After all the money you spent to beef up the horsepower on your diesel truck, the last thing you want to mess with is transmission problems. However, didn’t you initiate those problems when you beefed up the power without strengthening your driveline?
Although transmission issues can be frustrating, if you insist on more horsepower, you might want to take the time to visit with the folks at Ultimate Transmission to figure out if you’re in the process of turning your stock transmission into your weakest link.
Over the past few years the editors of Diesel Tech Magazine have become very familiar with the workings at Ultimate Transmission in Boise, ID. On multiple occasions we’ve worked with them on project trucks, ensuring that with the increased horsepower, these trucks could handle the load.
Recently we slipped over to Boise to spend a morning with Dave Fleenor, co-owner at Ultimate Transmission. Fleenor and his crew were very accommodating to show us an inside look at the process of repairing/replacing transmissions.
“First we talked to the customer and figured out what kind of parallel they want, their overall horsepower goals, and all that happy fun stuff,” Fleenor explained. “If he wants to drag race or sled pull or something like that, then we figure out what he needs and we start getting all the parts and building it.”
Fleenor said Ultimate Transmission stocks most transmissions that can handle up to 650 horsepower. But for the high horsepower engines, he said it’s best to custom build to the specific requirements of the vehicle.
The process varies depending on the transmission—whether it be manual or automatic. Sometimes the parts are readily available. Sometimes Fleenor has to wait to get parts in. He pointed to his “hurry up and wait” bench where six different transmissions are waiting parts. He’s always waiting for something so he can complete the next job.
Perhaps that’s why Ultimate Transmission does its best to make as many of the parts as it can. “We've built our own sprags for the 60 RFE's … it's pretty common,” he said. “We have our own pressure plates made for the 60 RFE's to fix that drum.”
Fleenor has experimented with several different drum assemblies to find the best. But he notes it’s important to get good, high-quality parts in there. That, in itself, can be a major task.
“We generally have a whole plethora of cores out back,” he said. “Just to make it easier for the customer, unless it's a specialty one, we'll bill the unit and have it all ready to go.”
So when a transmission comes into the shop, the crew tears it down, cleans and examines the parts, figures out what needs to be repaired/replaced, gets the parts together and rebuilds it. The process usually takes a full day.
“We like to spend a full day on one transmission to make sure it's just spot-on perfect,” he said. “Every attention to detail is covered. It's all the little things we've found. These trannies are expensive, so we want to put out the best quality product possible.”
Ultimate Transmission doesn’t just rebuild the transmissions back to stock. Fleenor said the crew always strives to improve on stock—making the transmissions more durable and stronger, even if they are just fixing a stock transmission. Fleenor said he uses a lot of billet parts because they are stronger.
Aalthough most of his business is regional, he often gets jobs from about anywhere throughout the country. “We’re Idaho boys here so we get most of our clientele from Idaho, but we just shipped a trans to Florida,” he said. “We have another one coming back from New Jersey. So we have clientele on the East Coast.”
And it’s not just the transmission that shows up.
“I had a truck shipped to me from Portland, this 2016 Dodge we were fixing for this guy,” he explained. “A lot of our customers are very particular. Like, this truck, they're spotless. They want things done a certain way there, and we always want to make sure that we're clean and meticulous on anything that we do.”
Ultimate Transmission has technicians that specialize in various aspects of the job. Co-owner Matt Hiscox has vast experience in differentials. Fleenor’s background is in automatic transmissions. Russell Soroka is the company’s torque converter specialist and KC Mulligan is a machinist and fabricator. Shop manager Jake Monasterio makes sure the jobs flow through the production line at a smooth pace and all work is documented for the customers so they know what’s in their transmissions.
Ultimate transmission started with just Fleenor and Hiscox. Now there are 10 full-time and two part-time employees trying to keep pace with the business that keeps coming through the door.
“We're maxed out right now, as far as techs go. We're in the mode of making things more efficient and clean now that we finally got a full crew,” he said. “We haven't had a full crew in years, probably ever. We finally do and we're still two three weeks out.”
Fleenor said the company has always been blessed with plenty of work. “We've always known what we were going to do the next day, or the week following,” he explained. Even when things start to slow down and it looks like the crew can get on some of their own projects, work starts flowing in and they’re off and running again.
