The Overdrive Option - Dispelling the Rumors, Myths
Longer Legs for Cruising Comfort
From the February, 2009 issue of Rod & Custom
By Drew Hardin
Photography by Courtesy of the manufacturers
Most auto trans manufacturers...
Most auto trans manufacturers make a version of the TH700-R4 overdrive automatic (shown here is the T700 tranny from Jet Performance), as its a popular swap. The 700-R4 is similar in size to the TH350, plus it isnt electronically controlled (except for its lockup torque converter), so its easier to install in a non-computerized car. It also offers a wide range of gears, from a deep 3.06:1 First to a 0.70 overdrive. Weak early-production (pre-88) models tarnished the 700-R4s reputation and should still be avoided if youre buying a salvage-yard tranny. The Jet T700 features over 40 modifications from the standard 700-R4 to eliminate those weak components, and it can handle up to 450 lb-ft of torque.
A Jet Performance T700 sits...
A Jet Performance T700 sits in front of its electronic sibling, the 4L60-E. The two are identical in many wayssame size, same gear ratios, same power capabilitybut the E in 4L60-E means it requires a computer to run it. Because the computer adds complexity as well as cost (the 4L60-E is nearly double the price of the 700-R4 in some cases), most of the transmission experts we spoke with did not recommend it as a stand-alone transmission upgrade. It will work fine, though, if youre transplanting it from a donor vehicle along with its engine and computer controls. The polished case, by the way, is a $400 to $500 option from Jet, because of all the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. Powdercoating to match your frame or engine costs only $50, and the standard Jet black is free.
The folks at Phoenix Transmission...
The folks at Phoenix Transmission Products consider the 700-R4 their most popular street rod overdrive because it matches so well the typical 3,000-3,500-pound, 350-400hp car that rodders build. Its easy to install, easy to run, says Phoenixs owner Greg Ducato, plus you can get adapters to mount it behind a number of non-GM engines, including small- and big-block Fords.
Phoenix also does a strong...
Phoenix also does a strong business in TH200-4R transmissions. Like the 700-R4, theyre similar in size to the TH350 and are not computer controlled, so theyre easy to install. The 200s actually have two advantages over the 700: their First and Second gears arent as widely spaced, so you dont have the same risk of damage during a hard One-Two shift; and the 200 case fits nicely within the big crossmember in 32-and-later Ford chassis. The 200-4R isnt quite as strong as the 700, though. Phoenix rates it as good for 250-350 hp.
On the Ford side of the world,...
On the Ford side of the world, the most popular automatic overdrive is the AOD (seen here is the Jet Performance version). Like the 700-R4, it is similar in size to its three-speed counterpart, the C4, and it can safely handle 300-400 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque. However, it doesnt share the 700s reputation for weakness, and its lockup function is internal and hydraulically actuated so no computer is required to operate it. The AODs bellhousing will bolt right up to a number of Ford small-blocks, including the 5.0L.
The 4STB overdrive automatic...
The 4STB overdrive automatic from FB Performance is based on the Ford AOD, but its built to handle up to 850 horsepower in a 3,500-pound car. It features a built-in trans brake for you nostalgia draggers (4STB stands for four-speed trans brake), a full manual valve body with a three-speed-forward shift pattern, an electric switch to actuate the overdrive gear, and a solid input shaft (non-lockup). The 4STB is 2 inches longer than the AOD, primarily because of the custom bellhousings used to adapt the tranny to a number of engine applications, including big- and small-block Ford, GM, and Mopar V-8s.
The TH4L80-E is the big gun...
The TH4L80-E is the big gun of GM-based automatic overdrives. Based on the TH400 and designed originally for truck applications, its capable of handling anywhere from 500 to 800 hp, depending on the manufacturer. Its ideal for that big-block crate engine youve been drooling over. It does require a computer to operate it, but some units, like the TCI version seen here, have software that is laptop- computer-programmable.
If you want to run a 4L80-E...
If you want to run a 4L80-E in a non-computer car, you can set it up with a stand-alone computer kit, like this Transconversion Kit from Jet Performance. Jet customizes the computers software for each vehicle application, so you can dial in your desired shift points and torque-converter lockup. Similar Transconversion Kits from Jet are available for 700-R4 and Ford E4OD transmissions.
Another accessory available...
