What are the chances that my clutch will go completely in the next three weeks?
May 17, 2005 6:55 AM   Subscribe

My mechanic just told me that my 98 Saturn wagon (125,000 miles) needs a new clutch. Nothing dramatic happened; I just brought it in for a pre road trip checkup. The clutch has been getting stickier & stickier, and sometimes it's very hard to wrench it into first gear, but it's drivable. He said he had no way of knowing when it would go completely, but it definitely was going to need to be replaced soon. Since inspecting it involves pulling the transmission, you might as well commit to fixing it altogether. I have two questions.

Here is my dilemma: I'm supposed to be driving to NY on Friday (roughly 900 miles.) Should I scramble to get this fixed or should I just leave anyway? First of all, what happens when a clutch goes? Is it life threateningly bad or does the car just coast to a stop? And second, what are the chances that the clutch will keep on working for a long time anyway, just getting stickier? Keep in mind that this is going to cost about $800 I will have to borrow. Help soon please! I don't have long to make up my mind whether to try to get this done now or gamble on waiting and taking my road trip.
posted by mygothlaundry to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total)
When the clutch goes, you glide to a stop by the side of the highway, and sit there wishing you had fixed it before you left home. There's no real way to gauge when its going to happen as far as I know. So much of it depends on driving habits, that statistics are pretty meaningless. If you can't fix it before you leave, at least join AAA. You'll probably need it.
posted by spilon at 7:01 AM on May 17, 2005

First of all, what happens when a clutch goes? Is it life threateningly bad or does the car just coast to a stop?

I had a clutch die on one of the cars I drove in high school. For maybe 20 miles, the engine had to rev really, really high to reach whatever speed I wanted to reach. Eventually, there just wasn't any power to the wheels no matter how high the engine revved. This all happened pretty quickly, without much warning. So I'd get it fixed before leaving if I were you.
posted by COBRA! at 7:04 AM on May 17, 2005

Anecdotal, but most of my breakdowns (of the vehicular variety) occurred during long trips.
posted by mischief at 7:04 AM on May 17, 2005

900 miles=14 hours. If you weren't going on the trip, would you wait a week or so to fix it?

I second the motion of joining AAA regardless, or getting a towing rider on your insurance.
posted by mecran01 at 7:17 AM on May 17, 2005

Get it fixed, a broken clutch is routine work on a standard, but a complete nightmare if it breaks away from home.

That, or rent a car for the trip.

On the advice of an ex I used to switch into neutral when stopping to reduce wear on the clutch, most of mine lasted ages and ages.
posted by Kellydamnit at 7:25 AM on May 17, 2005

You should be able to get the clutch fixed in a day, without having to leave your car overnight. A long road trip is not especially hard on a clutch (not much changing of gears) if you're sticking to the highway and there's not a lot of traffic, and you're not stopping much, but getting it fixed if it does go is a major hassle, and mechanics have been known to take advantage of people from out of town.
posted by anapestic at 7:30 AM on May 17, 2005

Having just had our clutch replaced yesterday I have to say I highly recommend getting it done sooner rather than later - the stress alone, driving around praying the clutch will just last around the next corner was driving me crazy... Now the car drives like it's brand new - I'm in debt for the $700 it cost, but that's well worth it for my sanity.
posted by soplerfo at 7:35 AM on May 17, 2005

There are two types of clutch failure. The failure that COBRA! describes is the more usual, where the clutch face is worn down to the point where it no longer grips fully. This is caused by use, and it's hastened by 'riding' the clutch.

The type of failure that you describe is usually caused by contamination of the clutch face by oil, or sometimes dirt. The contamination causes the driven face to stick to the clutch plate. The contamination is often caused by a faulty seal, allowing oil to enter. You need to get the clutch replaced as soon as possible, and that'll allow the mechanic to inspect the state of the seals. Driving a long distance when there's a possibility of a blown seal is a recipe for a new engine.

