Understanding 280z Transmissions: Manual vs Automatic, Diagnosing Issues, and Replacement Options

Understanding 280z Transmissions: Manual vs Automatic, Diagnosing Issues, and Replacement Options
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Understanding the 280z Transmission

The Datsun 280z was the first generation of Nissan's legendary Z sports car. Produced from 1975 to 1978, the 280z came equipped with either a 3-speed automatic transmission or a 4-speed manual gearbox.

Automatic Transmission in the 280z

The 3-speed automatic transmission available in the 280z was relatively simple and reliable for its time. It featured a lockup torque converter in top gear for improved highway fuel efficiency. This transmission is identified by the markings FS5W71A (early models) or FS5W71B (later models).

Common issues with the 280z automatic transmission include:

  • Leakage from worn seals and gaskets
  • Harsh shifting due to low transmission fluid
  • Slipping gears due to clutch pack wear
  • Torque converter failure

Manual Transmission in the 280z

The 4-speed manual gearbox equipped in the 280z provided excellent driver engagement. This transmission is easy to service but some weakness in stock gearing reduces performance potential. Identified as part number FS5R30A, key attributes include:

  • Fully synchronized gears
  • Reliable, durable design
  • Bernardi short-throw shifter
  • Clutch prone to wear with aggressive driving

Upgrading the 280z Transmission

Many 280z owners choose to upgrade the transmission for increased performance. Common swap options include:

  • 5-speed manual from an S130 280zx - improved gear ratios for acceleration
  • Tremec T5 5-speed manual - significant upgrade in strength and shifts
  • CD009 6-speed manual from a 350Z - modern transmission with excellent gearing

Adapters plates and custom driveshafts may be required depending on the chosen transmission upgrade path.

Diagnosing Transmission Problems in a 280z

Like any classic Datsun, the 280z may develop problems with its transmission after years on the road. Here are some common symptoms that indicate an issue:

  • Hard shifting - The transmission struggles going into gear, grinds, or won't shift at all. This points to low fluid, worn clutch components, or synchro issues in a manual gearbox.
  • Slipping - The engine RPMs flare but acceleration is poor. This suggests clutch slippage or internal damage allowing the input shaft to spin without transferring power.
  • Leaking fluid - Transmission fluid puddles under the car as seals, gaskets, or housing cracks fail over time.
  • Noisy operation - Whining, humming or clunking noises point to bearing damage or internal component failures.

Methods to Diagnose Transmission Problems

Diagnosing whether the transmission itself is faulty requires systematic troubleshooting. Steps include:

  1. Checking transmission fluid level and condition.
  2. Scanning for trouble codes with an OBD-II scanner.
  3. Inspecting the clutch system in manual gearboxes.
  4. Road testing to characterize symptoms.
  5. Dropping the transmission pan to check for debris and excessive wear.

By gathering evidence from these inspection points, you can determine if it's truly an internal transmission failure before spending money on rebuilding or replacing the entire gearbox.

When to Consider a Rebuild or Replacement

If your 280z transmission has over 100k miles, requires constant fluid additions, or has multiple severe issues, a rebuild or replacement is likely needed. Upgrading to a more modern transmission often makes the most sense to gain major improvements in shifting feel, gear ratios, and durability.

Finding a Good 280z Transmission

Since the Z car community is well established, locating a replacement 280z transmission is reasonably straightforward. Here are top options to find what you need:

  • Local Z car enthusiasts and clubs
  • Online marketplaces likeBring A Trailer or Yahoo Auctions
  • Specialty Z car retailers like Victoria British
  • Transmission specialty shops
  • Junkyards and salvage yards

Points to Check Before Buying

Not all transmissions for sale are created equal. Before purchasing a used unit or rebuild, carefully inspect:

  • Overall condition - inspect for cracks, damaged mounting surfaces, missing pieces
  • Gear engagement - test all gears to ensure smooth engagement
  • Bearing noises - listen for whining or rumbling sounds
  • Fluid leakage - watch for any seepage from seals or gaskets
  • Mileage - lower miles reduce risk of premature failure

Taking these steps helps avoid buying someone else’s transmission troubles.

Cost Considerations for 280z Transmissions

Prices vary substantially based on transmission choice and condition:

  • Used automatic transmissions - $400 - $700+
  • Manual gearbox rebuild kit - ~$500
  • Refurbished Tremec T5 manual - $1200 - $1800
  • CD009 6-speed swap - $3000+ with adapters

Factor in installation labor or DIY tools on top to complete the transmission upgrade or replacement job.

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