I own a ’96 Toyota Tercel.  While driving to work the other day, my roommate and I noticed a burning smell.  At first I thought it was rubber, but now I think it’s my clutch.  After doing some research (2,3) I’ve decided that I’d been riding my clutch too much:

  1. “One way people ride the clutch is by using it to keep the car from rolling backwards. You often see these people stopped on a hill waiting for a light to change. And instead of holding the car still with the brake, they put the car in first gear, give it gas, and hold the clutch about half way out. That’s riding the clutch in the first degree: Pre-meditated clutch riding. And if you live in a hilly area and do this all the time, it could mean a new clutch every 10,000 miles (or 2,000 hills, whichever comes first). 
  2. Second degree clutch riding is when you take too long to let out the clutch during shifts. It’s when you use a lot of gas, and let the clutch out real slowly and carefully to keep the car from stalling or bucking. Second degree clutch riding is also called “killing the clutch in self defense,” because people are defending themselves against stalling and being honked at by an angry mob of commuters. But the truth is, you’d be better off letting out the clutch faster and giving it less gas, even if it meant stalling once in a while. Because the longer you take to let out the clutch, the sooner it’s going to wear out. The penalty for second degree clutch riding: A new clutch every 30,000 miles. 
  3. Finally, the most common type of clutch riding is also the least understood. It’s when you let your left foot rest on the clutch pedal after you’ve completed your shift. That’s third degree clutch riding–involuntary clutch slaughter. You may say “But I’m not even pressing down on it!” But you are! You may not realize it, but it doesn’t take much pressure at all to start disengaging the clutch. There’s only about an inch of free play in the pedal.”

So I’d been committing all of these crimes to some degree.

  1. I have to stop at a big hill each morning and each evening.  I certainly use my brake, but I definitely give the car a lot of gas to make it through these hills.  I’m pretty sure that I disengage my clutch fairly quickly in these situations, but I’m not sure.
  2. I also drive in slow traffic.  I’ll often coast in neutral when I see a backup ahead and pick a gear later if the backup clears before I get there.  Still, I’m sure that I disengage the clutch slowly when the car in front of me is too close and I don’t want to accelerate into them too quickly.  A better plan would be to stay in the lower gear until I have enough space in front of me to shift properly.
  3. Guilty as charged.  I’m 90% sure that I don’t push the pedal past its free play point, but I’m not sure.  I’ll definitely be more conscious of this fact moving forward.

The smell my roommate and I smelled was undoubtedly the smell of excess clutch slip due to poor clutch control.  But clutches are pretty resilient, and the smell should eventually disperse.  Unless the clutch is slipping, its quite OK.   The easiest way to know if you need a new clutch is by the amount of clutch pedal travel. If you need to push it to the floor to get it engaged you probably need a new clutch.  Finally, another way to establish if your clutch needs repair is to test it in a parking lot.  With it stopped but running, put the car in 2nd or 3rd gear and let out the clutch.  If it does not stall, but the RPMs go up and the vehicle does not move, the clutch is bad and needs to be replaced.

All in all, I plan on being more aware of how I shift.  The goal is to minimize the amount of time that the clutch pedal is engaged.  I plan on trying the parking lot test this evening and investigating the amount of clutch pedal travel.  Now let’s hope that my clutch lasts me my last two weeks of work and my cross country drive back home!

When I get home and am riding my bike to work again, I’d like to replace my clutch myself.



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