We hope you’re enjoying your new-found freedom as a driver. Being the proud owner of a driver’s licence opens up so many new possibilities for you.
Being a driver also brings with it a few responsibilities. Perhaps foremost among these is being a safe driver at all times. This is essential for your own safety, and that of your passengers and other road users. What’s more, if you show evidence of safe driving, it may lead to a discount on your young driver insurance premium.
Another responsibility you have as a driver is to look after your vehicle. Cars are sophisticated and expensive bits of machinery, and it’s important to treat them with care and respect if you want to avoid too many hefty repair bills. Getting to know your car is one of the key factors in becoming a good driver, as we mentioned in our 18 top tips for first time drivers.
In this blog we’re going to focus on the clutch, one of your car’s more sophisticated pieces of kit. What does it do – and how can your driving style help it to last longer?
What is the clutch, and what does it do?
In simple terms, the clutch is a device which passes the rotational energy developed by the engine, onto the wheels. This scenario only applies to manual vehicles, as automatics don’t have a clutch – just a shifter, which allows you to switch between park, reverse, neutral, drive.
How do the mechanics work here? Essentially,the clutch controls the connection between multiple drive shafts – one coming from the car’s engine, the others connected to the wheels. The clutch is a hugely important part of a car’s workings. After all, the engine is generating power all the time, but you don’t always want it sending power to the wheels at the same speed.
Sometimes you need the car to change speed, or to come to a total stop, without switching off the engine. To do either of these things means breaking that connection between the engine and the four wheels. And this is the clutch’s key role.
How does the clutch do its job?
Your car’s clutch consists of two main parts: the clutch plate, and the flywheel. During the majority of your driving time, when your foot is not pressing down on the clutch pedal, a set of springs are maintaining pressure on the clutch plate. What this pressure does is to push the clutch plate against the flywheel. This, in turn, connects the engine to the shaft that transfers all that vital rotational energy to the wheels.
In contrast, when you push down on the clutch pedal with your foot, this pressure activates a release fork. Via a set of springs and pins, this fork detaches pressure from the clutch plate. Result: the connection between the fast-turning engine and the wheels is broken.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the wheels stop turning – most of the time they will continue under their own momentum. But, while the clutch pedal is down, they are not connected to the engine. This allows you to change gear or to brake.
How can you preserve the life of your clutch?
Because they have to withstand constant friction, clutches will tend to wear down on their own – a typical clutch lifespan is somewhere in the region of 60,000 miles, although some may last up to 100,000 and others start to give out at nearer 30,000. In fact, the way you drive can have a big impact on your clutch’s life expectancy. And clutches can typically cost hundreds of pounds to replace, so it’s definitely worth learning to drive in a way that prolongs the life of this vital piece of machinery.
Here are a few tips for prolonging the life of your clutch. You’ll find that many of the things you can do to safeguard your clutch are also basic good practices when it comes to safe, sensible driving. And these good habits may also help you keep down the costs of your young driver insurance.
1. Use your handbrake when parking
If you leave your car in gear when you park, this will strain the clutch. To avoid putting pressure on the clutch disc, you should always use the handbrake and neutral gear to park.
2. Go into neutral when stopping
We can all be tempted, when waiting at red lights or junctions, to sit with the clutch down and first gear engaged. We think that we’ll only be here for a few seconds, and that being ready in gear will allow us to move off as quickly as possible.
However, this is another bad habit that puts unwanted strain on the clutch. A much better idea, if you are going to be stopping for more than a few seconds, is to go into neutral, take your foot off the clutch and – if you need to – use the handbrake to keep the car from moving.
3. Don’t ‘ride the clutch’
Many drivers tend to keep the clutch partly pressed down while driving – to use it like a brake. Driving instructors call this ‘riding the clutch’ – and they will probably have instructed you not to do it, as it wears down the machinery.
Essentially, ‘riding’ the clutch in this way simply means that the pressure pad is pushed against the clutch plate – but it doesn’t engage totally. This simply creates more friction and wears out the clutch more quickly.
What to do instead? Well, you should try to train yourself to keep your foot away from the clutch at all times, except for when you are changing gear. Going round a corner or slowing down for traffic lights? Use the brakes (coupled with a downward gear change if you need to) rather than feathering the clutch.
4. Make your gear changes swift and decisive
A common problem among many new drivers is a hesitation around changing gears. It can take a while, after all, to get a feel for your car’s gear system, and for what gear it wants to be in at any given speed. On top of that, for new drivers, understanding the way gears work in the first place is quite an obstacle to overcome. The result is that many drivers are hesitant and/or slow with their gear changes.