When a job comes through the door, the front of the shop works on the transmission and the middle part of the shop works on the converter. This way when the transmission is completed, the converter is also ready to go.
Fleenor said its important to match transmission with converter with vehicle with intended use. This way the transmission is designed to do the job the vehicle owner expects it to do.
“There are proven recipes we stick with that always outshined everything else,” he explained. “But you still have to basically know what the customer is in need of to make his entire application come together and work well.”
Generalizing, Fleenor explained that too high of a stall will not fit the guy who wants to tow heavy with a vehicle with a small set of twins; too low of a stall is not going to fit the guy that wants to go out and drag race. And then those guys vary, whether they're running a big single on nitrous, or running a tight set of compound twins, or a big set of compound twins, or triples, or quad turbos. “We got customers with one, two, three and four turbos,” he explained.
Fleenor’s daily drive for the past eight years turns out 1,000 horsepower. But compared to the vehicles putting out over 2,000 horsepower, it’s relatively small potatoes now. “Now it's cute. Like ‘Oh yeah, everybody's got one of those,’" he said.
But Fleenor said his uses his daily drive to test parts designed for the regular diesel owner who isn’t looking at big horsepower numbers. “A lot of the stuff I have to attach to my own rig just for the daily driver stuff, but on the real heavy, heavy horsepower guys, I have to rely on the guys that are making big power.”
Even though a lot of the daily work is based on repairing stock transmissions, Fleenor said his crew does spend a lot of time doing custom work tailored to each individual customer. That makes the challenge so much greater. As you try to simplify the process to make it cost effective, and as you figure out the best aggressive tunes, the customer keeps finding a way to add another 500 horse to the power. “It's just never-ending,” he explained. “But you got to stay ahead of it.”
The crew at Ultimate Transmission sees a lot of variety in the projects that come through the door—different vehicles, different mileage, different transmissions and different needs.
Sometimes the stock transmissions come in with basic flaws. Other times the transmissions have been fortified … but the owners still figure out a way to destroy them. “And they always come with a good story about what they did to cause the transmissions to fail,” Fleenor explained with a chuckle.
Fleenor said all transmissions have their strengths, and all have their weaknesses. And as you start increasing power or workload to the truck, you tend to find (and start to break) the weakest links. It’s the same battle regardless of brand.
Perhaps that’s why Ultimate Transmission is never short on work.
Fleenor pointed out that 10-20 years ago there were just a few transmissions on the market. “Now we have so many different varieties from the manufacturers … and the 8-speeds are coming out for the diesels,” he said.
Although Ultimate Transmission likes to keep as much of the work in-house where quality can be controlled, Fleenor said they also keep several local businesses busy when it makes more sense to special-order parts.
“We get parts in, we order a lot of parts, we manufacture a lot of parts, we beef up a lot of parts … the list is long,” he explained. “We have jigs, we have two manual machines here, and then we have a lot of friends with CNC mills and lathes. We keep them busy. I probably drive 'em nuts.”
Fleenor likes to think that when it comes to building quality parts, Ultimate Transmission is a little bit old school. “We've built jigs and we can repeat it with our manual machines,” he explained. “If you have to build jigs, you want to make more than one piece. You want to build a a tool to mass produce. If you’re going to make one part, you might just as well make 20 … but you better make it right because making 20 wrong can be very expensive. You need a really patient machinist.”
Although doing quality work takes time, Fleenor said customers still want things back in a very timely manner. “Everything's getting dropped off Monday and everyone wants it back on Friday,” he said.
Although most of us hope that transmission failures happen rarely or not at all, judging from the stock of transmissions waiting to be fixed, it happens frequently in the diesel world. It’s just a matter of whether we’re willing to gamble with a stock transmission as we beef up the horsepower on our trucks.
Although it’s always going to be a gamble, the best way to hedge your bet from having a road-side breakdown is to spend some time with transmission specialists to see if it’s better to do some precautionary modifications to handle the increased power.
“You take care of your customers’ needs to the best of your ability,” Fleenor explained. “That's what it's really about.”