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BACKYARD MECHANIC: 'Neutral' not needed in cold starting

QUESTION: On one of the TV stations recently, they gave some tips regarding starting vehicles in cold weather, one of which I had not heard of before and had never implemented in my vehicle operation. The tip: When starting the vehicle in "Park", the transmission should "immediately" be place in the "Neutral" position for whatever warm-up period you were planning. Is this a preferred procedure?

In my case, being parked in an attached garage, rather than waste gas warming up the engine unless absolutely required for comfort purposes, I normally start my '95 Monte Carlo (310,000+ km), in "Park" and then select "Reverse. I then back out and am on my way, respecting the fact that the engine and everything else is cold and keeping the revs on the low side until I see a noticeable increase in the coolant temperature gauge.

I don't think I've ever hit 3,000 rpm more than once, and that would have been during summer temperatures. I have been very impressed with the 3.1 V6 in the Monte, love the car itself as much as the day I got it and, while it may sound silly, I'm now aiming for 400,000 km. Could you comment on the "tip" I referred to earlier?

ANSWER: The tip about placing the automatic transmission in neutral to warm it up dates back to the early days of automatic transmissions in the 1950s and '60s. In that time period, there were some automatics that did not circulate the transmission oil through the complete transmission if it were in Park, so the transmission did not warm up evenly.

Transmissions used in vehicles since the late '60s have the oil flow the same through the transmission in Park and Neutral, with the exception that some transmissions will apply oil pressure to the low/reverse clutch in anticipation of a shift into Reverse or Drive range. The transmission doesn't need to be placed in Neutral to warm it up.

One thing to consider when operating a cold transmission is that oil pressure in the transmission is typically higher in Reverse than in other ranges. If the engine is on a fast idle and you immediately put the transmission in Reverse, the sudden application of oil pressure to the cold piston seals of the reverse clutch drum can sometimes tear a seal and create an internal leak. The seals in a new transmission are softer and will tolerate this, but the seals harden as they age over the years, so an older transmission may have problems.

Let the engine run long enough for the rpm to come down close to idle speed before placing the transmission in reverse and this will reduce the chances of this occurring.

QUESTION: I drive a 2010 Civic EX-L and, while transporting a small freezer home, managed to gouge the back-door liner when sliding the freezer into my back seat. The reason I'm writing is to get your thoughts on trailer-hitch platforms. Are they a good substitute for small trailers? I like the idea of something attached to a hitch that can be used to transport oversize items (like small freezers) and then can be removed and stored compactly.

ANSWER: I have seen many items hung off the back end of cars and trucks during my years of travel and camping, so anything is possible. But I wouldn't recommend hanging a freezer off the back end of your Civic.

Trailer hitches are designed for pulling trailers. One for your Civic would have a maximum 1,000-lb. towing capacity, which was the towing capacity for earlier Civic models. But the weight on the tongue of the trailer would probably be a maximum of about 50 pounds. This may be enough to haul a couple of bicycles on a hitch-mounted rack, but a freezer would certainly weigh much more than this.

The weight hanging out the back of the vehicle could cause handling problems because weight is transferred away from the front wheels. The bouncing action of the weight as you drive would also apply a heavy load to the hitch and car body structure, probably breaking parts after a few hundred kilometres. If you need to haul large or heavy loads, towing a small trailer would be a much better solution.

Jim Kerr is an experienced mechanic, instructor of automotive technology, freelance journalist and member of the Automobile Journalists' Association of Canada.