Snap Ring Failure

What is the infamous “Snap Ring Failure”?

“Snap ring failure” refers to a small metal ring in the transmission that breaks (shatters) as a result of the stresses put on it by an improperly manufactured transmission case. The snap ring itself is not the cause of the problem, but it is the piece that breaks as the symptom.

The actual problem is that there is a groove in the case which is cut too wide on some transmission. This allows the snap ring to twist (like rolling a rubber band inside-out) as the counter-shaft moves back and forth under load. The more load, the more twist. Since the snap ring is a thin piece of metal, it doesn’t stand up very well to repeated twisting and eventually shatters into pieces.

See Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) 93-010, “Broken Counter-shaft Bearing Snap Ring”

Which Cars Are Affected?

The snap ring failure is limited to transmission numbers J4A4-1003542 through J4A4-1005978. These transmission numbers are limited to 1991 and 1992 model year vehicles. You cannot determine whether a car is in the range for possible failure by VIN number, you must check the transmission number because the transmissions were not installed in sequential order by VIN . See [Transmission_and_Engine_Numbers] for instructions on locating the transmission number. It is important to note that the problem does not exist on all transmissions in this range. The range simply identifies transmissions which may have the problem.

OK… But what the heck is a “Snap Ring” anyway??

The snap ring is a very thin metal ring which holds the counter-shaft from moving in the transmission case. Since the transmission gears are not straight cut, when the main shaft gets power from the engine the cut in the gears makes the shafts want to move back and forth in relation to each other.  The counter-shaft top bearing is held in place by the snap ring in the upper section of the transmission case.

The snap ring sits in a groove in the bearing and in a groove cut into the transmission case. It’s purpose is to keep the counter-shaft from moving under load changes, such as when you get on and off the throttle. Without this snap ring, the shaft has approximately  6 – 7 mm of movement. If the groove in the transmission case is cut too wide, as with some of the cars in the range above, the snap ring can move back and forth a little. This causes it to flex which puts an enormous amount of stress on it and eventually leads to the whole ring shattering into several pieces.

Are all transmissions in the listed range defective?

No. Only some of the transmission case grooves in the range were cut too wide.

The snap ring sits in a groove-within-a-groove (actually more of a “shelf” within a groove) machined into the transmission case. In order to cut this complex part of the case the manufacturer used a 3-piece bit; one part to cut the main groove, one part to cut the “shelf” that holds the snap ring within the groove, and another piece to cut the outside of the groove.

During the process of machining a batch of transmission cases they would stop once in a while to measure tolerances. They found that the snap ring groove was cut too wide after the bit was used X number of times because the three pieces that made it up would spread apart a little (several thousandths of an inch make a big difference in transmissions). They kept replacing these multi-piece bits and finally redesigned it as one-piece bit to solve the problem.

So if a transmission is “in range” but was cut shortly after the bit was replaced, it will be just as good as one that isn’t even in the range for failure. But they get progressively worse until the next time the bit was replaced during production. We as owners have not been able to find out how fast the multi-piece bits got out of spec or at what transmission numbers the bits were replaced. All we know is the range of potential problem transmissions. Honda may not have this information either; if they do, they have not made it available to us or to their dealer service centers. If you are wondering why the cases were used knowing these grooves were too big, it is probably because it was not known how big was too big until the snap rings started to fail.

So now you have a bunch of cases produced. Case number one is perfect, but the cut gets progressively more out of spec as things go along until number X, at which point the operator adjusts the machine. Then the cycle begins again, and as a result cases are produced anywhere from perfect (the first case cut after every adjustment) to way out of spec (the last case cut before an adjustment). This is why there are cars that have 90k miles and no failure despite being in range and cars that failed with 2 or 3 thousand miles on them.

How did they fix the manufacturing problem?

They fixed the manufacturing problem by making the machine tool one piece instead of two. That eliminated the possibility of the two parts moving out of spec.