Kellydamnit, by going to neutral whilst stopping, you're saving your clutch at the expense of your brakes, and increasing your stopping distance. Engine braking should be part of braking. That's why it's a good idea to engage a low gear when going down a hill. It stops the brake pads or shoes getting baked.
posted by veedubya at 7:40 AM on May 17, 2005

A seven year old Saturn with 100k+ has led a good life and is ready to be retired from active service. Any chance that $800+ could be used on a down payment? I would begin to expect more issues in the near future. It might be worth replacing the clutch and other misc parts and running it until it totally dies. But... It might be cheaper to find something else.
posted by tumble at 7:52 AM on May 17, 2005

veedubya- I've always been taught the same thing about engine braking. Someone asked the same question on Car Talk a while ago, and the answer was to NOT use engine braking regularly because getting your break pads replaced a few more times is much cheaper than replacing your transmission. Basically, they said the wear and tear on the clutch and transmission is much worse than the wear and tear and on the relatively inexpensive brakes.

Of course, mountain driving is a different story. You don't want to ride your brakes all the way down a mountain and have then glaze over...
posted by gus at 7:58 AM on May 17, 2005

My mechanic just told me that my 98 Saturn wagon (125,000 miles) needs a new clutch. Nothing dramatic happened; I just brought it in for a pre road trip checkup. The clutch has been getting stickier & stickier, and sometimes it's very hard to wrench it into first gear, but it's drivable.

This is not a symptom of a failing clutch, this paints a picture of either a transmission issue (eek) or a clutch cylinder if this has a hydraulic clutch, which my checking a parts list at RockAuto.com seems to indicate it does.

A failing clutch manifests itself by NOT catching. Imagine two spinning disks which move together and apart as you push on the pedal. A big spring keeps them pressed together and when you shove down on the pedal they move apart. When allowed to sit together, the spinning of one causes the other to spin.

So if your clutch was failing you'd most notice this when you took your foot off the clutch and allowed them to come together. The engine would rev without actually moving the car, until it caught. If you have a tachometer it's easy to see. If you don't you'll have to hear/feel it - when you take your foot off the clutch to go, does the engine rev and the car start slowly, then jerk a bit as it catches?

Unfortunately, failing clutches cause failing clutches because the act of slipping wears the clutch even more, making it slip more the next time. So the degradation is exponential.

What you describe, however, could be the opposite problem. Which would be great for you since the part is under $50 and takes less than an hour to change. The system that lets you push against that clutch is hydraulic and the cylinders are notorious for failing. I bought my 91 model car in 1995 and have gone through 2 since then.

A big giveaway of a bad cyl is it leaks - any dribbles under your car outside your house? There's also a resivoir in the engine compartment the size of a dixie cup that holds the clutch fluid (not the coffee mug sized one - that's brake fluid) that should have a reasonable middle level. If you feel adventurous you can try to follow the line coming out of it to where the cylinder is that pushes the clutch - it'll likely look something like this.

If you're at all uncertain if this mechanic is on the up and up (because a clutch job is a nice boat payment, a slave cyl is a nice dinner) you should get a second opinion. And don't volunteer your clutch theory - just describe the problem. If you need a mechanic reccomendation the CarTalk guys have a mechanic finder on their website where people rate their experiences.
posted by phearlez at 8:02 AM on May 17, 2005

"Baking" or "glazing" brake pads isn't the problem with excessive braking, it's the friction heat causing the brake fluid to boil. Fluid does not compress well, where gas does. Which is why air in your brake line (whether it be from an unbled line or superheated fluid) means no braking power.

However the possibility of doing that in regular city driving is nil, which is why engine braking is an unnecessary expense in gas and engine/transmission wear for most people. Mountan dwellers and race drivers can claim their exemption at the door.

veedubya does bring up a possibility with the clutch, and a problem with the synchros is also a possibility for what you describe. However I'd chase down the cheap possibility first.

I don't know that most of us have answered your actual question - as far as taking this thing to NY, odds are in your favor you could pull it off okay. Once a slipping clutch catches it likely stays caught, in the early days. For your mostly highway driving you'll likely do little new harm to it. A sticking clutch I have less experience with but I'd put odds on it also surviving acceptably. You could also survive, painfully, with a totally blown master/slave cyl although city driving would be nigh impossible.

