A clutch is a mechanism for transmitting rotation, which can be engaged and disengaged. Clutches are useful in devices that have two rotating shafts. The clutch connects the two shafts so that they can either be locked together and spin at the same speed (engaged), or be decoupled and spin at different speeds (disengaged).
Multiple Plate Friction Clutch
This type of clutch has several driving members interleaved with several driven members. It is used in motorcycles and in some electronically controlled all-wheel drive systems. It is the most common type of clutch on modern types of vehicles.
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 whether the clutch is dry or wet, and on other considerations. 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 and are unsuitable for road 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, and the friction plate is released and allowed to rotate freely.
When engaging the clutch, the engine speed may need to be increased from idle, using the manual throttle, so that the engine does not stall (although in some cars, especially diesels, there is enough torque at idling speed that the car can move. This requires fine control of the clutch). 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.
Wet And 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. A 'dry clutch', as the name implies, is not bathed in fluid. Since the surfaces of a wet clutch can be slippery (as with a motorcycle clutch bathed in transmission oil), stacking multiple clutch disks can compensate for the lower coefficient of friction and so eliminate slippage when fully engaged.
In a car the clutch is operated by the left-most pedal using a hydraulic or cable connection from the pedal to the clutch mechanism. Even though the clutch may physically be located very close to the pedal, such remote means of actuation (or a multi-jointed linkage) are necessary to eliminate the effect of 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.
A manual transmission contains cogs for selecting gears. These cogs have matching teeth, called dog teeth, which means that the rotation speeds of the two parts have a synchronizer, a device that uses frictional contact to bring the two parts to the same speed, and a locking mechanism called a blocker ring to prevent engagement of the teeth (full movement of the shift lever into gear) until the speeds are synchronized.
Non-Powertrain In Automobiles
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 elements 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 depending on whether it's a regular or heavy-duty clutch. There are also electronically engaged clutches (such as for an air conditioning compressor) that use magnetic force to lock the drive and driven shafts together.
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, allowing the rider to shift gears. Motorcycle clutches are usually made up of a stack of alternating plain steel and friction plates. One type of plate has lugs on its inner diameter that key it to the engine crankshaft, while the other type of plate has lugs on its outer diameter that key it to a basket that turns the transmission input shaft. The plates are forced together by a set of coil springs when the clutch is engaged. Racing motorcycles often use slipper clutches to eliminate the effects of engine braking.
Some cars and mopeds have a centrifugal clutch, using centrifugal effects to engage the clutch above certain rpm.