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How Clutches Work


Common Problems

From the 1950s to the 1970s, you could count on getting between 50,000 and 70,000 miles from your car's clutch. Clutches can now last for more than 80,000 miles if you use them gently and maintain them well. If not cared for, clutches can start to break down at 35,000 miles. Trucks that are consistently overloaded or that frequently tow heavy loads can also have problems with relatively new clutches.

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The most common problem with clutches is that the friction material on the disc wears out. The friction material on a clutch disc is very similar to the friction material on the pads of a disc brake or the shoes of a drum brake -- after a while, it wears away. When most or all of the friction material is gone, the clutch will start to slip, and eventually it won't transmit any power from the engine to the wheels.

The clutch only wears while the clutch disc and the flywheel are spinning at different speeds. When they are locked together, the friction material is held tightly against the flywheel, and they spin in sync. It's only when the clutch disc is slipping against the flywheel that wearing occurs. So, if you are the type of driver who slips the clutch a lot, you'll wear out your clutch a lot faster.

Sometimes the problem is not with slipping, but with sticking. If your clutch won't release properly, it will continue to turn the input shaft. This can cause grinding, or completely prevent your car from going into gear. Some common reasons a clutch may stick are:

  • Broken or stretched clutch cable - The cable needs the right amount of tension to push and pull effectively.
  • Leaky or defective slave and/or master clutch cylinders - Leaks keep the cylinders from building the necessary amount of pressure.
  • Air in the hydraulic line - Air affects the hydraulics by taking up space the fluid needs to build pressure.
  • Misadjusted linkage - When your foot hits the pedal, the linkage transmits the wrong amount of force.
  • Mismatched clutch components - Not all aftermarket parts work with your clutch.

A "hard" clutch is also a common problem. All clutches require some amount of force to depress fully. If you have to press hard on the pedal, there may be something wrong. Sticking or binding in the pedal linkage, cable, cross shaft, or pivot ball are common causes. Sometimes a blockage or worn seals in the hydraulic system can also cause a hard clutch.

Another problem associated with clutches is a worn throw-out bearing, sometimes called a clutch release bearing. This bearing applies force to the fingers of the spinning pressure plate to release the clutch. If you hear a rumbling sound when the clutch engages, you might have a problem with the throw-out.

In the next section, we'll examine some different types of clutches and how they are used.


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