Why does my Buick regal only have 1st gear

Posted on 2012-08-20
Last Modified: 2012-08-24
Kind of a long shot for an expert question, but about 6 years ago, I had somebody build the transmission in my 1987 Buick Grand National. He was supposed to performance parts in it. I know a little bit about engines but nothing about transmissions. The car sits all year and I take it out a few times a year.

The vehicle won't shift out of first. I first noticed it not wanting to shift under heavy acceleration but eventually it would. Now nothing. I noticed transmission fluid on the ground in droplets but it has plenty of fluid. What are the simple solutions I can start with? I don't race the car so it can't be worn out unless he sitting every year does it.

Question by:artismobile
    LVL 15

    Accepted Solution

    When you say "performance parts", what exactly do you mean?

    If you're familiar with engines, you'll know that putting a high-performance camshaft in an otherwise stock engine will not improve performance by itself; other aspects of the engine such as fuelling, ignition timing, compression ratio, gas flowing of the ports, and so on must be modified to take advantage of the changes in valve timing and lift. If this integrated approach isn't adopted, your stock engine is transformed from willing workhorse to bad-tempered beast, with the added disadvantages of increased fuel consumption and reduced power.

    In like manner, beefing up the clutches and servos in your transmission is going to be of little use if the oil pump is unable to deliver the pressure and volume of oil needed to service the demand of these uprated components; in fact, with their efficiency thus compromised, such parts are likely to slip and so wear more quickly and perhaps even burn out.
    Conversely, just fitting an uprated pump can overload the stock components and cause leaks and failures arising from excessive pressures that the standard assembly was never designed to handle.

    It may be, of course, simply that one or more errors have been made during reassembly of the box, as your question suggests that its performance was never really up to scratch since it came back from the rebuild.

    A really obvious question is, has the correct type, grade, and quantity of fluid been used? Is the selector linkage correctly adjusted and secure, and the inhibitor switch likewise? Is shift modulation handled by cable, vacuum, electronics, or some combination or permutation of the three? Cables can break or need adjustment, vacuum units can fail and/or leak, as can the hoses and pipes that supply the vacuum, and electronics can not only fail, but be working and doing silly things because a failed component somewhere else is giving them duff instructions. I'm not familiar with these transmissions, so some of these suggestions may not apply.

    The transmission certainly shouldn't be leaking after such little use; are the droplets appearing singly, or in showers? To get a good look you are going to have to lift the car, assuming that you have adequate equipment to do so. Oil leaks can be notoriously difficult to pinpoint, as the oil spreads far and wide and ends up dripping off every corner and edge in the vicinity. If the source of the leak isn't apparent, wash the underside of the engine, transmission, and adjacent bodywork and structural members; let it drip dry and then take it for a short run (especially if it's stuck in first gear...). When you return, jack it up again and see where the oil is coming from.

    I suspect that the exercise is academic, because from the information you've given, if all the external checks check out OK then the box will have to be overhauled again, this time properly.

    After six years, the chances of obtaining satisfaction from the outfit that did the work would appear to be slim, so if the car is worth it to you I would suggest getting the work done again by a reputable company with a proven track record of good outcomes on your model of transmission.

    Author Comment

    Thank you,
    I wish I could remember what performance parts where used.  It wasn't that long ago but for as much a I drive it, it seems that way.  If I remember correctly, the mechanic. (No longer in business of course) said he would strengthen the bands to make it shift solid. It would not shift when I took it to him for repair.  To add to the complication, it had a "shift kit" that used check balls if I remember and a "Line lock" that used the D (drive) to hold the transmission at the light at the drag strip. It was used to launch the car during races at the track. I know this doesn't add much normalcy to the original question but that part was installed before I took it to this mechanic. I did take it to the track after the repair and it never did not shift at WOT but it did shift normal driving. Decided to raise a family and never raced it again. Now at my old age, I have an old car I just want to drive around and it's stuck in 1st and I'm just old!

    I know, of course the best answer is your last suggestion is to take it to a reputable company for repair. just seems that if it is a part that has failed, it would not have failed due to wear and tear since I never used the car much. My very, very novice opinion of course hoping for a novice answer like a plug unplugged or something else very simple. Believe it or not, I built the engine in this car with instructions from a friend over the telephone. Took forever, but it was a learning process with more mistakes you can imagine!

    I'm in the process of finding the old invoice of the repair to see exactly what was done.
    The leak was just a handful of drops on the ground just after I discovered it wouldn't shift. Couldn't find the leak and haven't seen any on the ground since. It always seemed like it would take a long time to shift since the repair. Sometimes wouldn't shift at all driving through the subdivision. I'll jack the car up and see if there is anything obvious on the outside. If not, I'll go with your suggestion and find a good mechanic...this time.
    Thank you
    LVL 15

    Expert Comment

    It's been decades since I was at a drag strip, and that was here in the UK, but back then line lock was a term used to describe locking the front brakes on while leaving the rear ones disengaged, to facilitate smoking the rear tyres without having the car run away. I wasn't aware that it was ever used here to release the car at the greens - the chance of creep breaking the beams and pulling a red was too high.

    A noticeable deterioration in the performance and/or reliability of any system or component immediately post-repair is a warning sign that really shouldn't be ignored - things are supposed to be better after a repair, not worse! The term "not worse, just different" applied to such problems by the repairer is an all-too-common form of whitewash used to cover over a multitude of sins, none of them the customer's...
    LVL 34

    Assisted Solution

    "sitting every year does it"
    A clue?
    Probably wrong / bad / old / dirty transmission fluid has caused the ports to become blocked / cloged.
    This will explain leakage from over pressured gaskets that are also old & need replacement.
    This may be solved by a transmission flush & new fluid or may need pro. service.
    If you have leaks then a full service is recommended as the leaks can only get worse.
    Without the car in front of me (or any car mechanic) that is all I (we) can suggest.

    Author Comment


    I miss spoke. It does have a line lock that locks the front brakes to heat up the rear tires.  I meant to say a Transbrake, a fabricated thing that eliminates the Drive to hold the car at the line under boost. You slap it forward into overdrive to launch the car. It has a lock to keep it from going all the way into reverse.  Never tried it. Too afraid.


    Good suggestion to change the fluid and to look for leaks.  That is something my local mechanic can do until I locate someone to diagnose the problem.  The GN is notorious for leaks from everything, but it is 25 years old, eligible for a historic registration plate. Since I am done going fast, that's all I want. Thank you for the suggestions.  I understand that's about all can be expected for this situation.
    LVL 34

    Expert Comment

    Glad to help...wish I could be under the car to see where the leaks are...or better still driving it...
    Good luck with finding good results.

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