4L60-E transmissions to lose a few gears (usually third and fourth) once the fluid deteriorates to a certain point. Go on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist and check out how many of the cheapest, higher-mileage GM trucks that carry a 4L60-E say “needs trans!”
With the difficulty level that we encountered in attempting this transmission service, I can see why most folks just “leave it be” and just roll the dice/let fate take the wheel toward a future of near-certain transmission failure.
Moment Of Truth
Stank-ass, burnt-molasses fluid out; fresh ruby-red fluid in, along with a new filter and gasket. We left the exhaust off, since there was no need in putting it back on until we were sure this thing had a working transmission. We took it off the jack stands and ramps, crossed our fingers, and fired it up. Without the exhaust attached, it sounded like The War of 1812.
John put it in gear and… headed down the driveway! He was ecstatic that it was moving on its own power, once again. I was already thinking of how sweet this article was going to turn out when my buddy looped back around his block and let me know that it wouldn’t shift past 2nd gear. Seventy-six sad trombones from The Big Parade seemed to play at that moment on my own personal soundtrack of defeat. And it wasn’t even my truck; I felt worse for my buddy John.
With a sly grin and impeccable style, John then turned to me and said “You want this thing?”, which was about to put me into a deep shitbox rescue conundrum.
Rescuing backyard busted shitboxes is what I do! Rescues are not only a fun personal hobby and passion, but also are better for the planet than scrapping vehicles that have miles left in them. Not to mention that it’s also what I do here, for my boss David Thessalonious Tracy (on this website you’re reading).
If my rescue stories cease, I’ll be moved over to sports, lotto, traffic or weather. Even worse, I may become Adrian Clarke’s personal tea-n-marker lackey or be stuck in perpetuity in the woodwork purgatory of turning Torch’s backyard RV into that AirBnB he planned a few months back.
The thought of being demoted to the task of moving the trickle charger amongst David’s sitting, hulking fleet in some rented parking lot in LA in 2024 is the stuff of nightmare jobs. The fall from grace is steep around here and the pit is bottomless. Bleh.
Plus, the Z-71 Suburban is green! Not only is green my favorite color on a car, it only represents ~1% of North American auto production. A good number of cars currently parked in front of my house are there specifically because they are green.
On the other hand, I just spent an entire day wrestling with this beast, so I’m not really feeling the greatest amount of love for it at the moment. Plus, I’m really not a 4×4 guy at all, as we discussed last time. The rear barn doors are wicked badass, but tan interiors become brown interiors and honestly a Chevy truck really just never said S.W. Gossin to me.
The Only Person Who’d Want This Broken Vehicle Was Just The Right Wrencher
What this truck needed was something else. A 3rd pathway forward. Not to me, or to the scrapyard, but to a Seedy Busted Chevy 4×4 Truck Guy!
You know the type. Their driveway certainly isn’t paved and they don’t have an HOA. There may, or may not be a few Grand Ams or J-Bodies in the backyard. Dental appointments aren’t every six months and showers aren’t daily. Chewing tobacco is a part of daily life. Most importantly, they ain’t sceered of a blown 4L60-E, because they probably have a few lying around in the pole barn out back. Installing one don’t take no time at all and mostly depends on the number of Natural Lights drunk during the procedure. This very particular sliver of the buying market fits perfectly in the sweet spot for a truck like this. They will pay more than scrap value, they usually have their own trailers and best of all, they’ll keep the truck alive and a-rollin’.
My intuition was correct and my bet paid off as the exact guy you pictured in the paragraph above came through about two weeks later with a trailer and $700 bucks in hand for my buddy John. Throwing a used transmission in that Z-71 was not a big deal at all to him. This made me realize that I may have been a little arrogant and judgemental with my comedy above and that perhaps buyers like him are sometimes The Perfect Buyers: they just git ‘er done. After all, he was signing up for a repair that I wasn’t too pumped or jazzed about doing.
John was so stoked that he got just about double what the local scrapyard was going to pay, that he soon afterward turned right around and bought another Suburban. This new one was about $3,000 (as mentioned above), but this time was one year newer and with a color change to dark blue.
I was stoked that I had helped a friend in need, got a good excuse to spend a Saturday wrenching and drinking with a buddy (it gets harder every year to coordinate schedules as we get older) and that we saved another one from a certain demise.
In the end, this really wasn’t a rebuild story, or a story of heavy, fascinating, awesome wrenching. That’s what YouTube is for and what David does in Australia. This is a story about end-of-life decisions with a car that’s in critical condition. A story that shows that sometimes hard choices aren’t binary.
Sometimes you can turn a sad, needlessly difficult situation into one where you reconnect with an old friend and have things turn out better than you expected—and one where you can keep the wheels rolling.
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
All photos: S.W. Gossin
Is The $1,200 Beat-To-Death Pontiac Grand Am For Sale In Every Town Worth It? I Found Out.
How I Got Six Years Of Service Out Of A $220 Car
What I Learned Trying To Flip Two Dirt-Cheap GM “J-Body” Coupes That Nobody Wants
How I Saved A Once-$90,000 Mercedes SL I Bought For $1,900
Why The Dirt-Cheap Broken Jaguar X-Type For Sale In Every Town Might Actually Be Worth Buying And Fixing
Got a hot tip? Send it to us here. Or check out the stories on our homepage.
“Ed Note: Vomit! -DT”
David lives! I was worried there had been a snowboarding incident or he had been extradited back to Michigan due to fines levied by the Troy Housing Inspector before he could finish his writeup of the move.
As the original owner of a GMT-800 with a 4L65 transmission that has 172k miles on it, I have already paid a trusted shop to change the trans fluid and filter no less than four times throughout its life. While the 65 is certainly better than the 60, I know it’s still the weakest link in what is otherwise the greatest truck platform ever (fight me). Also, I pay somebody else to do it, because I live in the rust belt and I don’t want to freakin’ deal with it!
So the moral of the story is… change your transmission fluid often enough so it doesn’t turn into black molasses?
Yeah, I’ve had it done in my GMT-800 with 172k miles four times already.
As soon as I read “4l60-E” my heart sank, having had a friend direct me to a (meme) Facebook group called “4l60e go “PNNNNNN””
Subtitle: “Dedicated to the worst GM automatic transmission of all time. Tag this group when you see anything with a 4l60e (mainly GMT800’s)[…]”
Still, glad it worked out and there is definitely bonding to be had over DIY auto repairs! I know from experience with my old van.
Honestly, the time spent hanging with my buddy was the best part.
A trans has to be pretty frickin’ bad to get its own Facebook meme group. I can’t think of any other transmissions that have attained such a feat.
Thanks for reading and for the comment!
This place truly has the very best automotive writers in the country. I don’t
care one bit about busted Chevy transmissions but found this article gripping and hilarious.
And just as importantly, the Autopian has a voice as a collective of very distinct writers. That’s a big deal.
Thank you for the kind words above! It means a lot to hear such kind sentiments for a newbie like me.
I shared your comment with the entire team in the group Slack editorial channel.
David responded with: “Enough with this love fest, get back to blogging”.
He runs a tough shop.
Something I discovered when working on these over the years is that losing 3rd and 4th can mean 2 possible things. The first is that the transmission is cooked. The Second is that the 2-3 & 3-4 Solenoids might be so full of debris that they no longer work. Those solenoids are a few dollars each, and easily accessible once the pan and filter are off.
Also, just a tip for future articles, the automotive certification for mechanics is called ASE (Automotive Service Excellence).
You know, in hindsight, I should’ve thought about the solenoid replacement when I had it apart. Great call-out.
The “ASE” typo was corrected – thanks for keeping us on point and for reading!