Another accessory available from Jet for the 4L80-E is this six-speed conversion kit. The kit replaces the factory valve body with a modified valve body that offers internal gear reduction between the One-Two and Two-Three shifts, which keeps the engine operating in its optimal torque range.
The Ford equivalent to the...
The Ford equivalent to the 4L80-E is the massive E4OD. Its not used much in the street rodding world because its so big and heavy. Says Jets Paul Darden of his own E4OD unit, Youd almost have to engineer the car around the transmission. Alternatives include using the (smaller) 4L80-E with a bellhousing adapter plate or outfitting a Ford C6 with a Gear Vendors overdrive.
Also bulky and tough to use...
Also bulky and tough to use in a street rod is the Mopar 518 overdrive. Jets Darden tells us, Its heavy, its not that strong, and torque converters with the right balance weights for older motors just arent available. Youd be better off using a Torqueflite 727 and a Gear Vendors overdrive, he says.
Talk to your chassis builder...
Talk to your chassis builder about fitting a transmission crossmember that will accommodate your OD of choice. So-Cal Speed Shop sells this universal crossmember thats drilled and slotted to accept a number of trannies, including the 700-R4. This particular chassis was mocked up with a TH350, but you get the idea.
If youve covered some serious highway miles in your street rod or customon Americruise, Power Tour, or other long-distance eventsand youve got a two- or three-speed auto trans, you know how it feels to spend hours on the road taching three grand or more. You can just imagine all those moving engine parts slowly wearing themselves out, sending small metal shavings into your oil pan, or worse. You also swear you can watch your gas gauge needle move as it falls from F to E. At times like these, youve probably considered swapping that slushbox for an automatic overdrive.
Wed guess, though, that the fantasy is quickly shot down by other thoughts: An overdrive automatic wont fit in my car. It wont handle the power my engine is making. Its too complicated to hook up. I dont want to mess with electronics. Its too expensive.
Well, lets go back to the fun part of this day-dream, the wishing-for-an-overdrive part. Lets examine those arguments against an overdrive and see if we can shoot a few holes in your negative thinking. If we can, maybe the next time you find yourself getting your kicks on Route 66 (or 40, or 80, or 10) your engine will be happily loping along closer to 2,000 rpm and youll have to tap on the gas gauge to make sure the needles not stuck on F.
An Overdrive Will Fit, Depending
You may be surprised to learn that many of the commonly used overdrive automatics arent all that much bigger than comparable three-speeds. For example, a 200-4R overdrive transmission is almost exactly the same size as a TH350 with a short tailshaft. A 700-R4 is just 1/8 inch longer than a TH350 with a long tailshaft. A Ford AOD is only ¼ inch longer than a C4. Where you run into exceptions to this rule is with the heavy-duty trannies. A 4L80-E is more than 5 inches longer than a TH400; a Ford E4OD is 4 inches longer than a C6; and a Mopar 518 is 2½ inches longer than a 727. As youre thinking of adding an overdrive, consider what you want and how to make it fit in your chassis. Be sure to carefully measure the distance between the end of the new trans case and your rear end to make sure the driveshaft youre currently using will fit the new application.
How about mounting the OD trans in your frame? Read the fine print in most chassis manufacturers catalogs and youll find they make a number of transmission crossmembers to fit particular trans applications. Some frame makers, like So-Cal Speed Shop, offer a universal trans crossmember thats shaped and drilled so that it can be installed to suit the transmission being used.
Mating the tranny to your engine isnt all that tough, either. The easiest way to do it is to keep your transmission in the same family as your engineuse Turbo Hydramatic transmissions for Chevy engines, Fords for Fords, and so onso the bolt pattern on the bellhousing will match the motor. A tip for those of you running non-Chevy GM V-8s: The bellhousing bolt pattern on some 200-4R transmissions is known as a BOP pattern, meaning it will fit Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac engines. However, many 200-4R cases have a universal bellhousing pattern, so they fit Chevy applications as well as BOP.
If you have to mix engines and trannies, many transmission outfitters offer adapter plates thatll allow you to bolt mismatched housings together. But you may face some additional complexity when hooking up the transmission to accessories like the shifter, speedometer, and so on. Like anything else with a street rod buildup, be sure to think through the details and plan, plan, plan.
An Overdrive Can Handle Power
It all depends on which transmission you choose. Each of these overdrive transmissions was originally designed to withstand a certain torque load. While tranny remanufacturers have made improvements to some of the vulnerable partsclutch packs, planetary gearsets, input shaftsthey still should operate within certain power thresholds.
