Expert advice: how you know if your clutch is about to fail

clutch failure
The clutch looks simple but it’s a fundamental part of a car (Picture iStock/irman)

Clutch failure can leave you well and truly stranded The clutch is one of those parts of the car that many of us take for granted. That third pedal sitting to the left of the accelerator and brake is fundamental to how a manual transmission works.

That’s where a bit of self-diagnosis can pay dividends. If you know your clutch is on its way out, you can book your car into a garage before it leaves you high and dry. And you can shop around to get the best deal possible.

The good news is clutches frequently don’t just fail. There will be some tell-tale symptoms. Here’s what you should look out for.

What’s a slipping clutch?

The first thing to be aware of is what’s known as clutch slip. When you select a new gear, release the clutch pedal and continue trying to accelerate, you’ll notice the engine racing while you’re not speeding up as fast as you normally would. When a clutch is slipping you may also detect an acrid burning smell and sometimes even see smoke.

What does a slipping clutch mean?

The clutch mechanism employs a plate or disc that uses friction to join it to the flywheel where they move at the same speed. If the friction material is getting towards the end of its life, the clutch plate will start moving at a different speed to the flywheel. This won’t permit full engine power to be transmitted through the gearbox to the road wheels.

Usually a clutch will start slipping long before it fails. As soon as you notice it, book your car in to have it fixed. You’ll be able to drive it there under its own power at a time that suits you and without the panic of being left unexpectedly car-less.

clutch failure
The clutch links the gearbox to the engine (Picture iStock/GregorBister)

What’s a sticking clutch?

The opposite problem to a slipping clutch is when the clutch plate
won’t release from the flywheel. The input shaft to the gearbox is still turning and that makes it tricky to get the car into gear without a grinding noise. Sometimes you can’t get the car into gear at all.

What causes a clutch not to release?

In days gone by, there was a cable that linked the clutch mechanism to the pedal. This could stretch causing the clutch not to release. The cable has been replaced by a hydraulic mechanism employing slave and master cylinders. These can suffer leaks and other defects that prevent sufficient fluid pressure being built to release the clutch. Sadly, there’s often not much warning before these problems strike.

Other sudden problems

Back in the day, clutch cables used to break, leaving you stranded. Sudden clutch failure can also be caused by problems with the pressure plates that squash the friction plate onto the flywheel. If the springs behind these plates fail, you might feel the clutch pedal go very heavy and then you’ll lose drive.

Is it the clutch or gearbox?

You’re in the car and struggling to select or change gear, is it the clutch or the gearbox that’s at fault? There’s a simple test you can perform that will identify either way. Turn the engine off and see if you can select a gear. If you can then it’s usually clutch trouble; if you can’t then the problem will lie with the gearbox or gear linkage.

How long do clutches last?

A clutch wears out through use. As with pretty much every other component on a car, how quickly that happens depends on how the car is driven. Treat your clutch with respect and you’ll get more miles out of it; it’s as simple as that. A clutch should last for 60,000 to 80,000 miles. But if it’s been abused and slipped during its lifetime, that distance might be halved.

How much is a replacement clutch?

This is a major component and not cheap. For most family cars, you’ll be looking at somewhere between £400 and £500 for a new clutch. But do shop around and you may pay less.

Scott Wilson is Green Flag’s vehicle and customer insight manager

6 comments on “Expert advice: how you know if your clutch is about to fail

  1. Eric Hayman 04/06/2019 8:14 AM

    A clutch can go from seeming normal to no grip at all within a hundred miles. In the 1980s or 1990s, I was driving my Ford Escort 1.3 from London to near Eastbourne on a family visit one Saturday morning when that happened. I left Chiswick and travelled via the M25, M23 and A27. Part of the way down the M23 I noticed some slipping on gear changes. By the time I was on the A27, the slipping was much more obvious, and I was being very gentle on changing gear and with the accelerator. But between Lewes and Polegate I lost all tranmission of power, and was able to coast into a layby.

    I had recently bought my first mobile phone, and was able to call my brother who lived at Polegate. He was an engineer working for Suzuki at the time. By the time he arrived in his car, I had the tow rope I kept in the Escort attached to the front towing eye, and he took me to his home in Polegate. By then it was after 11 am. He phoned a stockist who would have a replacement clutch, but the stockist closed at noon. We got there in time to buy one, and on the Sunday we towed the Escort to a friend to have it fitted.

    Thus I was able to drive the Escort back to London, in time for work on the Monday morning. The lesson: always be aware of how a vehicle is responding to gear changes; at the first sign of a clutch slipping have it looked at.

  2. RICHARD STAMPER 04/06/2019 11:20 AM

    Early clutch wear is often a result of bad driving. I did 168k miles in my Audi and the clutch was fine. Racing starts, resting one’s foot on the clutch pedal and towing puts extra strain on the components. Also, many of today’s clutches use a Dual Mass Flywheel. These flywheels have some flex which smooths out the pickup but over time they become stiff, this often results in a judder at take off. My advise is, if your clutch has done 80-100k then change the flywheel as well, you local garage will doubtless advise this anycase but be prepared for extra cost.

  3. Lary Cook 22/07/2019 7:13 AM

    Slipping clutch is one of the most common symptoms of a bad clutch. Neglecting it will only increase your repair cost more and more. Trying to get periodic repair is best option.

  4. Mehidy Hasan 11/08/2019 6:14 AM

    Thanks for nice post

  5. Kckamar 21/03/2021 4:48 PM

    Overall issue is the clutch plate stuck to the flywheel. What about the clutch plate stuck to pressure plate? How to rectify when clutch plate stuck on one side, that is on pressure plate?

  6. Kyriakos Papadopoulos 29/04/2021 4:09 AM

    I have driven stickshifts since the 1970’s and know when a clutch is bad. This time there was no warning. Driving on the highway 75mph, first, speed control failed, then, 10 minutes later the car (2015 Jeep Renegade) stopped. I could put the gears in, but the car would not feel them, as if though there were no gears. When the car stopped, I could turn the engine on, and with the engine ON I could shift to ANY gear, the car would not respond, kept running as if though no gear was in.
    I have the feeling it’s NOT a clutch problem. IDEAS??

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