Shifting Gears: Valve Body Tech With TCI Automotive

“Out of sight, out of mind,” the saying goes. Unless you’re a star racer with a dedicated pit crew working on your rig, chances are that you’ve overlooked parts on your truck, Jeep or SUV, or decided not to look at them for fear of what the result would be. And your transmission’s valve body might be the thing that makes or breaks it.

In talking with the good folks over at TCI Automotive, we got to explore more about valve bodies and the role they play in different applications. From prerunners to buggies to full-on unlimited trucks, every off-roader can benefit from having better knowledge of what makes their rigs tick.

Valve bodies are the brains of a transmission. Seen here is one from a 46RH automatic during Junkyard Challenge.

Let’s dive in and find out what valve bodies do, why they’re important, what to look for when replacing them, and the different types of valve bodies TCI offers. This is valuable information to have, whether you’re simply maintaining a daily driver or looking to take a project to the next level.

What Valve Bodies Do

Valve bodies are vitally important to the function of an automatic transmission, which are the vast majority of transmissions these days. As we learned from TCI’s Jeff Reed, “The valve body is the brain of the transmission. It controls what gear the transmission is in.”

Put more elegantly, the valve body directs transmission fluid to different valves through channels, which in turn affect which gear gets selected. Different pathways serve different functions and correspond to a gear number (e.g. Third gear, Fourth gear, Reverse gear, etc.), as well as upshifting or downshifting. You can imagine how complicated this gets; these days, the Ford Ranger uses a 10-speed transmission, for example.

They’re easy to forget about, but valve bodies are critical to a transmission’s function. TCI’s valve bodies are fully hand assembled and manually milled to ensure the highest attention to detail.

Transmission fluid flows within the valve body, working constantly to activate clutch packs or band servos and shift into the desired gear. However, transmission fluid, like engine oil, wears out over time, as we all know. When the clean red color shifts to brown and then to black, it’s gone on too long and will affect the valve body’s ability to do its job.

“Valve bodies will go bad for a variety of reasons,” said Reed. “One way is from the shift valves getting stuck. The fluid is so ineffective that the metal will heat up and start to wear. When that happens, it can find its way into the valve body and clog up valves. You’ll start to notice the transmission ‘slips’ trying to get in and out of gears, or won’t engage at all.”

Picking The Right Valve Body For The Job

TCI Automotive specializes in multiple areas related to transmissions, and when it comes to valve bodies, its main area of expertise is in GM. From the 200R4 to 4L60E, these valve bodies cover a wide range of applications in cars and trucks.

Trucks in particular will benefit from either a 4L60E or TH400 valve body, to take just two examples that apply to off-road. We’ll start with the TH400 and TCI’s upgrade in the form of the TH400 full manual reverse shift pattern valve body with engine braking (PN 221201). This valve body would perform best in a racing or prerunning application, as you’ll see below.

Types Of Valve Bodies


Choosing a manual or automatic valve body will greatly affect the vehicle’s performance down the road. Before you go buying a random valve body, you should figure out what ratio of street to off-road driving you’ll be doing. If it’s going to be 70-percent street to 30-percent off-road, then it’s probably best to go with an automatic or manual/automatic. If that ratio is flipped, then going with a fully manual valve body might make more sense.

An automatic valve body is what your transmission will naturally come with from the factory. It works alone and doesn’t need any input from the driver to function, and chooses which gear to go into in a given driving situation.

A fully manual valve body is different. It gives total control in all driving situations to the driver, letting him make the decision on which gear he wants to be in.

A hybrid manual/automatic valve body combines these operations. Drivers can choose to either have full control of the gear selection or let the valve body have control and determine shifting independently of driver input.

The Turbo Hydramatic 400 (TH400) was a three-speed automatic transmission that came in several trucks and SUVs, as well as cars. “The TH400 first arrived in the 1960s and saw widespread use into the 1980s,” commented Reed. “They mostly got used in three-quarter-ton and one-ton trucks of the era, as well as muscle cars.”

One interesting facet of this valve body is its full manual capability. Akin to transmissions that use paddle shifters, this capability allows the driver to manually select which gear he wants. “Automatic valve bodies do the thinking on their own, while manual valve bodies let the driver pick the gear he wants,” added Reed. “Having ‘full manual’ means greater control over the transmission, which would be useful in a racing application. The manual ability also means higher line pressures, offering a more positive shifting controllability, which is a must for off-roading.”

TCI’s TH400 full manual reverse pattern valve body uses a reverse shift pattern for driver safety. “Basically, it keeps the driver from shifting into neutral or even reverse if the shifter doesn’t have reverse lock-out,” said Reed.

Another interesting facet of this valve body is its ability to induce engine braking. Engine braking essentially makes the engine generate braking force on the vehicle. It’s not as effective as using the brakes, but will certainly act as a force multiplier.

Reed explained how the valve body induces engine braking in the vehicle. “We designed this valve body to apply different bands when downshifting,” he said. “When downshifting into Second gear, the valve body applies the intermediate band. When downshifting into First gear, it applies the low gear band. We’ve found it’s great for increasing safety in an off-road application. It works best on downgrades and will keep the transmission from coasting when not under load.”

Another interesting valve body is the 4L60E valve body with engine braking (PN 376035). As a modification to a more modern transmission, TCI’s valve body is well equipped to go on a wider variety of vehicles. “The 4L60E came in GM vehicles starting in 1994,” commented Reed. “It covered the light-duty trucks and SUVs up until they switched over to the 6L80 in 2009.”

TCI’s 4L60E valve body with engine braking.

TCI’s 4L60E valve body possesses the same engine braking ability as TCI’s TH400 valve body. It does this by applying the overrun clutch. “In a stock 4L60E, the overrun clutch is applied in Fourth gear,” said Reed. “Our valve body doesn’t use the overrun clutch in Fourth gear, so we designed the overrun clutch to apply on downshifts.”

“This keeps the forward clutch sprag from breaking, and takes away some of the pressure on the sprag and sprag race,” continued Reed. “The end result is engine braking capability in Third, Second, and First gears when the shifter is in the Third-gear position.”

Engine braking is useful in downshifting before turns. With this ability, the valve body will put the transmission into the proper gear while also helping the vehicle bleed speed to take a tighter corner. In prerunning and desert racing, this is a boon to the driving experience and can prove essential to coming out on top.

Conclusion

Valve bodies are often overlooked, but shouldn’t be underestimated. Just like every other part of your rig, they will go bad if left unchecked, and keeping them flush with good transmission fluid is vital to their survival. You should always take proper maintenance of your vehicle and take heed of the signs that the valve body is due for replacement.

When the time comes, TCI’s valve bodies will be there. TCI takes great pride to only select salvageable cores for servicing, and each valve body that comes through their manufacturing process receives hands-on care and attention.

If you’re ready to make the leap from automatic to fully manual, or just want to see what kinds of options are available, we encourage you to check out TCI’s website. And don’t forget to follow them on Facebook, too.

Article Sources

About the author

David Chick

David Chick comes to us ready for adventure. With passions that span clean and fast Corvettes all the way to down and dirty off-road vehicles (just ask him about his dream Jurassic Park Explorer), David's eclectic tastes lend well to his multiple automotive writing passions.
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