There has been some confusion on this point, so just for the record: The snap ring material has never changed, they are made exactly the same way and from the same material today as in the very first NSX. It is one of Honda’s most ironclad rules that if a part is changed, even the least detail, it gets a new part number. The part number on the snap ring has never changed because the actual ring was never the problem; the groove cut into the case was the problem.

I sent many private posts to people who asked if they should have the update (transmission case) done to their car. My answer was if there are a lot of hard miles on your car and you have not had a problem you probably won’t have a problem. If you don’t want someone opening your transmission then don’t worry about it.

Again: Not all the transmissions in the range will have a problem.

Are all transmission outside the range OK?

No transmission outside the range should have an improperly cut transmission case groove. However, it is possible for almost any part in a car to fail. There have been reports of a couple snap rings breaking on cars not within the range, but there is nothing to indicate an abnormal number of failures. Sometimes things just break.

What are the symptoms of failure?

The giveaway for snap ring failure is the shifter moving fore and aft in first or second on deceleration or acceleration from slow speed. This happens because when the snap ring breaks (which holds the countershaft top bearing into the case) the whole countershaft moves back and forth in the case when the direction of load / torque changes. Since first and second selector are on the countershaft, and the selector hub hooks into the selector fork which hooks into the shifters.

Most people experience a loud crunch or mechanical grinding sound as the shattered fragments of the broken snap ring grind around in the transmission.

There are no warning signs prior to failure.

Will it hurt anything else when it fails?

If you experience a snap ring failure, stop driving the car as soon as it is reasonable to do so. If you continue driving the car with the snap ring shattered, there is a potential for broken bits of metal to start floating around in your transmission which is not particularly good and can damage other parts in the transmission. The transmission is a closed system so there is no risk of damage to the clutch or other components.

The problem will also get progressively worse as you drive the car, so you are at danger of getting stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a long tow to a qualified repair facility.

Was there a recall for this? Will Acura still repair this failure for free?

First, understand that if there were an across the board offering to fix every transmission regardless of failure, it would be a recall. Car manufacturers do not like the “R” word. No recall was issued for the snap ring problem.

However, American Honda was very good about “good-willing” repairs on cars that experienced the failure through the 1990s. With a goodwill repair, Acura would cover all or most of the repair cost. Goodwill decisions are made by the local Acura District Service Manager (DSM), so the extent of the generosity varied some between districts, but overall Acura covered most failures for several years past normal warranty coverage. This was a very strong goodwill policy compared to what any other auto manufacturer offered on comparable issues at the time.  Snap ring goodwill repair approvals tapered off sharply in 1999 and were extremely rare past the year 2000. At this point the affected cars are so old the repair is no longer good willed.

As far as good-willed preventive work, Acura’s official line was that it will only be fixed if it fails. While it’s no fun to play the “wait and wonder if mine will blow up” game, Acura’s reason for that policy is that it is expensive to fix since they tell their dealers to replace the entire transmission assembly,  and only certain transmissions within the range of ones that can experience the problem will be affected. Despite the official line, a number of owners with good dealer relationships did get partial or complete preventive repairs paid for by Acura. As with the goodwill for repair of failed units, preventive goodwill ended around the year 2000.

HELP! My snap ring broke! / How much does repair cost?

Acura tells their dealers that the only way to repair a snap ring failure is to replace the entire transmission assembly. That is because Acura simply doesn’t want their dealer service technicians working on transmissions (even their master service techs which are the only ones who are supposed to work on NSXs). The reason for that is simply that transmissions are complex and require extremely tight tolerances which means they present many opportunities for problems. A problem means the customer has to come back multiple times for the same repair which is something car manufacturers very much DO NOT want because it results in irate customers. The only problem with the replace-the-whole-transmission policy from a customer’s perspective is that it is very expensive – around $7000 – $7500 parts and labor, give or take.

