Shop Tour: Shifting Into Overdrive With Performance Automatic

In the past, people associated transmission shops with television commercials featuring an iconic “double-beep.” That may be fine for the crowd that seeks out the early-bird special come suppertime, but for those who eat bacon-wrapped jumbo dogs and barbecue ribs at the track, there’s another type of transmission shop that whets their appetite a lot better.

We took to the roadmap and ended up in Frederick, Maryland, to visit a shop that knows a thing or two about performance transmissions for hot rods, musclecars, and race cars. Performance Automatic (PA) has been on their game for more than 36 years, with a notable reputation for its C4 transmission builds in the 1990s working with NMRA and Fun Ford Weekend racers.

Parts and more parts: every transmission is torn down for the build, with stronger components replacing many of the OE parts.

Some of PA’s ground breaking products include hardened shafts, transbrake valve bodies, servos, and Pro-Fit bellhousings. As the Mustang market grew, so did PA, offering AOD and AODE/4R70W transmission builds to help racers compete.

Today, you can find the crew hard at work building over 300 performance C4 transmissions each year. Add in Ford’s newer crop of electronic automatic transmissions and GM’s 4L60E, 4L70E, and 4L80E, and you can see that the numbers are staggering. PA’s Matt Jewell tells us that their GM offerings make up more than half of their total sales.

Ty gets the transmission on the bench and then the tear down begins. We think he might be able to do this with his eyes closed; he knows what he’s doing.

Automatic Transmissions In Racing Applications

You might think that a performance car needs a manual transmission to be a real muscle car or race car, and you’ve likely seen the memes on social media to reinforce that. But the automatic transmission has some real advantages over the manual transmission, thanks to performance builds that can handle up to 1000 horsepower and beyond.

Adding a transbrake to an automatic allows the driver to build RPM, instead of dumping a clutch at high RPM and hoping for traction, the trans brake is released and the car can roll into the power band. When a manual transmission is at the line, those extra tenths can add up quickly when clutches or tires start slipping.

No matter where we turned, more parts and components were ready for the build. PA builds hundreds each year.

Another advantage is that today’s modern transmissions are electronically controlled, meaning shift points, shift firmness, and shift aggressiveness can all be controlled by a computer instead of going for a full rebuild when your preferences change. Plus, many of today’s performance automatic transmissions can shift faster than any human can, meaning a quick transition from gear to gear when accelerating down the track.

Automatic transmissions built by Performance Automatic aren’t just for the track; these builds benefit the street rodder and muscle car enthusiast in big ways. The typical transmission for classic cars and trucks was a tried and true 3-speed automatic, or a 4-speed manual. Overdrive wasn’t something many cars had available, but swapping in a modern electronic overdrive transmission helps put these old beasts back on the road with better fuel economy and driveability.

A fresh build awaiting final inspection and packaging.

In the early years of hot rodding, we didn’t care much about fuel mileage because we could fill up a car on 20 bucks and still have change for a burger. Today, a fill up can cost upwards of $65-$80 bucks depending on tank size. With a range of just under 150 miles for a tank of gas, a weekend romp can get costly.

Add an overdrive and you can sometimes pick up as much as another 50 miles on a tank of go-juice, making it a little less painful at the pump. This is what is making a huge impact on the classic automotive world. Matt said, “Even though your typical 3-speed and 4-speed non-electronic transmissions from the Big 3 are still great sellers, AODE/4R70W and the 6R80 transmissions from Ford, and the 4L60E, 4L70E, 4L80E GM applications are ramping up.”

How can you even keep track of all these parts and tools? They manage, we wouldn't know where to start.

“A shift took place with our company being carried by many large mail order houses, as well as sponsoring events with Goodguys and the National Street Rod Association,” Matt told us. “More GM transmissions and electronic-overdrive transmission packages are now being asked for.”

With that surge in requests, PA began developing it’s Street Smart Packages for Ford, GM, and Chrysler. “These packages come with transmissions, converters, dipsticks, and transmission mounts,” he told us. For the electronic-overdrive transmissions, PA also includes the transmission controller; these aftermarket controllers from PCS, MSD, and US Shift allow the user to select and modify key functions of the transmission without heading back to the shop.

