Automatic Transmission Fluid Upgrade Magic

Words and photos by Richard Kratz

If you’re like we used to be, you probably don’t think about your ATF much if at all. The car runs, the manufacturer says you don’t need to change it for 100,000 miles and that’s that, right? Well, we have news for you, there is performance locked up in your automatic transmission. The right fluid can unlock track performance and extend the life of your transmission, good things we think you’ll agree.

Of all the fluids in your car, automatic transmission fluid probably has the toughest and most variable job. It acts as a lubricant, coolant and power transmission media. When your torque is not in lock-up mode (if you have such) then all of the power and torque of the motor is passing through the ATF from the impeller to the turbine in the converter.

The torque converter is in essence attempting to shear the ATF fluid apart and since the fluid isn’t 100% efficient in transferring the energy from the engine to the transmission some of this energy is heating the ATF. The ATF is also being pumped at high pressure and volume through hundreds of tiny passages and openings in the transmission valve body which is acting as a sort of mechanical-hydraulic computer controlling the transmission. As the ATF is forced through the passages and narrow openings, more shearing and heating is occurring. Lastly, the ATF must lubricate the moving parts of the transmission yet not lubricate so well that the drums and clutch packs want to slip and slide instead of lockup and transfer energy.

Fun fact, did you know that up until the 1960s and even into the early 1970s ATF contained whale oil as a friction modifier? Luckily for the whales we’re past that now and most if not all modern ATFs use synthetic base oils. In order to do all of the tasks demanded of ATF, modern fluids must go way beyond the base oils into a witches brew of anti-wear additives, rust and corrosion inhibitors, detergents, dispersants, surfactants, viscosity index improvers and modifiers, anti-foam additives, anti-oxidation compounds to inhibit oxidation, cold-flow improvers, high-temperature thickeners, gasket conditioners, pour point modifiers and friction modifiers. Whew!

It just so happens that our official team MoparMax race car, the Maulin’ Magnum, was undergoing transmission upgrades and our friends at Westminster Performance Transmission said we should get in touch with Danny Vaca, founder of LAT oils. Joe and Mike at Westminster told us that the LAT ATF fluid was the only fluid they’ll run in their dragster. So we gave Danny a call.

We found out that Danny Vaca and the LAT staff are incredibly serious about oil--engine, ATF and otherwise. Danny took us to school on synthetic oils and informed us of the importance of the getting the total package balanced just right. There is no one secret ingredient that makes an engine oil or ATF or gear oil special, it’s the overall blend of elements and compounds that is essential.

LAT never develops an oil to a price point. That means that they just blend the best ingredients—base oils and additive packages—to produce the characteristics they are trying to achieve. We found out that a lot of famous brand oils start with a certain retail price target and then blend to hit that point after factoring in dealer and distributor discounts and margins. This forces an inevitable compromise as cost is weighed and considered. This doesn’t mean that these oils aren’t decent oils, it just means that they have a different priority then LAT does and they accept compromises in their consumer oils that LAT won’t.