Building a car that will see a lot of street time and frequent trips to the drag strip requires more than just horsepower — it has to have a reliable driveline. Sure, the engine will take its fair share of abuse and needs to be stout, but what about the parts behind it? Having a solid transmission in your weekend warrior that can absorb the punishment your engine deals out is important, to say the least. For our 2000 Trans Am project car, Red Dragon, we enlisted the help of Monster Transmission to build us a beefy 4L65E transmission that can take whatever we throw at it while keeping the car fun to drive on the street.
The stock 4L6oE transmission that came in the 2000 Trans Am from the factory is perfect for cars that don’t have many performance upgrades or might just see track duty on occasion, but that wasn’t the plan for the Red Dragon. As the car made more power, an upgraded transmission was added so it could keep making all-out passes at the track without any issues. That transmission, however, met its demise when the transmission cooler line failed on the freeway, causing it to overheat. Since the old transmission was compromised, it was time to bolt in a unit that could deal with hard nitrous passes while still being able to cruise on the streets and freeways without spinning the motor too hard. And that’s where Monster Transmission came in.
The 4L60E Transmission
The heritage of the 4L60E transmission can be traced back to the turbo-hydramatic 700R4 hydraulic transmission that was used in many General Motors cars and trucks in the 1980s and 1990s. When the 4L60E was developed, it was the next evolution of the 700R4 and used the vehicle’s computer to control each shift electronically. This new electronically-controlled transmission could also hold more power than its predecessor and came with upgraded parts like a five-pinion planetary inside, with variations like the 4L65E transmission.
Inside the 4L60E family of transmissions, you will find some pretty complex parts that all work together to make the four-speed electronic transmission work. Many of these parts, like the sun gears, the sun shell, input shaft, servo, and clutch bands are all stronger than what came in the older 700R4 transmission, and all of them have their role in making sure power is transferred from the engine to the tires in the most efficient way.
A lot of guys like to use this transmission because, when upgraded, it can see every day use and still perform at the track. – Luis Brown, Monster Transmissions
What You Upgrade And Why
The Red Dragon had already crossed the threshold of needing an upgraded transmission several years ago, so it would need another beefy slushbox to take the abuse we plan to throw at it. To help explain why upgrading the 4L65E is so important for high-performance applications, we spoke with Luis Brown, Senior Tech Adviser at Monster Transmission, to get some of his insight on these units.
“If you’re looking for a good street and track use transmission, the 4L65E, when built correctly, can take a lot of abuse and still hold up. A lot of guys like to use this transmission because, when upgraded, it can see every day use and still perform at the track.”
Inside the 4L65E, the planetary gears are found inside the sun shell, and that is where the transmission will see a lot of stress. According to Brown, upgrading the sun shell should be a top priority on any 4L65E build. “A big issue with the 4L65E is with the sun shell, and it is a true weak point of the transmission from the factory. They will snap or strip out when you put too much power to them, causing the car to lose Reverse and some other gears. This is one of those parts you have to upgrade with a stronger unit, for sure.”
Another item that needs attention with the 4L65E are the clutch bands that clamp down on the drums inside the transmission. The stock units are lacking when it comes to holding power and how well they engage the drum, so it’s critical for these to be addressed with stronger units.
“The 2-4 clutch band is also a weak point in the transmission and has a tendency to burn up in stock form when you apply a lot of power. They should be replaced no matter the power level you’re looking to hit with the car,” Brown explains.
The servo that helps to snap the transmission into gear is also an item that needs to be upgraded on a 4L65E transmission to improve performance. The stock servo, unless it is the Corvette unit, lacks the power to provide crisp shifts and will struggle to do its job as you add more power to the driveline. With the upgraded servo, the transmission will be less likely to have slipping issues and the shifts will be quicker as you pour the power on down the track or on the street.
Inside the transmission, the drum is another weak point that needs to be upgraded along with the planetary gears. For the drum, a billet unit is typically used to add strength, so the clutch bands can grip it better on the harder shifts and not fail. The OEM planetaries are not designed to deal with excessive amounts of stress that can come from heavy track use mixed with street driving, so they also need replaced. A stronger five-pinion planetary gear set is added to the transmission by Monster to address this issue.
Building The Beast: The Monster 4L65E SS Xtreme Performance Transmission
With the goal of cracking into the nine-second zone while still driving the Red Dragon on the street, we needed to put a heavy-duty transmission in the Trans Am, and that’s where the SS Xtreme Monster Transmission comes in. The SS Xtreme is built to handle up to 1,000 horsepower, and it has some serious guts inside. Everything in the Xtreme, from the pump to the input shaft, is upgraded so that it can take whatever punishment a user will throw at it. The great part about this transmission is that, besides being extra beefy inside, it will allow the car to still be driven on the street with no heat issues or putting too much stress on the motor by running at higher RPM thanks to its .70 Overdrive gear.
