The clutch is one of the hardest working parts in your car, so it’s not surprising that, eventually, it begins to show signs of wear and tear. Whether you’ve noticed it being too hard or too easy to push your clutch pedal or that your car is harder to get into gear, there are many symptoms of a clutch that may need to be replaced.
A Functioning Clutch
In a working clutch, when you press the pedal down, energy is transferred through either a mechanical or a hydraulic system to the release fork of the clutch, disengaging it from the transmission.
Ideally, you should be able to hit the clutch pedal, change gears, and then release the clutch pedal, reconnecting the transmission and engine and allowing power to be transferred.
The most important components of this system (and the ones most likely to have problems) are the flywheel, the clutch plate, the pressure plate, and the throwout bearing.
The flywheel connects directly to the engine, and the clutch disc connects to the flywheel. In the very center of the clutch disc is a hub that allows it to fit around the input shaft of the transmission. When power is connected (which is any time you’re not pressing the clutch pedal), energy is transferred from the engine through the flywheel and clutch to the transmission. When you depress the clutch pedal, power is transferred through the connecting linkage to the throwout bearing. As the throwout bearing moves down, it triggers the spring in the pressure plate which causes it to release the clutch disc.
Of course, that’s when it’s working well.
Symptoms and Causes of a Bad Clutch
Symptom: Engine’s Moving Quickly, Car’s Moving Slowly
This is caused by an issue colloquially called “clutch slippage.” Slippage occurs when a clutch’s ability to generate friction has been compromised either through wear and tear or occasionally through an oil or transmission leak. The clutch relies on friction to turn the flywheel, and without it has to work significantly harder to transfer less energy. A slipping clutch can also be caused by a damaged pressure plate or clutch linkage that’s not properly transmitting pressure either because of wear and tear or because parts have become blocked or rust-damaged.
Symptom: Car is Noisy in Neutral, but Quiets Down When Clutch Pedal is Pressed
This is most likely caused by a worn-out input shaft bearing. Unfortunately, this indicates that you’ll need to replace the bearing on the input shaft.
Symptom: Squealing or Chirping When Clutch Pedal is Pressed
This is likely caused by a problem with the throwout bearing or the pilot bearing. When these bearings become older, are worn down, or have their lubricant dry out, parts start to rub that really shouldn’t. If you catch this early you’ll be able to keep other parts from also wearing down.
If the noise starts at the first touch of the clutch pedal, it’s likely a bad release bearing. If you only hear it when you’ve really pressed the pedal close to the floor then it’s more likely that you have a pilot bearing that needs to be replaced.
Symptom: Horrible Grinding Noise
This is called dragging clutch, and it could mean a problem with the pressure plate, throwout bearing, or release mechanism. Essentially your clutch is supposed to release when you press the pedal so that you can change gears without grinding them into nothing, without being able to release the clutch you’re going to hear a lot of grinding and it’s bad news for your transmission.
You’ll most likely need a new clutch assembly, but you can also check out your pedal to see if it’s too loose and thus unable to fully disengage the clutch.
Symptom: Car Can’t Get Into Gear
You may also notice that your clutch pedal doesn’t feel quite right if this is the issue. Does it feel like it’s not quite catching? Or like it’s loose?
If you installed an aftermarket part to your clutch, this should be your first suspect. Not all parts will work with your clutch, and an ill-fitting component is one of the more frequent causes of a stuck clutch. If you have a hydraulic system, it’s possible that you have air in the line. Essentially, something is damaged that prevents the correct amount of pressure from being applied to the clutch. Hence, sticking.
If you don’t have a hydraulic system but are having this problem, the issue is most likely with the clutch disc or pressure plate. Unfortunately, this is one of those problems that can have a lot of causes and will likely need further diagnostic tests.
Symptom: Clutch Pedal Is Noisy
If you have noticed that your clutch pedal makes an abnormal amount of noise both when the engine is on and you depress it and also when the engine is off then the problem is probably related to the clutch fork. Sometimes the lubricant dries out, or the part simply deteriorates over time. If the pedal squeaks when depressed, it is more likely just the clutch pedal spring making noise.
