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OK, so I'm not complaining about the truck, even though I am. I really like it and I'd love to make it work for me for a long time. But, I'm pretty sure I got a pretty raw deal from a dealership on my used Dakota.

I'm sure its all on the side, but to start, I bought a 1996 Dodge Dakota Club Cab, 3.9L V6 Magnum. Rear weel drive, with a 42re automatic transmission. 87,000 miles on it. On the test drive it was 'wow', drove nicely, started moderately good, shifted well, idled a little rough. Fluids looked clean, and straight as an arrow on the highway. Only some cosmetic problems on the outside, but mainly a really sound truck. I jumped on it, and got it for $3,600 with no warranty available on it.

Fast forward one week and the problems began to set in. And I'm going to list these off to make things easier on the eyes.

1. Starting became quite difficult on a cold engine. The battery might be the culprit and I haven't tackled that yet, it was mid range on the gauge in ACC when I got it, and now has lowered to about 1/3 on the gauge. After started, the alternator takes it up to about 2/3rds. I also thought maybe the spark plugs needed changing, and they did. Didn't help my problem much though.

2. Transmission issues. Off of the hard cold start, it would idle a bit rough with a slight shake. Put it into any gear except neutral and park, and it makes a slight grinding noise, more of a chatter. Once the truck warms up a little, the noise completely goes away. During this time, the transmission has a pretty difficult time shifting into 3rd gear. Every other gear no problem. I checked the fluid level and it is a bit high, a little over 1 cm over the full line. It also has some bubbles in it. Not foamy, but very noticeable. The shifting into 3rd problem does get better every shift off of a cold engine, and seems to be gone after about 20 shifts. Still it helps it greatly to completely let off the gas to get it to engage.

3. When I changed the spark plugs, I noticed the coolant was low, so I went and mixed up some coolant 50/50 with distilled water. Four days later after I filled it to the full line I checked all levels again and it lowered all the way down below the fill line again. Gulp. Nothing is leaking out of the bottom. The exhaust is not too white, but does smell of glycol. I filled it up again and watched it as the truck was in idle, sure enough, on an even rate I see coolant surging up from the bottom of the overflow tank, with a few larger bubbles here and there. Now I'm pretty sure the head gasket has a leak in it. The oil itself looks pretty clear, I'm not an expert though. It does have a bit of a tannish look to it. Not like milky coffee though. More clear than milky. On a side note, the engine is not overheating at all. The oil gauge does however normally sit at half way, but sometimes jumps to 2/3rds.

I have not got the Haynes for this truck yet, but will be doing so tomorrow.

Also the check engine light is NOT on, I've tried the "cycle the key three times to get it to flash the errors", and apparently it isn't throwing any codes my direction.

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So now on to my questions. Does anybody know of a more concrete way the diagnose the head gasket issue? How damaging is it to the engine to drive it with the gasket issue (it is not overheating)? Could a head gasket issue cause auto transmission issues? Could the auto transmission be acting up solely because of too much fluid? How difficult is replacing the head gasket, I make hydrostatic pumps for a living, so I know my way around a gasket and seals, but I'm not an auto expert. Does a head gasket issue cause problems starting?

Any advice is appreciated. Personally I'd like to stay away from auto shops if I can do the diagnosis and or repair myself. Thanks to everybody in advance, great forum you've all got here, its HUGE.
 

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You can have the coolant system pressure tested. If you've got a leaky head gasket it would show up right away. A regular, independent shop would be able to do it. Probably for very little money. It doesn't sound like the coolant is leaking into the oil, tho.

Do a compression check, too.

Changing the head gaskets isn't difficult, you'll need a coupla torque wrenches--but it's something you could do in a weekend.

If you have something else to drive, pull the battery out and take it to O'reilly's, Autozone, or Advanced and have it tested. Before you take it in, check the water level--and top off with distilled water if necessary.

Same with the alternator--it isn't difficult to remove, take it in and have it tested. Both tests (battery & alternator) are done for free.

The trannie may need an oil change and a tune up. Automatic transmissions are outside my expertise. But clean, correct trannie oil may be all it needs. If that doesn't work, you may be headed for a rebuild.


A note on Haynes, Chiltons, and the Factory Service Manual. Trying to fix your truck from Haynes is like reading the gospel from a hymnal. the ideas may be there, but for best results better to go to the original source.
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Yeah, I hear you on the Haynes and Chilton books. I just got mine, and it encompases four different engines. It's a beast to get the information you need, and its scant if that. Are you recommending the Factory Service Manual then? Thanks for the info man.
 
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