What Is a Car Clutch and How Does It Work?

CarPart  ·  February 15, 2022

What Is a Car Clutch and How Does It Work?

These days, not too many people know about car clutches because most car owners choose auto transmission cars and electric vehicles, both of which don’t use clutches at all. So, if you’re looking for info that’s not so mainstream, like car clutch problems, you’ve come to the right place.

A failing car clutch will have plenty of symptoms, like problems accelerating, a clutch pedal that is too sticky or too loose, issues switching gears or staying in gear, or grinding clutch parts that cause noises and burning smells.

This guide will refresh your memory on what a car clutch is and how it works. Then, we’ll dive into the tell-tale signs you can look for to know when your clutch needs repairs.

What Is a Car Clutch?

If all you’ve driven in life is an automatic vehicle, then it’s quite understandable why you’re asking this question. Only cars with manual transmissions have clutches.

Let’s talk about what it is.

In manual transmission vehicles, the clutch is the driver’s third foot pedal, aside from the accelerator and the brake. You step on it whenever you want to change gears.

Why is that necessary?

You can’t switch gears while the engine keeps turning or running. You can only safely do that by disengaging the wheels without stopping the engine – by using the clutch.

When you step on the clutch, you’re disengaging the wheels from the engine so you can switch gears. Once you’ve shifted to your target gear, you may then let go of the clutch to re-engage the engine and the wheels.

Again, you won't find a clutch in a vehicle with an automatic transmission (or an electric car, for that matter). In an automatic car, the gearbox will handle all gear shifting. As for electric cars, well, those don't even have more than one gear to begin with.

How Does a Car Clutch Work?

How a car clutch works is quite straightforward. In the first place, there are only two essential parts of a car clutch that you need to know about right now. 

There’s the car clutch pedal mentioned above and the flywheel.

Here’s a simplified sequence of how the car clutch works as you change gears in a manual transmission car:

  1. Ease your foot off the accelerator pedal.
  2. Step on the clutch pedal all the way down. This will disengage the wheels from the engine. The engine will continue turning since it generates power. As for your car’s wheels, they’ll continue turning with momentum until you finish changing gears.
  3. Change gears. Shift the gear stick to the gear you want.
  4. Gently release the clutch pedal. You'll allow the wheels to re-engage with the engine.
  5. Step on the accelerator. Lastly, once you’ve completely released the clutch pedal, you can accelerate like usual.

For anyone who has never driven a manual, using the clutch and switching gears might seem like a long process. 

However, for drivers who have learned driving from manual transmission vehicles, gear-shifting with a clutch becomes second nature to them and even makes them more ‘one with the machine’.

7 Symptoms of a Failing Car Clutch

Now that you have a general sense of how a car clutch works, it'll be much easier to understand the symptoms of a failing car clutch.

Here are 7 things that will likely happen if your vehicle’s clutch starts to go bad.

#1 Acceleration Problems

One of the first tell-tale signs that you’ve got a problematic clutch is problems accelerating. For example, you’ll hear your engine getting louder as you try to accelerate, but the car can’t get to the desired speed.

There can be other causes, but one is a faulty clutch that prevents the engine and wheels from engaging with each other correctly.

#2 Grinding Gears

As you might already know, a manual transmission will make grinding noises if you shift gears incorrectly. That’ll usually happen if you don’t push the clutch pedal all the way down, for instance.

But if you know you’re shifting gears as you should, and the grinding noises still happen, that means something’s not right with the clutch.

#3 A Loose Clutch Pedal

Like the accelerator or brake pedals, the one for the clutch shouldn’t be too loose or too tight. So, when you press the pedal with your foot, and it goes all the way down without any resistance, that’s a sure sign something isn’t right with the clutch.

#4 A Sticky Clutch Pedal

As mentioned above in #3, the pedal shouldn't be too tight or 'sticky' either. You should expect the same resistance level as the other two pedals when pushing on the clutch.

When it’s too tight or loose, you’ve got a problem there.

#5 Can’t Shift into Gear

If you’re shifting gears, but your car won’t change into the gear you want, that can only mean two things: there’s an issue with the clutch, or there’s a problem with the transmission as a whole.

Neither is good news, so you’ll want to get it checked ASAP.

#6 Can’t Stay in Gear

Now, imagine you get into the gear you want, but the car keeps slipping out of it. That’s another sign that your clutch or the transmission has an issue that needs your attention.

That kind of problem can be dangerous on the road, so you must get your car to the workshop quickly. 

Driving the car there will be challenging with a faulty clutch, so take it slow and steady.

#7 Other Smells and Sounds

Like many other car parts that fail, you can expect some tell-tale smells and sounds when your clutch starts going bad.

Smell-wise, you'll pick up on a burning smell from your clutch. That happens when the clutch and other transmission parts grind against each other, generating lots of heat in the process.

Naturally, there'll also be grinding noises coming from all of that grinding.

If you find that your car clutch isn’t repairable, you’ll want to invest in replacement transmission parts. You can find those through CarpartAU’s Marketplace, or you may also a request through the Part Finder if you prefer to connect with auto parts sellers near you.


By Ray Hasbollah

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