The process that Monster uses to build their transmissions is very extensive, allowing them to make sure the quality of the transmission that rolls out the door is as high as possible. All of their transmission cores are fully disassembled when they arrive at their facility down to the individual parts. The case is then cleaned thoroughly and inspected for any cracks or other issues to ensure it can be used on the customer’s build. After inspection, the case goes off to be painted and is inspected one last time before it moves on in the process.
Testing Transmissions At Monster
When a transmission is completed at Monster, it doesn’t just get packaged up and sent to a customer. It goes through some fairly rigorous and extensive testing first. This level of extra testing allows for their transmissions to have far fewer failures in the hands of their customers. “The transmission testing process is part of what we do for quality control and is very important. For testing, the transmission goes into a vehicle and is driven around to verify everything works. We look at the line pressures and shift points to make sure they’re within spec. When testing is done, the transmission is drained, cleaned up, inspected again and prepared for shipping to the customer,” Brown explains.
“Whatever the build is for the transmission, the hard parts are checked to see if they can be used again. If they can’t, they will be replaced. Depending on the level of the build, we will look to see what needs replaced, including the planetary gears, a new sunshell, and high-energy bands for the clutches,” Brown says.
Everything during the build is watched as closely as possible for the best quality control from the second the transmission enters the shop to when the builder starts assembling the transmission. Each transmission arrives on the builders’ workbench with a sheet that includes all the parts needed for the specific level of build. After assembly is complete, it goes off to be tested before it’s shipped to the customer, ready to bolt into their car or truck.
The impressive parts list for the SS Xtreme 4L65E going into the Red Dragon includes all the upgraded parts that Monster offers on any of its transmissions. Let’s face it, since we’re going to be putting a lot of additional stress on the transmission, choosing the strongest unit possible was the only way to go. With enough billet bling inside to make any gearhead drool, the SS Xtreme should be able to handle all the low 10-second passes and street driving we plan to throw at it over the next year.
For the SS Xtreme, Monster upgrades the drum to a billet unit, along with a billet input shaft that can hold up to 1,000 horsepower. Another critical hard part that’s upgraded are the planetary gears in the transmission, as they are swapped out for more heavy-duty units in the front and rear. The sunshell drive gear is modified to help increase the lubrication that the rear planetary receives. Monster also modifies the input sun gear so the front planetary gets additional lubrication to keep it from failing. Fresh Kolene steels and Red Alto racing clutches are added inside the SS Xtreme to assist in keeping all of the shifts firm.
The stock bands won’t hold the power that is going to be made, so we upgrade them with the wider high-energy bands. – Luis Brown, Monster Transmissions
The turbine input clutch housing is upgraded, along with updated accumulators inside the transmission for additional durability and longevity. The valve plate and valve body are both recalibrated from their stock configuration to help with performance and provide increased shift firmness for the 4L65E.
The bands inside the transmission also get some special attention because of how critical they are to proper transmission performance.
“The stock bands won’t hold the power that is going to be made, so we upgrade them with the wider high-energy bands. These bands are able to cover the entire drum completely and grab better. The bands we use are made of a material that, when engaged, grab onto the drum nice and tight. These bands also are able to absorb and release the heat they encounter quicker than a stock band. This band is critical because it comes on during the two and four shifts and takes so much punishment as it engages on and off,” Brown explains.
Line pressure and shifting firmness are something that Monster makes sure it upgrades with the SS Xtreme 4L65E. To achieve this, they start with a high-performance reprogramming shift kit inside the transmission to help make the shifts extra crisp. They also upgrade the boost valve on this particular transmission from the stock aluminum one that tends to wear out. This boost valve increased the pressure inside the transmission and adds sufficient line pressure for shifting. The final upgrade to the shifting equation is the servo, which has a Fairbanks unit to replace the stock one. This servo helps the transmission snap into gear harder and hold the shift better.
According to Brown, Monster also upgrades many of the valves inside the transmission to make sure they function better when shifting under extreme use. “We upgrade the actuator valve. It’s a valve pressure control solenoid inside the transmission. This is upgraded because of issues with the valve body since they’re made of aluminum and wear out easier. We use a unit from Sonnax that’s more heavy duty and won’t have the same problems the stock one does.”
When the transmission arrives it becomes obvious how much time Monster puts into the packaging of the unit. The crate they build is constructed of plywood, and the transmission is bolted to the crate and strapped down for good measure. All of the additional parts and the transmission cooler are inside the package, along with the paperwork and instructions on how to get your transmission ready. All of these extra details were a welcome surprise and made getting the transmission installed much easier.
Monster Transmission’s 4L65E SS Xtreme Performance Transmission is built to take the abuse that driving on the street and trips to the track can dish out. By making sure the weak points of the 4L65E are addressed, Monster’s SS Xtreme Performance Transmission is capable of being used in almost any application. Make sure you check out the next installment of Project: Red Dragon when we put the 4L65E SS Xtreme Performance Transmission to the test at the track!