R&D and dyno testing has put us in a position to offer tailored kits for the consumer that are guaranteed to exceed their specifications. –Matt Jewell, Performance Automatic

Matt said, “We pick the best possible unit for each transmission design. R&D and dyno testing has put us in a position to offer tailored kits for the consumer that are guaranteed to exceed their specifications.” What this translates to is being able to drive your car to the track or autocross with a mild street tune, then once at the track make a few adjustments and you’ve got those adjustable shift preferences we spoke of earlier.

“Electronic-overdrive transmission installs are becoming more popular,” Matt said, “but they pose unique situations as many customers are new to this type of transmission, and may require additional technical support with wiring questions, initial tuning settings, etc. By offering the best products available and having a knowledgeable staff in place, our customers can rest assured that even the novice will get their project completed and back on the road with minimal hassle.”

Accessories and controllers are readily available for each build.

Fitting Your Performance Requirements And Your Trans Tunnel

You might imagine with the extra gearing and electronics that these overdrive transmissions could take up a little more room in a transmission tunnel than was designed for the anemic 3-speed it came with. That’s where R&D benefits the customer, because PA does all the hard work to make sure the transmissions will fit into your car. This includes determining where a little persuasion might be needed to clear components, and to mount the transmission to your chassis.

Matt said, “We always work with the customer to fulfill their needs with regards to horsepower, cost, and physical size and fitment.” PA also carries the additional components and accessories, such as flexplates, yokes, shifters, and transmission coolers, to name a few.

Each transmission is tested before it’s packaged up and sent out.

When it comes to the power rating, Matt tells us that PA can offer transmission packages in Stage 1 or Stage 2 to meet horsepower requirements. “We have transmissions that range from 450 horsepower up to more than 1,000 horsepower, depending on the application,” he told us. “Our warranties are considered among the best in the business, ranging from one year up to a lifetime.”

Performance Automatic’s Street Smart packages are sold more than individual transmissions; Matt explained this is because the end user wants as many matched components included as possible to make for an easy installation. Some of those requests can include anything from finishing the transmission in a custom powdercoating, down to the specific hardware used. While most of these transmissions are not seen once installed, many owners like to lay down some mirrors at car shows and events showing off their custom transmission.

You'll find that Performance Automatic attends many major shows and events each year. While we were there, they were packing up and heading out to Louisville for the Street Rod Nationals.

Performance Automatic Expands For 2019

We asked what’s in store for the future, with a specific nod towards the Mopar crowd. While PA does offer a performance TorqueFlite transmission, it’s widely known that the A518 automatic is a rough fit for most classic cars. But there’s some good news on the horizon for Mopar enthusiasts.

“New for 2019 will be both small-block and big-block Chrysler 4L70E packages,” Matt said, “which will be complete with adapters, transmission and converter, and transmission controller. We believe the 4L70E will fit better and perform flawless for the Chrysler faithful looking for a 650 horsepower package.”

PA is also expanding its line to include the Street Smart Pro package, which will cover the higher horsepower applications for the 4L60E, 4L70E, and 4L80E. PA will continue with the Ford applications, including EcoBoost, Mod Motor, and Coyote applications.

From start to finish, cores are brought in, torn down, rebuilt, and packaged up to ship out.

It seems people love to drive their classics more than ever. Making it a lot more fun and bringing technology into this century is all the rage. Performance Automatic is building performance into the art of shifting gears by making it possible to enjoy those weekend cruises even more with better economy from the overdrive transmission, these transmissions can handle whatever kind of power today’s enthusiasts are putting under the hood.

We learned a lot from our Eastbound trip to Performance Automatic, and you can find them on the web at www.PerformanceAutomatic.com. Whether your build is for the street or the track, give the guys a call and let them know where your budget and your goals lie. They can shift you into the right gear to put your project back on the pavement.

It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. Performance Automatic manufactures some of its own components, as well.

Article Sources

About the author

Michael Harding

Michael is a Power Automedia contributor and automotive enthusiast who doesn’t discriminate. Although Mopar is in his blood, he loves any car that looks great and drives even faster.
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