I second the above suggestion you get AAA or better yet, a rider on your car insurance for towing. It's often way cheaper than AAA - I pay $10 a year for the rider on my State Farm policy. Call your agent.
posted by phearlez at 8:13 AM on May 17, 2005

gus, I've heard the same argument, but I'm not convinced. A car transmission is a pretty rugged piece of kit, and the likelihood of it being unduly stressed by engine braking would be, IMHO, low. Mind you, the vast majoirty of us UKians use what the USians call 'stick shift'. I've no idea whether engine braking with a slushbox is a good or bad idea.

Derail: Here in the UK, it's my understanding that if you don't use engine braking whilst performing an emergency stop (a compulsory part of the test), you will fail the test. Also, if you coast in neutral, or with the clutch down, at any point in the test, you will fail the test.
posted by veedubya at 8:13 AM on May 17, 2005

Kellydamnit, by going to neutral whilst stopping, you're saving your clutch at the expense of your brakes, and increasing your stopping distance.

Nonsense, on many levels.

1) Brakes are far easier, and cheaper, to renovate than clutches. What you're proposing is saving $10 brake shoes by wearing out a $200 clutch. This is like designing your circuits so the $10 MOSFET blows to save the $1 capacitor. Kellydamnit is doing exactly the right thing by saving the clutch. Brake shoes are built to wear out, because of the tremendous energy they have to absorb.

2) Engine braking in an emergency stop is going to be a non-factor, compared to the power of the brakes. Doubly so if the car is rear-wheel drive, or an automatic transmission.

The absolute maximum braking point is simple -- it is when you are retarding the wheels as much as you can without causing them to skid. Properly functioning brakes are more than capable of doing this alone -- this is why they make ABS systems, since it is so easy to slam on the brakes and start skidding -- even on dry pavement with good tires.

Engine braking is dumb on so many levels. The one time it makes at least some sense in normal driving is in hybrids, where the cylinders are often freewheeled (by shutting off fuel and spark, but leaving valves open) to let the electric motor run as generator, thus slowing the car and recovering some of the energy that's otherwise lost. Rapid engine braking without regular braking means you're slowing down the car, but your braking lights aren't coming on. This is a great way to get rear ended. Engine braking is putting stress on the crank in ways the bearings aren't used to handling.

Brakes are for braking. Use them. If you aren't using up brake shoes to stop the car, you're using up something far more expensive to stop the car. Clutches and crankshafts are for propulsion, not braking.

I won't even being to rant about truck engine braking -- but then again, the stupidity of the US moving huge amounts of cargo across the country in trucks pales in comparison.
posted by eriko at 8:48 AM on May 17, 2005

Indeed, having only passed my (UK) driving test last year (5th time lucky...) I can confirm what veedubya says. I failed one of my tests for coasting too much with the clutch down towards traffic lights and corners, which was irritating. It does make more sense in an emergency stop situation, however, because then you want to stop as fast as possible, and would want to use every means available.

On preview: Eriko, I understand engine braking is pretty helpful if you're on ice as well.
posted by prentiz at 8:53 AM on May 17, 2005

So, away from brakes, back to clutches - what you have sounds (as others have said) like the hydraulics are going, not the clutch itself. I have a standard pickup and sometimes the transmission will not engage without really forcing it, as seems to be happening to you (my first gear also was the primary trouble). The problem on my vehicle is that there is a butterfly valve in between the master and slave hydraulic clutch cylinders, and sometimes it sticks which means that pressure can't mount at the clutch when the pedal is depressed. Apparently this problem is common in my model pickup.

When I took it to the tranny place, they told me to make sure that the vent hole in the master cylinder cap is unobstructed (you should be able to find that under the hood), and also to simply let the clutch pedal 'pop' back into place before you start the car. I usually press the pedal and let it snap back two or three times, and I've not seen the sticky problem since. You may find the same thing useful.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 9:31 AM on May 17, 2005

sidetrack: coasting in neutral will cause you to fail the test because it means that, should you need to accelerate away in a sudden emergency situation, you will need to first put the vehicle in gear. This takes a whole heap of extra time (as much as a second) that you could be using to get away. It's got nothing to do with better efficiency of braking. Coasting with the clutch in is in the same category, but the understanding is that in an emergency situation you're not used to having to let the clutch out first, and may panic and forget while just revving the engine.

