The average clutch is designed to last between 20,000 to 100,000 miles depending on your vehicle make and model. For 99% of that time the clutch simply sits down there on the drive shaft, quietly going about its very important task. We never thank it, because we never see it.
Then, bam! One day it fails and we are left looking into the smirking face of our mechanic as he hands over a whopping bill for a new clutch.
But it doesn’t have to be like that! The clutch gives us plenty of notice when it’s coming toward the end of its life, allowing us to plan for its replacement long in advance. That can help to keep the costs down – or at the very least stop them being a big shock to the system and the bank balance.
In this article we’re going to take a look at five of the most common symptoms of a worn clutch that needs replacing.
What is the Clutch?
Just before we kick off, a quick word to just what a clutch actually is. The clutch is actually a pretty complicated part of the driveshaft, which itself is one of the more complicated components on the car.
We don’t have time to really get into it here, as this article isn’t really about how the clutch itself works. We’re here to look at the signs it is worn out and needs replacing. To put it very simply, the purpose of the clutch is to disconnect the wheels from the power being supplied by the engine. This allows you to change gears, after which the clutch reconnects the engine power to the wheels to keep the car moving.
Symptoms of a Worn Clutch
- Soft Like Butter
As the ancient Chinese proverb states, “Clutch should be tough like iron, not soft like butter.” Ok, maybe we made that up but the basic idea still stands. When you depress the clutch pedal, you should be met with a relative amount of resistance. The clutch itself is a heavy old spinning disc of metal and springs. It’s weight, plus the mechanism of its design, should take a little pressure to move.
If the clutch pedal goes down like you’re pushing it into a bowl of warm butter, that is an early sign of a clutch that is coming toward the end of it’s lifespan. This can be one the earliest symptoms to appear, and also one of the easiest to spot. Keep an eye out for this one then.
- Where’s Reverse?
When you put the vehicle into reverse, you are essentially diverting the engine power from the crank shaft in the opposite direction to what the car is designed to do. That’s why when you shift into reverse, you often hear a big clunk or even, depending on the kind of vehicle you drive, feel a shudder run through the car.
This is because shifting into reverse is a big deal for the drive shaft of the car and takes a lot of force, especially from the clutch. That is why, when a clutch starts to fail, one of the earliest symptoms can be that the car struggles to find reverse gear. It’s one of the hardest tasks the clutch has to perform, so naturally it’s one of the first failures.
- Slippery… Like Butter
Don’t worry, not all of these points will be butter related. When we refer to slipping here, we mean that the clutch “slips” when you try to engage it. What this means in practical term is that when you push down on the clutch pedal, the clutch plate itself is either not engaging or disengaging when you release the pedal. In a clutch that is at Death’s door, it could be doing both – but that car is going to be very hard to drive!
It is referred to as slipping because the vehicle actually feels like it is slipping between gear shifts and not moving fluidly up or down the gear changes. As well as making the clutch pedal feel soft (see point 1 above) you’ll notice the RPM of the engine spikes without any increase in power. In other words, the engine will rev but you won’t increase speed.
You will especially notice slipping during any phase of driving when you ask for more power from the engine. You could notice the clutch slip when you are driving up hill or if you need to overtake on the highway and throw the car into a higher gear. Instead of the power you need you’ll just get useless engine revving.
There is a cool curbside test for slippage. Turn the car on and, without pulling away, move straight from neutral into 3rd or 4th gear. If the car stalls, there is no slipping. If it just revs like crazy though you’ve got yourself a worn and slipping clutch, sir.
- Bumping & Grinding
Just like your ex-girlfriend, your clutch is not shy about loudly telling you when it is pissed off. So far we have concentrated on performance issues when it comes to judging a worn clutch. The thing is though, there are other even less subtle signs and symptoms to keep any eye out for.
There are a number of physical signs from the clutch. Sound, for example, is a big one. If you hear a grinding noise when you depress the clutch pedal, then the clutch is worn out. If the grinding sound seems to come from the engine block, this could be a sign of worn bearings instead, which are much easier to replace.
Depending on how much McDonalds and Taco Bell you eat in the car, you may also be able to smell trouble before it becomes a big issue. A worn clutch is going to start kicking out a pretty horrible burning smell. This will be especially apparent when you are overusing the clutch, such as bouncing on it at the top of an incline to stop roll back.
The last symptom is physical. As we mentioned above, one of the big signs of a worn clutch is if you depress the clutch pedal and it feels very soft. That’s not the only clue you can pick up through the pedal though. Another symptom you can pick up through the pedal is vibration. This is a simple symptom that you should be able to easily pick up.
The physical symptoms – the noise, the smell and the vibration – are often signs of an extremely worn clutch. A clutch is after all designed to have a relatively long life span, and to continue to perform its function even as it gets toward the end of its life. Physical symptoms will therefore usually only come about when the clutch is right at the end of its lifespan and has very little miles left in it.
Above all others then, if you notice any (or God forbid all) of these physical symptoms you should make plans to replace your clutch as soon as possible.
- It’s Hard to Change
Just before your old girlfriend became your ex-girlfriend, you promised her you could change. Turns out though, that’s not as easy as it may at first seem. The same, by the way, is true of a worn clutch.
The clutches whole deal, the reason it gets out of bed in the morning, is to change gears when you are driving. That is what it loves doing, that is what it is designed to do. So it only makes sense that the final symptom of a worn clutch to keep an eye out for is the clutch failing to do its actual job.
Luckily it’s easy to spot too. If you depress the clutch pedal all the way to the floor, and still struggle to change gears, that’s a big sign of a worn clutch. You may also see some physical symptoms. We mentioned before about feeling a shuddering through the clutch pedal. This shuddering feeling can also come up through the gear stick though, so keep an eye out for that.
Those are the biggest symptoms of a worn clutch to keep an eye out for. The good thing is that they are all pretty easy to spot. There can be some cross over between the symptoms of a worn clutch and another component failure. Broadly speaking though, if you are seeing symptoms in combo – like soft clutch pedal and slipping – then it could be a good idea to get that car jacked up and take a peak what is going on.
When it comes to replacing a clutch… well that’s anther article in itself and maybe we’ll tackle it another day. A clutch replacement is well within the remit of a knowledgeable at home mechanic with a reasonably well-equipped home garage though. That being said, even if you don’t want to tackle the job yourself it is still a good idea to be aware of the symptoms of a worn clutch.
When you know it is nearing the end of its lifespan, you can plan for it and put away a little money to soften the blow of the mechanics bill. It’s always much better to take the car in for a scheduled clutch repair rather than waiting for it to fail completely whilst you are out driving.
So keep an eye out for these symptoms, be kind to your clutches and happy driving, dudes!