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Ken Schuster

February 26, 2008

Selectman's meetings minutes here.

“Dr. John” rescues neglected transmissions

    You’re on I-89 coming home from Concord. It’s the same route you’ve taken hundreds of times, but your car feels “tired” today. You thump the steering wheel and grumble, “C’mon, car, MOVE!” The road is dry, but it feels like the tires are slipping. You move into the right lane, vibrate over the rumble strip and stop the car on the shoulder. You turn off the engine, and let it rest a few seconds while you think about the wall of air that rocks your car with every vehicle that passes. Alright, hold your breath and turn the key. The engine jumps to life and purrs reassuringly. Vrooom, vrooom, vrooom. Sounds great. You get out of the car and quickly check the tires. They look fine, and you kick one for some reason that you never knew, but you do it anyway. You pop the hood and stare at the engine, expecting something dramatic. Nothing hanging loose, smoking, hissing or stinking. You slam down the hood, and get back in the car. Must’ve been air in the gas line or an injector clog, ‘cause all cylinders are cookin’ just fine! 

    Back on the road, the problem is still there, but you just want to get home. Just after Exit 9, the incline steepens, and you press the accelerator but you don’t go any faster. An 18-wheeler’s roaring up the on-ramp behind you, intent on merging with 65 mph traffic at the same spot where you’re dropping down to 50, 45, 30. You shift into second and floor it! Your engine shrieks as your tach moves toward redline. A cloud of white exhaust envelops your car as you roll to a stop. Medic!    

John KcKew inspects part of a damaged transmission at his Newbury shop. 

    When "Dr. John" McKew, owner of Transmission Clinic, in Newbury, gets a call like this from I-89, he usually knows exactly what’s wrong, and the car’s location. Most of us rarely think about the transmission. Not taking care of a minor leak can lead to having the car towed to John’s shop, followed by a few days out of commission while the transmission is rebuilt.   

    John was born and raised in NY. At age 13, he began working at his brother-in-law’s transmission shop during summer vacations. His father was a salesman, and the family moved several times around the area. While John was in high school in Wayland, Mass., his neighbor invited him to their summer house on Lake Sunapee. He never forgot it. 


After decades more experience in the transmission business, John wanted to get away from the city and open his own business. He came to Newbury to see how it compared to Florida and other places he was considering. He discovered that the charm he had remembered from childhood was still here. In 1988, he and his wife, Deb, moved here, and he opened his shop on Route 103. Two years later, he was joined by his “right hand man,” Terry Tarrien, of Newport.

Terry Tarrien installs a truck transmission at Transmission Clinic.

    I asked John what should we do to avoid transmission problems. He said to service or at least check the transmission at least every year or 20,000 to 30,000 miles, whichever comes first. The fluid level should be checked and changed if necessary. I asked if there were any symptoms we should be aware of. He said, “Any change in shift characteristics. For example, if you start it up in the morning and put it in gear, and it needs higher than normal RPMs to move, or it doesn’t move at all, there’s an indication that something might be going on.

    Your “Check Engine” light can indicate a transmission problem. Check the floor under the vehicle for dripping fluid. It’s red. “With an automatic transmission, if it had a leak of say half a quart, you’ll probably start to notice some symptoms, like delayed engagement, slipping going around a corner, or going up a hill where it’s not catching anymore. But with a standard transmission, it’s not going to give you any indication whatsoever, that oil is running low. There might be a drip a day. You’re not going to see it, and you’re not going to smell it. All of a sudden you’re going to get to an incline, and what oil there is left in there is now running to the back of the transmission. In a couple miles, those gears can be stripped smooth.” 

    Getting stuck in snow is our immediate problem, and I asked John his advice. He said to easily move in reverse as much as you can, and hold the brake. Then shift to drive, ease-on the gas as you release the brake. “The worst thing you can do is spin the wheels. You can melt the transmission because it’s not built to run at those speeds.”

    “Dr. John” is on WNTK talk radio every Wednesday from 7:40 to 8 a.m.(99.7 FM, 1490 AM and streaming audio at

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