But the fact is that a qualified mechanic can repair an NSX transmission. While it’s opened up, it’s a good idea to replace any worn synchros or other parts showing wear. The entire process of removing, rebuilding to factory spec, and re-installing an NSX transmission can be done for around $2500 or less by a truly qualified mechanic. The only problem is that there are not many mechanics in the country who have much experience opening up an NSX transmission to work on since Acura tells the dealers they should only replace the entire assembly, so you want to find an NSX specialist who rebuilds them and may have a repaired or rebuilt unit sitting in inventory. This is by far the best way to go if you need your failed snap-ring transmission repaired. Even with the cost of shipping it is well over $4000 cheaper than replacing the entire assembly from Acura.

For a PREVENTIVE repair (replacing the upper transmission case on a car where the snap ring has not actually failed) by the book it is 10 hours of labor and about $700 in parts. Again, in the early years some owners with good dealer relationships received partial or complete goodwill on this preventive repair, even though the official Acura line was that they would only work with you after it had broken. Sometimes the owner was installing short gears or R&P anyway and Acura would give them the new transmission case since the owner was already paying for the labor to do their gear changes. However, again many dealers are unwilling to open an NSX transmission and work on the internals and will not do it even if you are willing to pay the entire cost, so again you want to find an NSX specialist for this work.

What should I do if my car is in the range?

Obviously if your transmission falls within the range then you must make the decision if you want the transmission opened up. If you have many miles including some hard shifting then your transmission case may be cut properly and may never have the problem. If you have a low-mile garage queen and don’t drive it hard you simply don’t know. There is no right answer – it is really an individual decision. Some owners decide they do not want to have it break on them while they are out driving their car and simply pay to replace the case before anything fails. Most of the rest decide to just drive it and wait to replace the case when they are having other transmission or clutch work done so they save on the labor.

Should I buy a car in snap ring range?

Sure! It shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for most people as long as you go into it with a plan. If a car has a transmission in range for potential failure, that should be factored into the price. You can use the extra money to either do a preventive repair or just wait and see if it fails. If it doesn’t you saved some money for taking the risk. If it does, you can use that money to pay for the repair. Or you can use that money to repair it up front and not have to worry about it.

What about owners outside North America?

The Technical Service Bulletin was issued by American Honda and technically only applies to American Honda markets. Several owners in other countries have reported that Honda does not acknowledge the problem in their country even if their car has a transmission serial number in the range given in American Honda’s TSB. However since even American Honda no longer good-wills the repairs anyway, this has no practical impact.

How many miles does it take to fail?

It varies widely. There are several factors which likely contribute to this. First, driving styles differ. If you baby the car it will take longer to fail vs. the same car driven hard. The other reason is the nature of the manufacturing problem which causes the failure (explained in detail above). Here’s what some owners have reported.

[SR] 42,000 Repair was goodwilled by Acura
[GT] 83,000 There was no TSB issued on this in Europe, and Honda NL did NOT goodwill the repair.
[VB] 50,000 Actually, a friend of Vytas’s
[DNG] 40,000 Snap ring had failed, tranny hadn’t been eaten up yet. Goodwilled.
[BM] 70,000
[DG] 24,000 Repair was goodwilled by Acura.
[BSD] 80,000 Replaced tranny housing while doing short gears install and clutch check
[BCO] 116,000 Repair was partially goodwilled by Acura
[CWI] Parts goodwilled by Acura, part of $800 labor covered by another Acura dealer who had inspected the car for previous owner and incorrectly said it was not in range for failure. VIN #2699, tranny #3699
[HD] Sept. 1999 – 75% goodwilled by Acura
[JC] 38,000 ’91 car, failed May 1999
[TSI] 61,500 ’92 car, failed December 2000. Bought car in March ’98 with 19k miles. Acura goodwilled parts, customer paid labor. “The last 40k miles have been pretty hard… I like to get on it a fair amount, and I had it on the track twice this past year.”
[DEM] 34000 ’92 car, failed in mid 2001. Most of the repair cost covered by goodwill from Acura. Second owner.