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The hidden secrets of clutch wear

As clutch replacements involve mainly removing worn parts and fitting new, little thought at workshop levels tends to go into how the various parts wear out, leading Rob Marshall to contact leading clutch manufacturers to find out.

Hot stuff: The friction plate

In many cases, worn friction linings are obvious, as the cover is unbolted from the flywheel. Borg and Beck explains that that the very nature of its operation means that it is designed to wear. The First Line brand emphasises the relevance of friction material quality to plate longevity, a point echoed to us by the bilstein group, which highlights that, like every other friction material, there is a balance of wear resistance, comfort behaviour and price.

Schaeffler agrees with the bilstein group that clutch friction material is a science and adds that the adage, ‘You get what you pay for’ rings true. It states that considerable expertise and research goes into the design, construction and quality of LuK friction material, which influences clutch plate longevity. Yet, the bilstein group adds that different vehicle requirements dictate diverse friction mixes. For instance, rear-wheel-drive vehicles tend to be more prone to clutch judder; the friction material on quality clutches is formulated to reduce this characteristic as much as possible.

Naturally, many technicians realise that excessive slip can wear and overheat the linings, affecting its material properties. While poor driving technique can be responsible, towing and engine tuning might also be to blame.

Under pressure: The cover/pressure plate

LuK reports that, generally, the clutch pressure plate does not wear. Yet, it can be damaged by a worn friction plate, when the friction material has almost entirely worn away and its rivets make contract. The bilstein group concurs and adds that the cast iron cover can also suffer from heat bluing, scratches and scars, caused by the aggressive clutch use. However, Borg and Beck advises that the release bearing can ‘skip’ on the diaphragm spring fingers, thus wearing them, but this situation tends to result from fitting errors, not wear and tear.

Borg and Beck adds that, if fitted, the self-adjust mechanism keeps the diaphragm spring fingers at the same height throughout the clutch’s life as the friction plate wears. Once the mechanism reaches its adjustment limits, the friction plate is designed to slip just before it has worn down to the rivets. LuK maintains that a self-adjusting clutch delivers a consistent clamp load, regardless of wear. When the clutch nears the end of its life, however, the diaphragm fingers will touch the cage, which forms part of the cover’s construction. This limits release movement, causing the clutch pedal to require more pressure halfway down its stroke. This is a useful indication to the driver (or technician) that the clutch has reached the end of its life, even if slippage is not yet apparent.

ZF highlights that the self-adjusting clutch mechanism must adjust fully after installation. To do so, the clutch pedal must be depressed fully at least half-a-dozen times to facilitate the adjustment and achieve a full clamp load.

Maintaining control: The release bearing

The bilstein group reminds us that release bearings comprise industrial bearings and wear is not linked just to higher mileage. Using the clutch more frequently in urban condition causes more wear than long-distance motorway trips, as an example. In addition, LuK says that resting a foot on the clutch pedal accelerates release bearing wear levels, because it is in constant interaction with the clutch. Borg and Beck reveals that a conventional release bearing also fails from the grease drying within the ball race. The net result tends to be noise, such as whistling, or a loud squeal from the bell-housing, as the clutch pedal is pressed.

As many concentric clutch slave cylinders are often inaccessible without removing the gearbox, replacing one is an involved process. Therefore, like a typical release bearing,
it also should be renewed when the clutch is replaced. LuK explains that the guide tube, on which the hydraulic seal runs, is exposed to contamination from friction dust and moisture. As the gearbox is removed, the seal travels over this exposed portion, damaging its rubber lip, and promoting failure soon after the transmission is refitted.

Alignment issues can also cause premature release bearing failure, which ZF explains is down to wear in other parts of the release mechanism, such as the fork. This deterioration results in a loss of release bearing pre-load against the cover’s diaphragm spring, which hastens wear and increases noise.

Curbing the vibration: The Dual Mass Flywheel

While more of the rule on more recent models than the exception, consider the Dual Mass Flywheel (DMF), too. This component absorbs vibrations in the drivetrain in today’s lighter, smaller and slower running engines. ZF reports that springs and shoes within the DMF work constantly, when the engine is running. Over thousands of miles, these parts wear and the tolerances between them increase. Eventually, the increased wear levels reduce the dampening properties. Many of the situations that can cause premature clutch wear also affect the DMF, according to LuK. These include towing, poor driving style, engine tuning and reduced engine cranking speeds, which might result from a degraded battery.

However, rather than replacing a DMF at every clutch change, it is worth assessing its condition before presuming that it is unserviceable. For more information, see our separate advice features: and our video on:

Not forgetting the Extras…

Borg and Beck comments that release fork wear could cause the bearing to dislodge and become misaligned on the diaphragm fingers, causing engagement issues/clutch judder. First Line also recommends that the release arm/fork could wear prematurely if the pivot points are not lubricated with a tiny amount of high melting point grease.

LuK advises that technicians should always inspect the pivot points, release arms, release arm bushes and the guide tube, while the transmission is removed. Note also that some guide tubes form part of the bellhousing but this does not mean that they are not immune to wear. Yet, the bilstein group adds that many extra parts are more vehicle specific. Therefore, it is worth technicians doing some research before quoting and advising the customer that some ancillary components might require replacing beyond the standard clutch kit.

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Autotechnician is a magazine published nine times a year, delivering essential information to independent garage owners and technicians in the UK. Delivered both digitally and in print, autotechnician provides readers with technical, training, business advice, product and news, allowing our readers to keep up to date with information they need to run and work within a modern workshop.
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