When to Replace the Clutch in Your Vehicle

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When to Replace the Clutch in Your Vehicle

Many people know that cars and trucks have clutches and that clutches sometimes need to be replaced. Naturally, the next question is when does the clutch need to be replaced? Unfortunately, there is no one, definitive answer. A clutch can last anywhere from 48,000 kilometres to 161,000 kilometres, depending on the type of vehicle, how the vehicle is driven, and even the climate in which it is driven. Cars driven in warm climates tend to have their clutches wear out faster. Luck may also play a role.

Instead of trying to pinpoint how long a clutch should last, it may be safer to just say that a well-cared-for car is likely to go through more than one of them, and to focus on how to tell if the clutch needs to be replaced. No one wants to replace a clutch unnecessarily, since replacing a clutch can be very expensive and difficult, although putting off the operation results in lower fuel efficiency, less reliable handling, and safety issues. Therefore, car owners need to know at least the basics of what clutches are, how they work, and what the signs of trouble mean.

 Introducing the Clutch

Most people know that standard transmission cars have clutches and that periodically clutches go bad and need to be replaced. But fewer people know what a clutch really is and how it works. Understanding how the clutch works is an important part of learning how to recognise when it is not working.

 What Is a Clutch?

Most people use the word clutch to refer to the clutch pedal of a manual transmission car. For example, it is said that automatic transmission cars do not have a clutch. This is not true; what automatic transmission cars do not have is a clutch pedal. A clutch is actually a particular type of mechanism that exists in many different types of machines, from the familiar standard transmission to some cordless drill designs.

A clutch is the meeting point between two rotating shafts; in the case of a car's drive train, the clutch is the link between the engine and the transmission. When the clutch is engaged, the transmission spins at the same speed as the engine does. When the clutch is disengaged, the engine continues to spin, but the transmission does not spin. This allows the car to change gears or to sit at idle. If there was no clutch, the only way to stop a car from moving would be to shut down the engine. Automatic transmissions also have clutches, although the design is somewhat different.

 How Does a Clutch Work?

A clutch works through friction. The clutch plate contacts a matching plate on the motor, called a flywheel, and the two plates then spin together. When the contact is first made, the two plates rub against each other briefly, until the clutch plate comes up to speed. During this rubbing, the clutch is worn away a little bit, the same way brake pads are worn away a little whenever the brake is engaged. Eventually, the clutch is worn too smooth to catch the flywheel reliably, and the clutch begins to slip occasionally. But while brake pads are worn every time the brake is used, the clutch is only worn in that moment before the two plates match speed. This is one reason that, although clutches usually need to be replaced at some point in the car's working lifetime, they do not need to be replaced as often as brake pads do.

Too much stress, as when a vehicle hauls too heavy a load for too long, or when a manual transmission is driven by someone who does not know how to change gears well, can wear out a clutch much faster. Clutches can also become warped, or other problems can occur in the transmission. Automatic transmissions typically have several clutches, any of which can go bad in exactly the same way that a manual transmission's clutch does.

Signs that a Clutch Needs to Be Replaced

A clutch that slips during normal driving, even if only occasionally, should be replaced. When a clutch slips, that means the clutch plate literally slips with respect to the flywheel, instead of turning with it. The engine can then speed up or slow down without the changing being communicated to the transmission, until the clutch catches again. What the driver sees is that stepping on the gas increases the engine's RPMs, but not the speed of the car. If a clutch is going to slip, it normally does so during a gear change, and since these are more obvious with a manual transmission, clutch problems are more obvious with a manual transmission as well.

Related Transmission Problems

Besides the pressure plate of the clutch wearing smooth, there are several other problems that can develop either with the clutch or with related parts of the transmission. For example, the plate could be warped, which causes a chatter or vibration. Any clutch can chatter if treated badly, and even a warped plate can often be made to work smoothly if treated very gently. The key distinction is if normal driving causes a chatter, there could be a problem. Often, only a mechanical inspection can reveal for sure what is causing the problem, but since working on the clutch generally involves disassembling the entire transmission anyway, a thorough inspection does not necessarily add any more work to the project. This table lists several symptoms that could indicate problems with the clutch or with related parts of the transmission.

Symptom

Possible Explanation

Burning smell or smoke

Can be an unrelated problem, but clutches can burn if ridden excessively

Slipping out of gear

Indicates a worn clutch or the presence of an oil leak that is accidentally lubricating the clutch

Clutch pedal is hard to depress, or does not spring back up

Indicates a problem with the hydraulic system or the cable system, whichever the car's clutch has

Vibrations or noises

Can be an unrelated problem, but the clutch plate could be warped an engine mount or transmission mount could be going bad

This list is not exhaustive, nor is this list intended to diagnose any car problem all by itself. Instead, this list is a starting point for learning how to spot possible problems with the clutch. Not all of the symptoms listed in the table require replacing the clutch, but none of these should be ignored.

Replacing the Clutch in Your Vehicle

Once a car owner decides that the clutch probably does need to be replaced, there are two more questions. First, must the job be done by a professional? Second, what exactly does replacement entail?

Must a Clutch Be Replaced by a Professional?

Some car owners do replace the clutch themselves, but it is a difficult process that may require special equipment. At least part of the transmission must be exposed and disassembled. Front-wheel and all-wheel drive cars are much more difficult to work on in this way, as are large vehicles, such as trucks. When in doubt, call an expert, since a mistake could render the car impossible to drive.

Preparing for a Clutch Replacement

Because opening up the transmission is so difficult, most people use the opportunity of replacing the clutch to work on any nearby car part as well. For example, if the flywheel shows signs of damage, it can be repaired or replaced at the same time, even if the work could have been put off longer. By the same token, if the transmission is ever opened up for some other reason, take the opportunity to check the clutch and, if it shows signs of failure in the near future, replace it. For this reason, before beginning work, it is important to assemble all the replacement parts that might end up being used, as well as any necessary tools. Such clutch replacement kits can be purchased for manual transmission cars but are not available for automatic or continuous transmission cars. As with most other car parts, clutch replacement kits are available in both stock and high performance versions.

How to Buy Clutch Kits for Your Vehicle on eBay

Both clutch kits and individual kit components are available through eBay, for those who want to do the work themselves. Some professional mechanics also willingly install components supplied by the customer, though others do not. Finding and buying them is fairly simple, but a few tips can still help the new buyer.

Finding Clutches on eBay

Searching for clutches or clutch kits begins with typing the word into the search box. Use the menu options to narrow down the searche; be sure to specify car parts or cars, or the results may be dominated by fashionable bags, a very different kind of clutch. But the results may still be too numerous to browse through easily. To find a particular type quickly, use the Advanced Search feature.

Buying Clutches on eBay

A good way to make sure an eBay purchase goes well is simply to check that the right item has been selected. It is not uncommon for people to accidentally buy the wrong item. The seller's profile page has the seller's contact information, as well as his or her feedback score and return policy, so it is easy to address any questions to the seller directly.

Conclusion

Replacing worn parts as needed is just part of responsible car ownership. That means knowing enough about car mechanics to be able to make sense of the problems cars occasionally develop, as well as being able to recognise quality parts, good work, and good prices. Some people like to go a step farther and learn to do their own mechanical work.

Replacing a clutch is an advanced technique because of the inaccessibility of the clutch itself and of the high stakes involved. If someone makes a mistake while working within the transmission, the car might not be able to run at all. But that does not mean the technique cannot be learned. Indeed, there are instructions on how to do it available online, though learning from an experienced friend may be a better way to get started. But all of that begins with learning that when the engine of your vehicle races and the wheels unexpectedly do not, it is time to buy a new clutch.

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