Back to the original question, Dipsomaniac has an excellent, zero cost suggestion. Try that first, and if it doesn't work, get it fixed or rent a cheap PoS for the trip. If the problem has been going on for a while, the chances of you being stranded are much higher than some here seem to think.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 9:39 AM on May 17, 2005

Engine revs without car picking up speed as usual = worn/oily clutchplate -- this won't get better & will require new plat & possibly refacing flywheel

Rough shift/unable to shift into gear = worn throw-out bearing -- clutch plate could well still be OK, but with 125K milews, fix it all if you're keeping the car long term

(everyone here is saying hydraulics, but unless manual transmission design has changed dramatically in the last 20 years all they do is provide a power assist to the bearing disengagement -- you should consider the bearing)

I drove an MGB-GT from Nashville to San Antonio with a bad bearing - think always stopping with the car heading down hill to get a running start in 2nd gear & CAREFULLY power shifting into higher gears. Once you get going you don't stop for anything except gas (take a mayonaisse jar).

Unless you're moving to NY, get it fixed beforehand - you'll have to anyway soon.
posted by Pressed Rat at 9:54 AM on May 17, 2005

I second what somebody said about "retiring" your car.
posted by elisabeth r at 10:05 AM on May 17, 2005

veedubya: Kellydamnit, by going to neutral whilst stopping, you're saving your clutch at the expense of your brakes, and increasing your stopping distance

I think what Kelydamnit was meaning was to shift to neutral after you've stopped while waiting at a light rather than sitting there with your foot on the clutch. Which by the way doesn't wear the clutch but instead the throw out bearing.

tumble: A seven year old Saturn with 100k+ has led a good life and is ready to be retired from active service.

Whaa?!? . Practically any car made in the last ten years has got a lot more than 100K in it. Heck my Caravan has twice that and is still going strong.

As to your question: Absolute worst case (though very unlikely) with a sticking clutch is the driven disk disintegrating with enough force that it escapes the pressure plate assembly and bell housing. The thin pieces of metal/friction material are fairly sharp and will hit/pierce whatever is next inline. Like the hood of your car or your leg (I don't know where the flywheel is on a Saturn, it could be your passenger's leg or nobody's leg if it's behind the rad like a Saab). I've got that t-shirt and it wasn't pretty.

More commonly when a clutch eats it self it'll take out the pressure plate too. Which isn't a big deal because only the insane change just the friction disk. If the failure is caused by the throwout bearing then you can damage the clutch fork which can be hard to source depending on application. I had to buy a complete car to get the fork for my 4spd Fiero when it got eaten by the diaphragm style pressure plate. Whatever happens you'll be sitting at the side of the road if your lucky or in the middle of an intersection during the cliche dark and stormy night if your not. I might risk it locally but I wouldn't want to travel 900 miles away and have it break on the road. If you can't get it fixed before you leave I'd drive something else or fly.

If you can pump up the clutch or if you press the clutch all the way in and it slowly starts engaging you've got a hydraulic problem.
posted by Mitheral at 10:12 AM on May 17, 2005

Engine revs without car picking up speed as usual = worn/oily clutchplate -- this won't get better & will require new plate & possibly refacing flywheel

this happened to me. getting it fixed not only made driving easier but made things more efficient - i'm getting an extra few miles to the gallon now, which at california gas prices, practically pays for the repair.

fix it before you go or take a different car.
posted by judith at 11:03 AM on May 17, 2005

If you're one of those people who wants to know "why": clutch, manual transmission (from HowStuffWorks).
posted by matildaben at 11:12 AM on May 17, 2005

Actually, clutch wear (and linkage wear) tend to make the clutch disengage less, not slip. If there is a way to adjust the linkage, you may be able to just adjust the linkage. I'm not sure if saturns are made to have the linkage adjusted as part of maintenance or not.
The clutch pedal transmits motion to the throwout bearing, it presses against fingers that lever the clutch plates apart. The throwout bearing is behind the clutch, so when the clutch wears, the fingers get farther away from the throwout bearing, hence tendency to drag or not disengage. Of course, at some point the clutch wears to the point where is starts to slip and no adjustment will help.
I would suggest getting a second opinion from someone who knows saturns.
posted by 445supermag at 12:51 PM on May 17, 2005

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