Rear side of a Ford V6 engine, looking at the clutch housing on the flywheel
Single, dry, clutch friction disc. The splined hub is attached to the disc with springs to damp chatter.

A clutch is a mechanical device which provides for the transmission of power (and therefore usually motion) from one component (the driving member) to another (the driven member). The opposite component of the clutch is the brake.

Clutches are used whenever the ability to limit the transmission of power or motion needs to be controlled either in amount or over time (e.g., electric screwdrivers limit how much torque is transmitted through use of a clutch; clutches control whether automobiles transmit engine power to the wheels).

In the simplest application clutches are employed in devices which have two rotating shafts. In these devices one shaft is typically attached to a motor or other power unit (the driving member) while the other shaft (the driven member) provides output power for work to be done. In a drill for instance, one shaft is driven by a motor and the other drives a drill chuck. The clutch connects the two shafts so that they may be locked together and spin at the same speed (engaged), locked together but spinning at different speeds (slipping), or unlocked and spinning at different speeds (disengaged).

The rest of this article is dedicated to discussions surrounding types of clutches, their applications, and similarities and differences of such.


Friction clutches

Friction clutches are by far the most well-known type of clutches.


Various materials have been used for the disc friction facings, including asbestos in the past. Modern clutches typically use a compound organic resin with copper wire facing or a ceramic material. A typical coefficient of friction used on a friction disc surface is 0.35ų for organic and 0.25ų for ceramic. Ceramic materials are typically used in heavy applications such as trucks carrying large loads or racing, though the harder ceramic materials increase flywheel and pressure plate wear.


Friction disk clutches generally are classified as push type or pull type depending on the location of the pressure plate fulcrum points. In a pull type clutch, the action of pressing the pedal pulls the release bearing, pulling on the diaphragm spring and disengaging the vehicle drive. The opposite is true with a push type, the release bearing is pushed into the clutch disengaging the vehicle drive. In this instance, the release bearing can be known as a thrust bearing (as per the image above).


Clutch pads are attached to the frictional pads, part of the clutch. They are most commonly made of rubber but have been known to be made of asbestos. Clutch pads usually last about 100,000 miles (160,000 km) depending on how vigorously the car is driven.


In addition to the damped disc centres which reduce driveline vibration, pre-dampers may be used to reduce gear rattle at idle by changing the natural frequency of the disc. These weaker springs are compressed solely by the radial vibrations from an idling engine. They are fully compressed and no longer in use once drive is taken up by the main damper springs.


Mercedes truck examples: A clamp load of 33 kN is normal for a single plate 430. The 400 Twin application offers a clamp load of a mere 23 kN. Bursts speeds are typically around 5,000 rpm with the weakest point being the facing rivet.


Modern clutch development focuses its attention on the simplification of the overall assembly and/or manufacturing method. For example drive straps are now commonly employed to transfer torque as well as lift the pressure plate upon disengagement of vehicle drive. With regards to the manufacture of diaphragm springs, heat treatment is crucial. Laser welding is becoming more common as a method of attaching the drive plate to the disc ring with the laser typically being between 2-3KW and a feed rate 1m/minute.

Multiple plate clutch

This type of clutch has several driving members interleaved or "stacked" with several driven members. It is used in race cars including F1, IndyCar, World Rally and even most club racing, motorcycles, automatic transmissions and in some diesel locomotives with mechanical transmissions. It is also used in some electronically controlled all-wheel drive systems.

Wet vs. dry

A wet clutch is immersed in a cooling lubricating fluid which also keeps the surfaces clean and gives smoother performance and longer life. Wet clutches, however, tend to lose some energy to the liquid. Since the surfaces of a wet clutch can be slippery (as with a motorcycle clutch bathed in engine oil), stacking multiple clutch discs can compensate for the lower coefficient of friction and so eliminate slippage under power when fully engaged.

The Hele-Shaw clutch was a wet clutch that relied entirely on viscous effects, rather than on friction.

A dry clutch, as the name implies, is not bathed in fluid and should be, literally, dry.


A centrifugal clutch is used in some vehicles (e.g., Mopeds) and also in other applications where the speed of the engine defines the state of the clutch, for example, in a chainsaw. This clutch system employs centrifugal force to automatically engage the clutch when the engine rpm rises above a threshold and to automatically disengage the clutch when the engine rpm falls low enough. The system involves a clutch shoe or shoes attached to the driven shaft, rotating inside a clutch bell attached to the output shaft. The shoe(s) are held inwards by springs until centrifugal force overcomes the spring tension and the shoe(s) make contact with the bell, driving the output. In the case of a chainsaw this allows the chain to remain stationary whilst the engine is idling; once the throttle is pressed and the engine speed rises, the centrifugal clutch engages and the cutting chain moves. See Saxomat and Variomatic.

Cone clutch

Distinguished by conical friction surfaces. The cone's taper means that a given amount of movement of the actuator makes the surfaces approach (or recede) much more slowly than in a disc clutch. As well, a given amount of actuating force created more pressure on the mating surfaces.

