Car won't shift out of first when it's cold

In the ongoing exploits of my POS car I’ve got a quick question, lately when I go to start up my car in the morning I have a hell of a time getting out of first gear and into second and then into third. It’s a '99 Olds Alero with an automatic transmission. Once it warms up it works fine, with a slight hesitation between first and second gear, but now that the weather is getting cold it’s becoming a problem. I need to get up to 4000 RPM for the first half mile or so until I can feather the gas enough to get it to get it to find the gear. By mile 2 it seems fine.

Obviously my car is going to go to the great parking lot in the sky soon and the transmission is probably on it’s last legs. But, I’m really hoping to stretch the life of this hunk of junk through the winter before investing in something new come spring. Does anyone know what could cause this? If there’s a simple/cheap fix that can be made?

Yes. Check the transmission fluid level. (According to the manufacturer’s instructions.)

Low fluid will do this.

ETA: Of course so will a worn and slipping transmission.

Not something that can be checked by a owner apparently. Documentation says that the car needs to be on a lift to do this. Stupidly designed. Wonder if it’s worth what it would cost to have the fluid checked/filled/replaced.

Maybe the filter screen in the transmission is plugged up from lack of maintenance. When the fluid warms up, more can get through as it’s thinner. Of course, perhaps you have been keeping up with maintenance on it and this is not the problem. No doubt the fluid level is up, right? This really sounds like low pressure from lack of flow due to the filter though.

By golly, I just Googled that and you’re right. You could try it yourself, but the car needs to be running and in neutral, so probably not recommended.

I can’t imagine it would cost any more than $30 or $40 to have it checked, and if low, another $10 to top it up: definitely worth it in my books.

I have no way of checking the fluid level on this car. I haven’t really serviced the car very well so a dirty/clogged/low fluid makes sense. Since it’s a professional job I’m mostly curious if it’s worth the expense on a car I’ll probably be rid of in a few months anyways.

I guess my biggest worry is that it’s a more serious tranny issue and that tossing $100 after a tranny fluid flush would be pointless. I suppose I could just top it up too, but since it’s probably never been done it might be worth the flush if it buys the car 6 months on the road an a few extra dollars on trade in.

I should note that there’s a leak somewhere in my coolant system which is causing a little bit of oil to float to the top of my coolant reservoir. Can’t tell if it’s engine oil or transmission fluid. It’s been this way for a long time and is one of many reasons why my car is ready to be put out of it’s misery, but I suspect it could be contributing to some issues with the transmission if fluid is the culprit.

A cracked head gasket would allow oil and coolant to mix. You’ll end up with oil in your coolant and coolant in your oil, neither of which is a good thing. Won’t affect the transmission though.

Sounds like you have more than one issue with this car.

The vehicle shows every sign of NO maintenance to the transmission so it’s well worth a try. You don’t describe any slipping. That is a great sign. And it clears up when the fluid thins out. This is an excellent clue that insufficient fluid is getting through to the pump. Therefore, it can’t shift at low RPM.

Oh yeah. That’s putting it mildly. The Traction control/ABS is shot (needs a new wheel hub assembly), the parking brake light won’t go off (probably low fluid or a damaged sensor). I just had a ruptured coolant hose replaced. The drivers seat bolster is busted. The tank filler tube is cracked and triggering a EVAP leak. The AC compressor clutch is bent and screeching, the compressor itself just failed I think. Oh, and there’s mystery oil in the coolant!

Like I said, pretty leery about dumping a penny more into this POS. But if a $50 fluid change buys me 6 months it’s probably worth it.

Many if not most cars cool the transmission fluid by running it through the radiator. Imagine a mini radiator inside your normal radiator and that mini radiator has transmission fluid pumping through it. If that mini radiator cracks then transmission fluid will mix with your coolant but more importantly coolant will be mixed in with your transmission fluid. I have seen many vehicles come to our shop with that condition and we end up replacing the radiator and rebuilding the transmission.

Usually when that happens the transmission slips and on a few occasions I have noticed that it refuses to shift. Not sure if this is what is happening with your car but it could be the beginning of it.

The mechanic is looking to charge $145 to replace the fluid, filter and gasket on the trans. That’s probably a fair price but it’s a bit outside of my range for “might temporarily fix the issue”.

Need to think on this a little.

Tell him you know the work should be done, but the car’s on its last legs and all you want him to do is check the fluid level and add some if it’s low: 30 minutes max.

Try a capful of acetone or gasoline…the solvent will thin out the ATF and dissolve any gum and/or varnish making the shifting sticky.

Car is in the shop getting worked on now. When I went out to drive it to the mechanic, intending to just ask him to top it off, I noticed a good sized puddle under the car of trans fluid. It’s been raining for like the last 6 days straight so until now I didn’t have a chance to notice it. When the mechanic got it up on the lift we saw that the trans coolant hose was rusted out and leaking badly. It was probably close to dry in there. They were able to get a part and install a new hose for $150, I skipped the filter and gasket and am getting a refill of fluid.

It sucks that I am pouring another $150 into a car that’s virtually dead but if it gets me through winter it’ll be money well spent. Until the radiator and/or head gasket explode!

Let us know how it drives after. Please.

Drives good. Transmission is nearly 100%. Low fluid was obviously the culprit.

My Scion has acted this way since I bought it almost new with 6800 miles on it. Somewhere I got the idea that it was intended to work this way, and I wondered if the purpose was to avoid having high torque on the engine when it was first warming up and the lubrication and internal clearances were not yet in their typical operating range,

Good news!