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I am looking at buying a 1997 Toyota Camry with 179,000 miles on the clock. The car is a V6 with an automatic transmission. Positive points about the car:

  • Frame is immaculate (car spent several years in California. Now in New Hampshire)
  • Engine idles smoothly, runs smoothly.
  • The transmission shifts smoothly, no grabbing, through all the gears.
  • The engine oil has been changed regularly. The car was owned by a former professional mechanic, who is a personal friend and someone I trust.
  • No rust other than minor surface rust.
  • 4 wheel disc brakes that are nearly new rotors and pads.
  • Steering tracks straight
  • Tires have lots of tread left, are wearing evenly, and have no dry rot. The car is his current daily driver. Reason for selling is to move into a van.
  • Looking inside the engine oil fill cap, there is no gunk build up. so I believe him when he says it's had good oil changes.
  • Electrical switches and interior systems all work.

There are four things that came up in the inspection and test drive that are the focus of my question.

  • ATF (automatic transmission fluid) is darker than it should be. It's brownish, not bright red. But not black either.
  • Drivers side front tire has a slight "clunk" when you push and pull on the top of the tire (with the car on the ground)
  • Drivers seat forward and back motor works, but there is something caught in the track preventing one side of the seat from moving.
  • It needs a new battery.
  • Check engine light is off, but I forgot to bring the scanner to check for codes.

All of those are easy fixes (including the wheel bearing), but, what worries me is the dark colored transmission fluid. He says he has not serviced the transmission in a very long time, but has had no issues with shifting into or out of any gear. My test drive included back roads and highway, and confirmed that there are no current shifting issues. My understanding is that the darker fluid means a clutch is burning in the transmission. There was no detectable burnt smell from the ATF on the dip stick. Here are my questions:

  • Is the burning clutch the only reason for the ATF to go dark. Can it be anything besides a burning clutch? If the ATF is just old and in need of a change, would that cause it to go dark? (Car does not have a PID for ATF temperature sadly)
  • How much of a risk am I taking buying this car? Considering the purchase price is going to be $1200 (down from his asking price because of the dark ATF) my ultimate risk is not large, but I don't want the hassle of having to swap the transmission.
  • Pulling the engine and transaxle isn't that horrible a job, but is there something about the process that would make a home transaxle swap a bad idea for a mechanically competent do it yourselfer?
  • How much of a risk is there in a yard transmission? I know they are either little or no warranty and for good reason. A yard transmission is $400, so again, not a huge financial risk, but I hate to waste time, when buying a car without this problem for not much more money would have solved the problem.
  • Is there a typical mode for this kind of failure? Other posts have suggested that the bad shift occurs suddenly. Does this failure typically manifest itself as a "works one day, fails the next" kind of thing, or is there some kind of gradual degradation of performance?

What I'm trying to avoid is going into this with the wrong picture. If the dark fluid means a transmission swap is coming very soon, then I need to include that in the negotiations on price. But how good an indicator is the dark ATF that there is definitely a problem?

  • If the transmission fluid isn't too dark, it's not impossible that it is simply normal ageing, and that ATF replacement will do you for another hundred thousand kilometres. – anonymous2 Sep 14 '16 at 14:49
  • Just for precision, is 179,000 miles or km? – anonymous2 Sep 14 '16 at 14:54
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    Sorry, you're right I should have included that. It's 179000 miles – cdunn Sep 14 '16 at 14:57
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95% chance it's just normal wear. The vast majority of car manufacturers recommend an ATF change between 30,000 and 100,000 miles. So if the owner hasn't serviced it in a bit, the brown colour would be normal, though not ideal. Also, the fact that there is no burnt smell tells me that there's no serious damage inside the transmission.

I'd personally say $1,200 is not bad for a car of it's description. The Camry has a reputation for reliability, and I've seen ones from those years pushing 400,000 km (250,000 miles) easily. I would, however, recommend a fluid replacement directly after purchase... if you buy it.

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    Not just replacement, but a transmission flush. Not all shops do that unless you ask for it, because it requires extra fluid (money). – user4896 Sep 14 '16 at 20:00
  • Excellent point, @Snowman. – anonymous2 Sep 14 '16 at 20:01
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    Flushes especially, and even fluid changes, on trans this high mileage typically do far more harm than good. There's a lot of reading on the subject. I strongly urge to OP not to do so. Absolutely do not do it without changing the trans filter, as well, if possible. – justinm410 Sep 15 '16 at 0:25
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You're getting a bit ahead of yourself thinking a about a transmission swap in a 1200 dollar car. Dark transmission fluid is completely normal at that mileage. It probably has never been changed, but that's typical and is no reason that the transmission won't go to 250k optimistically. Maybe more. Sounds like a great deal if you otherwise like the car.

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This is an indirect answer, but for a car that old, the data indicate that, on average, you'd be spending over $1,000/year in maintenance (https://www.yourmechanic.com/article/the-most-and-least-expensive-cars-to-maintain-by-maddy-martin). These are just averages and this car may well be the exception, but it may be worth considering how long you plan to keep this car and what the TCO would be.

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    Good point, and welcome to the site. However, as you said, this particular case is probably different. I've seen Camrys at 350,000 and 400,000km and even 450,000km running annual repair bills of $500 or so. Especially if the body is good condition. – anonymous2 Sep 14 '16 at 22:14
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    Welcome to the site, and thanks for posting! My daily driver right now is a 2000 Toyota Camry with 150,000 miles on it and my annual repair bill is nowhere near $1000. Even if it was, the entry cost is so low, it never catches up to a different, more expensive to buy car. – cdunn Sep 15 '16 at 13:40

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