Torque limiter

Also known as a slip clutch or safety clutch, this device allows a rotating shaft to slip when higher than normal resistance is encountered on a machine. An example of a safety clutch is the one mounted on the driving shaft of a large grass mower. The clutch will yield if the blades hit a rock, stump, or other immobile object. Motor-driven mechanical calculators had these between the drive motor and gear train, to limit damage when the mechanism jammed, as motors used in such calculators had high stall torque and were capable of causing damage to the mechanism if torque wasn't limited.

  • Carefully-designed types disengage, but continue to transmit torque, in such tools as controlled-torque screwdrivers.
  • Many safety clutches are not friction clutches, but belong to the interference clutch;; family, of which the dog clutch (see below) is the best-known.

Major types by application

Vehicular (general)

There are different designs of vehicle clutch but most are based on one or more friction discs pressed tightly together or against a flywheel using springs. The friction material varies in composition depending on many considerations such as whether the clutch is "dry" or "wet". Friction discs once contained asbestos but this has been largely eliminated. Clutches found in heavy duty applications such as trucks and competition cars use ceramic clutches that have a greatly increased friction coefficient. However, these have a "grabby" action generally considered unsuitable for passenger cars. The spring pressure is released when the clutch pedal is depressed thus either pushing or pulling the diaphragm of the pressure plate, depending on type. However, raising the engine speed too high while engaging the clutch will cause excessive clutch plate wear. Engaging the clutch abruptly when the engine is turning at high speed causes a harsh, jerky start. This kind of start is necessary and desirable in drag racing and other competitions, where speed is more important than comfort.

Automobile powertrain

This plastic pilot shaft guide tool is used to align the clutch disk as the spring-loaded pressure plate is installed. The transmission's drive splines and pilot shaft have a complementary shape. A number of such devices fit various makes and models of drivetrains.

In a modern car with a manual transmission the clutch is operated by the left-most pedal using a hydraulic or cable connection from the pedal to the clutch mechanism. On older cars the clutch might be operated by a mechanical linkage. Even though the clutch may physically be located very close to the pedal, such remote means of actuation are necessary to eliminate the effect of vibrations and slight engine movement, engine mountings being flexible by design. With a rigid mechanical linkage, smooth engagement would be near-impossible because engine movement inevitably occurs as the drive is "taken up." No pressure on the pedal means that the clutch plates are engaged (driving), while pressing the pedal disengages the clutch plates, allowing the driver to shift gears or coast.


Motorcycles typically employ a wet clutch with the clutch riding in the same oil as the transmission. These clutches are usually made up of a stack of alternating plain steel and friction plates. Some of the plates have lugs on their inner diameters locking them to the engine crankshaft, while the other plates have lugs on their outer diameters that lock them to a basket which turns the transmission input shaft. The plates are forced together by a set of coil springs or a diaphragm spring plate when the clutch is engaged.

On most motorcycles the clutch is operated by the clutch lever located on the left handlebar. No pressure on the lever means that the clutch plates are engaged (driving), while pulling the lever back towards the rider will disengage the clutch plates through cable or hydraulic actuation, allowing the rider to shift gears or coast.

Racing motorcycles often use slipper clutches to eliminate the effects of engine braking which, being applied only to the rear wheel, can lead to instability.

Automobile non-powertrain

There are other clutches found in a car. For example, a belt-driven engine cooling fan may have a clutch that is heat-activated. The driving and driven members are separated by a silicone-based fluid and a valve controlled by a bimetallic spring. When the temperature is low, the spring winds and closes the valve, which allows the fan to spin at about 20% to 30% of the shaft speed. As the temperature of the spring rises, it unwinds and opens the valve, allowing fluid past the valve which allows the fan to spin at about 60% to 90% of shaft speed.

Other clutches such as for an air conditioning compressor electronically-engaged clutches using magnetic force to couple the driving member to the driven member.

Other clutches and applications

  • Belt clutch: Used on agricultural equipment and some piston-engine-driven helicopters. Engine power is transmitted via a set of vee-belts that are slack when the engine is idling, but by means of a tensioner pulley can be tightened to increase friction between the belts and the sheaves.
  • Dog clutch: Utilized in automobile manual transmissions mentioned above. Positive engagement, non-slip. Typically used where slipping is not acceptable. Partial engagement under any significant load tends to be destructive.
  • Hydraulic clutch: The driving and driven members are not in physical contact; coupling is hydrodynamic.
  • Electromagnetic clutch: Typically a clutch that is engaged by an electromagnet that is an integral part of the clutch assembly. However, magnetic particle clutches have magnetically influenced particles contained in a chamber between driving and driven members which upon application of direct current causes the particles to clump together and adhere to the operating surfaces. Engagement and slippage are notably smooth.
  • Overrunning clutch or freewheel: If some external force makes the driven member rotate faster than the driver, the clutch effectively disengages. Examples include:
    • Borg-Warner overdrive transmissions in cars
    • Ratchet: typical bicycles have these so that the rider can stop pedaling and coast
    • An oscillating member where this clutch can then convert the oscillations into intermittent linear or rotational motion of the complimentary member; others use ratchets with the pawl mounted on a moving member
    • The winding knob of a camera employs a (silent) wrap-spring type as a clutch in winding and as a brake in preventing it from being turned backwards.
    • The rotor drive train in helicopters uses a freewheeling clutch to disengage the rotors from the engine in the event of engine failure, allowing the craft to safely descend by autorotation.
  • Wrap-spring clutches: These have a helical spring wound with square-cross-section wire. In simple form the spring is fastened at one end to the driven member; its other end is unattached. The spring fits closely around a cylindrical driving member. If the driving member rotates in the direction that would unwind the spring the spring expands minutely and slips although with some drag. Rotating the driving member the other way makes the spring wrap itself tightly around the driving surface and the clutch locks up.