In fact, changing gear should be a swift movement. Remember that the longer you keep that clutch pedal pressed down, the more wear and tear you are causing to this vital part. So try to make the change a swift motion.
5. Avoid changing gear unnecessarily often
This is largely down to anticipation. While learning to drive, you probably heard your instructor telling you, often, to look as far as possible down the road ahead. This helps you to get a good sense, not just of what hazards or changes are coming up right in front of you, but also how road conditions are going to alter further ahead. As a result you’ll be able to anticipate what’s coming up and to set your speed, earlier, at a suitable level.
This is both safer and better for your clutch and gearbox, than having to constantly slow down and speed up (and constantly go up and down the gears) as the road conditions change. In short, good anticipatory driving should mean less wear on your clutch – plus a safer driving style as well. This could well bring discounts when it comes to young driver insurance.
How will you know if something is wrong with the clutch?
You can use the following step-by-step method to diagnose any problems withyour clutch.
1. Making sure that your handbrake is applied, switch on your car’s engine and put the car into neutral gear.
2. Leaving the engine on, but without pressing on the accelerator or clutch, listen to your car’s engine note. Is it a smooth purr, or is there a noise a little like a low growl? If you hear a smooth noise, you can move on to step 3.
However, a growling sound indicates a likely problem with your clutch’s transmission. It’s probably a good idea to take the car to a garage and let them know about the problem.
3. Without putting your car into gear, press down lightly on the clutch – until it’s about half-depressed. Can you hear any noises now? A high-pitched squeaking will once again indicate a problem – probably with the clutch release bearings. It may just be that the clutch release mechanism needs lubricating.
4. Finally, push the clutch pedal down as far as it will go. Any unusual sounds this time? If you hear a sort of whining, squealing noise, for example, this probably indicates a problem with the pilot bearing or the bushing.
If you don’t hear any noises (apart from your car’s normal engine rumble) during the steps above, your clutch is probably fine. If you do hear any of these sounds, make a note of what you’re hearing and when it happens so you can tell your mechanic.
Clutch problems: other telltale signs
However, there are a few other common signs of a faulty clutch that it’s good to be aware of. For example, if your car is slow to start, seems sluggish on the move or even struggles to get moving, you may have a slipping clutch.
This means that the clutch is worn through, and the material that provides the essential friction has become detached. As a consequence, the clutch doesn’t grip the flywheel properly, meaning that all that power from the engine doesn’t get transferred as efficiently to the drive wheels.
If your gear changes are laboured, not smooth, or if it seems difficult to engage certain gears, you may have a problem with the linkages – or your clutch plate could be damaged. Similarly, unpleasant noises when you change gears signal a dragging clutch – one that isn’t releasing fully even when the clutch pedal is down. This may simply mean that the clutch pedal needs adjustment, or you may have a problem with the release mechanism.
Your clutch should move smoothly in both directions: when pressed down, and when released. However, if either one of these movements seems more resistant than usual, or if you get a grinding noise while changing gears, there may be a problem.
Finally, if you regularly hear an unusual noise when you put the car in neutral, which disappears when you depress the clutch pedal, you may have a worn input shaft.
Do these problems mean you need a whole new clutch?
Not necessarily. As you’ve probably realised from reading this, a clutch is quite a complex bit of kit, with several interdependent elements. Theclutch disc, clutch fork, bearings, release mechanism, flywheel, cables, linkages, pressure plate: all these have to be working properly for the clutch to do its job. The good news here is that you may often only need to replace or repair one part, rather than the whole thing. Just as well, replacing an entire clutch is an expensive business.
So, if you detect any of the problems we’ve discussed above, take your car to a reliable mechanic and ask them to look it over for you, describing in detail the problem you’ve detected. They should be able to diagnose the problem and replace or repair the part at the least expense. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of an adjustment, rather than a replacement.
Safer driving – and possible savings, too
As a new driver, you’ll want to look after your vehicle carefully. It’s your pride and joy, after all – and you’ll also want to keep your costs down, as life as a new driver can be fairly expensive.
Another way to achieve some savings is via some specialist young driver insurance.Smartdriverclub’s young driver insurance uses a black box to monitor your driving style, taking into account things like speed, acceleration and braking. It then calculates your young driver insurance premium based on your driving habits. As a result, good driving can be rewarded with discounts on your premium.
Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.