Most transmission specialists refer to horsepower when talking about a transmissions limits. Whats really going to wreak havoc with a tranny is too much torque, since that twisting force from the engine is going to shock-load the internals. A transmission is especially vulnerable during a hard launch or a firm One-Two shift, especially if theres a huge gap in ratios between First and Second gear. Once the car is underway and headed towards peak horsepower output, theres less risk of damage to the transmission. Yet, as one of our transmission experts put it, Most people are more familiar with horsepower numbers than torque, so we use them. This horsepower/torque difference should only be an issue if youre building an engine with far more torque than horsepower. Since few of you are building tractors, the horsepower numbers should work fine.
What are those numbers? For typical remanufactured (but not extensively modified) overdrive transmissions, most of our experts agreed that the 200-4R, while a great candidate for a swap because of its compact size and universal bellhousing bolt pattern, can handle no more than 250 to 350 horsepower. The 700-R4, as long as its an 88 or newer version (with stouter internals from the factory) can handle 350 to 450 horses, as can the computer-controlled 4L60-E. Fords AOD overdrive can handle as much power as the 700-R4, though some we spoke with bumped the AODs top number to 500 horses, especially if its used without the lockup function (see the sidebar To Lockup or Not).
Once you pass the 500-horse threshold, youre in the market for heavy-duty truck-oriented transmissions like the 4L80-E on the GM side, the E4OD from the Ford camp, or a modified aftermarket unit like the 4STB from FB Performance. These transmissions are built with clutch packs, line pressures, gears, and other components that will stand up to anywhere from 600 to 850 horsepower, depending on the trans and how well its been beefed.
A third option is to find a well-built three-speed, like a TH400 or C6, and mount a Gear Vendors overdrive unit to it. Gear Vendors has customers that pump in excess of 1,200 horsepower through the OD units, so they should work with even the most powerful street rod applications (for more info on the Gear Vendors unit, see the sidebar Bolt-On Overdrive).
Okay, Some ODs Have Computers
No doubt youve spotted the letter E attached to some of these transmissions. Invariably, E stands for electronic, and that means the transmission needs a computer to control its shift points, shift quality, and torque converter lockup.
Now, for some of you, a computer is no big deal. If youre running a late-model EFI engine in your project, you probably scavenged the donor cars computer to run the fuel and ignition properly. In this case, you can easily retain the donors computer-controlled tranny as well.
But what about the rest of you? What if youre running a thumping big-block and youd love a 4L80-E behind it? No problem. Transmission manufacturers that offer 4L80-E kitsJet Performance, Phoenix Transmission Products, TCI Automotive, Hughes Performance, and othersalso have stand-alone computer control systems that allow you to operate the transmission behind just about any motor, even good, old-fashioned carbureted engines, thanks to sophisticated throttle-position sensors. Some manufacturers will even custom-tune the computers software to provide shift points and shift feel thats tailored to your wants and driving style.
The computer does add complexity (and cost) to the transmission installation, so be sure you really need it. If youre trying to decide between a 700-R4 and the 4L80-Es little cousin, the 4L60-E, for example, keep in mind that they both can handle similar power loads, but the 4L60-E requires a computer while the 700-R4 doesnt. The 60s computer doesnt magically make it stronger, it just makes it more complexand about double the price of the 700.
Cost is Relative
Retail prices for overdrive transmissions vary quite a bit, depending on which OD unit youre buying and who youre buying it from. At the low end are the 200-4Rs and 700-R4s, which can range from $1,100 to about $1,400. At the high end, a properly setup 4L80-E, with custom-tuned software and all the right cables, will dent your wallet to the tune of $4,000 or more.
Each of the experts we spoke with offered this advice when considering transmission price: You probably paid a fair amount of money to get your engine just the way you wanted it, right? Then why scrimp on the single piece of equipment thats going to do the most to deliver your engines power to the ground?
Plus, keep in mind the reason youre considering an OD trans in the first place: Adding the overdrive gear ratio will give your rod longer legs. The engine will be turning fewer rpms at cruising speed, which reduces engine wear and increases fuel economy. So youre spending money to save money over the long haulor cruise, as the case may be.
So-Cal Speed Shop
Phoenix Transmission Products
B&M Racing Products
151 Industrial Dr.
2244 W. McDowell
Fourth Gear, Inc.