Symptom: Noisy Acceleration
This happens when the clutch isn’t able to maintain a consistent grip on the flywheel. This can happen because of wear and tear on the clutch itself, or on the flywheel. This wear and tear can be caused by heat and burning (when people say you’re burning up your clutch, they do mean that literally in some cases) or can just be a symptom of age.
Fixing Clutch Issues
Before dragging your car to the mechanic, you should check the parts of the clutch system that you feel comfortable inspecting on your own. With many of these issues, something as simple as a clutch pedal that’s gotten too loose can be the true culprit, and that’s an easy and inexpensive fix. Unfortunately, at some point in your car’s life, you will almost certainly need to replace the entire clutch kit.
Clutch Life Expectancy
Much like brake pads, tires, and air filters, replacing the clutch eventually is just the cost of driving a car.
50,000-100,000 miles is the average lifespan of a clutch, though there are many people who have burned their clutch out much, much sooner than that.
It’s important to change out your flywheel at the same time as your clutch because these two pieces have to work together so intricately if you replace one and not the other you’re dramatically reducing the lifespan of both components and negatively impacting your driving experience to boot.
If you’re driving a manual, you’re going to shift a lot. Many, many times per day. You want to enjoy those shifts.
Some of the things that affect clutch life are outside of your control. If you live somewhere that’s hot, your transmission fluid is also going to get hot and will damage the parts of your car much more quickly. But there are a lot of other things that impact clutch lifespan that you can impact.
Things You Can Do to Extend Clutch Life
Don’t Ride the Clutch
Some drivers develop a habit of leaving the clutch pedal halfway down or resting their foot on the clutch pedal even when they're not changing gears. Though this makes changing gears just slightly easier and faster, it’s absolutely not worth the wear and tear you’re putting on your clutch and transmission. Even a slight amount of pressure on the clutch pedal can cause premature wear that adds up over time. When you’re not shifting, keep your foot off the clutch and instead on the dead pedal or floor to the left of the pedal.
Change Gears Quickly and Decisively
When it is time to change gears, wait to shift until the clutch is disengaged and keep the pedal down until you’re in gear and then get off of it quickly and smoothly. Brisk, decisive gear changes are one of the keys to keeping a clutch from getting mushy. Of course, there will always be some clutch modulation necessary to get started in first gear, and there's nothing wrong with that. Just try not to leave your clutch in between the "engaged" and "disengaged" positions for extended periods of time.
Remember You Have Two Other Pedals
Don’t use your clutch as a brake; that’s literally what the brake is for. There’s a whole separate pedal for it just so you won’t damage your clutch by using it as a brake. Likewise, don’t use your clutch to prevent rolling back on hills. Thankfully with features like hill assist it’s getting easier to handle hills with a manual transmission, but without that, your brake will work fine.
Friends Don’t Let Friends Shift In the Wrong Places
One day, your friend, who has only ever driven an automatic, will look at you seriously and ask you to teach them how to drive stick. And you should. Just maybe not on your mint condition Mystichrome Terminator Cobra. Use a car you don’t care about so much. While a few stalls won't have a major impact on your clutch's longevity, people learning how to drive a manual can exhibit some of the top causes of premature clutch death, so make sure you're teaching them proper techniques. Also, they might want to do burnies or ask you to tow things. Feel free, but remember that you’re for sure shortening your clutch’s life a little.
By using your handbrake first and not just parking in gear, you prevent your car from putting the whole of its weight on your transmission and clutch, which is good for the life of your vehicle. Simply set the parking brake while the car is in neutral, and then shift into first gear or reverse gear as a backup measure. That way, your parking brake will be what's holding your car in place, instead of your transmission.
When You Upgrade, Upgrade Everything
Clutches have a certain amount of torque they can handle, and each one is rated differently. If you get a new engine or go for a tune that increases your torque or horsepower, your clutch is no longer optimized for your vehicle, which means it’s time to get a new one. There are a lot of different choices for clutches, but if you pick one that will accommodate the build of your Mustang and your driving habits you’ll be happy with it for years to come (your mileage may vary).
Sources: Edmunds | Axle Addict | Haynes | Car Talk Image Credit: HinoaCanada | It Still Runs | Mye 28 | Wheelzine