Specialty clutches and applications

Single-revolution clutch

When inactive it is disengaged and the driven member is stationary. When "tripped", it locks up solidly (typically in a few to tens of milliseconds) and rotates the driven member just one full turn. If the trip mechanism is operated when the clutch would otherwise disengage the clutch remains engaged. Variants include half-revolution (and other fractional-revolution) types. These were an essential part of printing telegraphs such as teleprinter page printers, as well as electric typewriters, notably the IBM Selectric. They were also found in motor-driven mechanical calculators; the Marchant had several of them. They are also used in farm machinery and industry. Typically, these were a variety of dog clutch.

Single-revolution clutches in teleprinters were of this type. Basically the spring was kept expanded (details below) and mostly out of contact with the driving sleeve, but nevertheless close to it. One end of the spring was attached to a sleeve surrounding the spring. The other end of the spring was attached to the driven member inside which the drive shaft could rotate freely. The sleeve had a projecting tooth, like a ratchet tooth. A spring-loaded pawl pressed against the sleeve and kept it from rotating. The wrap spring's torque kept the sleeve's tooth pressing against the pawl. To engage the clutch, an electromagnet attracted the pawl away from the sleeve. The wrap spring's torque rotated the sleeve which permitted the spring to contract and wrap tightly around the driving sleeve. Load torque tightened the wrap so it did not slip once engaged. If the pawl were held away from the sleeve the clutch would continue to drive the load without slipping. When the clutch was to disengage power was disconnected from the electromagnet and the pawl moved close to the sleeve. When the sleeve's tooth contacted the pawl the sleeve and the load's inertia unwrapped the spring to disengage the clutch. Considering that the drive motors in some of these (such as teleprinters for news wire services) ran 24 hours a day for years the spring could not be allowed to stay in close contact with the driving cylinder; wear would be excessive. The other end of the spring was fastened to a thick disc attached to the driven member. When the clutch locked up the driven mechanism coasted and its inertia rotated the disc until a tooth on it engaged a pawl that kept it from reversing. Together with the restraint at the other end of the spring created by the trip pawl and sleeve tooth, this kept the spring expanded to minimize contact with the driving cylinder. These clutches were lubricated with conventional oil, but the wrap was so effective that the lubricant did not defeat the grip. These clutches had long operating lives, cycling for tens, maybe hundreds of millions of cycles without need of maintenance other than occasional lubrication with recommended oil.

Cascaded-pawl single-revolution clutches

These superseded wrap-spring single-revolution clutches in page printers, such as teleprinters, including the Teletype Model 28 and its successors, using the same design principles. As well, the IBM Selectric typewriter had several of them. These were typically disc-shaped assemblies mounted on the drive shaft. Inside the hollow disc-shaped housing were two or three freely-floating pawls arranged so that when the clutch was tripped, the load torque on the first pawl to engage created force to keep the second pawl engaged, which in turn kept the third one engaged. The clutch did not slip once locked up. This sequence happened quite fast, on the order of milliseconds. The first pawl had a projection that engaged a trip lever. If the lever engaged the pawl, the clutch was disengaged. When the trip lever moved out of the way the first pawl engaged, creating the cascaded lockup just described. As the clutch rotated it would stay locked up if the trip lever were out of the way, but if the trip lever engaged the clutch would quickly unlock.

Kickback clutch-brakes

These mechanisms were found in some types of synchronous-motor-driven electric clocks. Many different types of synchronous clock motors were used, including the pre-World War II Hammond manual-start clocks. Some types of self-starting synchronous motors always started when power was applied, but in detail, their behavior was chaotic and they were equally likely to start rotating in the wrong direction. Coupled to the rotor by one (or possibly two) stages of reduction gearing was a wrap-spring clutch-brake. The spring did not rotate. One end was fixed; the other was free. It rode freely but closely on the rotating member, part of the clock's gear train. The clutch-brake locked up when rotated backwards, but also had some spring action. The inertia of the rotor going backwards engaged the clutch and "wound" the spring. As it "unwound", it re-started the motor in the correct direction. Some designs had no explicit spring as such; it was simply a compliant mechanism. The mechanism was lubricated; wear did not seem to be a problem.

See also

External links

  • HowStuffWorks has a detailed explanation of the working of an automobile clutch.

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