In spite of the increasingly automated landscape, the manual gearbox is still king on this side of the pond. And while its journey continues as the connecting bridge between the majority of UK drivers and their vehicles, it would be good practice to review what we do or don’t already know about the clutch.

How does a clutch work?

Broadly speaking, a clutch is made up of four parts – the pressure plate, the cover plate, the release bearing, and the driven plate. These parts work together to communicate with your gearbox. When you press down on the clutch pedal, you engage a release fork, which pushes a release bearing and displaces the pressure plate from the driven plate, which in turn interrupts the transmission of power.

In other words, every time you apply the clutch, the aforementioned plates are engaged and disengaged, and every time that happens, some energy is lost.

Car clutch

Clutch control in action

Think of the clutch as a buffer between the engine and the transmission. It gives you direct control over your key performance indicators on the road, including fuel consumption, engine wear, ride smoothness, and most of all – road safety.

Engine braking

Mastering the clutch is your golden ticket to engine braking. This more efficient method of slowing down relies on using your vehicle’s engine to control your speed by releasing the accelerator and engaging the clutch to shift down through the gears.

Engine braking reduces wear on the brakes and gives you more control over your vehicle, which not only makes driving downhill safer, but also reduces the risk of wheel locking and skidding on icy surfaces by allowing the driver to reduce speed with the wheels turning.

When engine braking, remember to match the gear you are in to the speed you are driving at before you release the clutch. To do that, simply engage the clutch, ‘blip’ the accelerator, then shift into lower gear – you may now release the clutch. This is known as rev matching, and it is crucial for smooth downshifting, as well as the famous heel and toe technique.

Vehicles driving downhill

Balancing the clutch

This technique does intensify clutch wear, but it can be rather practical if you find yourself stuck in slow moving traffic on an incline. While you would conventionally use the handbrake to stop your car from rolling backwards, skillfully applying the clutch will achieve similar results, with a more immediate response time. This can be godsend for those who need to accelerate quickly following a brief halt.

Essentially, the clutch is used to balance the force pushing you forward, which comes from the engine, with the force pushing you backward, thanks to gravity. This eliminates the need for braking, although some drivers find that pairing gentle manipulation of the accelerator with the partially engaged clutch helps tackle the more demanding degrees of incline. 

Handbrake starts can be time consuming, and when time isn’t on your side, balancing the clutch is your best bet.

Pedal setup in manual gearbox car

Slipping the clutch vs riding the clutch

The term slipping the clutch refers to alternately applying and releasing the clutch to achieve desired response from the car. You may use clutch slipping to remain stationary on an incline by lightly ‘rocking’ your car back and forth, although with enough practice, you will learn to exert just enough force on the clutch to keep your car totally still, and by that point, you will be balancing the clutch!

The term riding the clutch refers to driving with the clutch pedal only partially released, which means a major portion of the power is lost instead of being transferred to the drivetrain and wheels, which in turn results in premature clutch wear. It is not all bad, however, as riding the clutch can also, for instance, provide drivers with more control when reversing. In fact, the act itself of balancing the clutch for uphill starts is an instance of riding the clutch.

Clutch or no clutch: manual vs automatic

Today’s automotive world is ruled by three main categories of transmission – manual, semi-automatic (also known as the paddle shifter gearbox), and automatic. While each has its own merits, it would not be unfair to say they exist on a descending scale of control and operational skill required. 

Below is our comprehensive breakdown of the pros and cons of the two most widely recognised players – manual and automatic.

Pros of manual transmission:

  • Maximum control 
  • Can be more fuel efficient 
  • Better performance in the hands of a skilled driver
  • Generally less expensive to purchase, maintain, and repair

Cons of manual transmission:

  • Requires more skill and attention to detail
  • Can be physically taxing over prolonged distances
  • Can be harder to find on higher trim levels
  • Can increase fuel consumption when used inefficiently 

Pros of automatic transmission:

  • Easy to grasp
  • Readily available
  • Practical for the everyday commute
  • Quick and smooth transmission changes without much skill required

Cons of automatic transmission:

  • Generally more expensive to buy
  • Generally more expensive to repair
  • Less control over the car
  • Can shift too frequently

Automatic gearbox

You may be planning a switch to some variation of automatic transmission in the coming years, but learning how to use the clutch properly will not only deepen your overall understanding of car mechanics, it will also give you the opportunity to develop a unique bond with your vehicle. Cherish these moments, because the future has no clutch or gearbox at all – electric cars have no use for them!