Tech Corner: The ABCs of Clutch Installation

Call me a glutton for punishment, but jobs like this just draw me in. I won’t deny that part of me hates them, but truthfully, nothing gets me going more than installations—especially when it comes to the engine and drivetrain. Even this pain-in-the-ass job, and I mean pain in the ass, is something I’m very enthusiastic about. Clutch installation is a dirty, hands-on job, but it’s one what is worth learning how to do well. Perhaps my manic relationship has a lot to do with not having a lift or a professional grade shop (one day, guys—one day), but I know many other enthusiasts feel the same way. While replacing a clutch varies from vehicle to vehicle, luckily the concept usually stays the same.

Clutch installation is a big job, but it's worth learning how to do it correctly.

For those of you who aren’t ready to tackle a clutch installation yourself but want some advice on selecting the right aftermarket part, check out our post: What to Consider When Shopping for a Clutch. In it, Will Baty of Centerforce Clutches helps us break down all the bases you’ll need to cover before replacing or upgrading.

If you’re looking for some guidance on finding the right shop to handle the install for you, take Baty’s advice. “Do your homework! Make sure they are qualified and have the proper tools to do the job. It wouldn’t hurt to get a reference, or talk to others that have used that shop. Know what clutch you are installing, and make sure you and the shop are on the same page before any work is started.”

Get Organized

Like many other jobs we’ve discussed, such as building a custom gauge cluster, fabricating patch panels, or even just storing and disposing car fluids, being organized from the onset of a project is so critical. When you get into a clutch installation, the last thing you want to do is run back and forth to the tool box. Cardio is a good thing but in this case it can really prolong a job, especially if you wind up having to look around for misplaced items. Before you get started, it’s a good idea to think proactively and set aside everything you know you’re going to need to get the job done. That’s true of every single job…

Your setup may call for some additional tools, but I feel that these will cover most of the bases. You will need a breaker bar and a socket for turning the engine over. (We’ll touch more on this later.) You will need a socket wrench, torque wrench, and box wrenches with the appropriate sizes for the bellhousing, trans to bellhousing, transmission crossmember, pressure plate, flywheel, clutch fork or hydraulic throwout bearing setup, the exhaust, driveshaft, spark plugs, and coil packs if present. You will also need clean rags and appropriate cleaners. Lastly, a floor jack and jack stands are required for those without a lift, and a transmission jack to save your back and fingers.

“The older vehicles haven’t changed much, so they are fairly easy depending on your skill level,” elaborates Baty. “However, newer vehicles require more knowledge and specialized tools to do the job. Once the transmission and other necessary parts are removed, (depending on application) the clutch itself is fairly easy to change.”

Accessing the Clutch

So, to actually get to the clutch, you need to take a considerate amount of the vehicle apart. The exhaust will need to be dropped, the driveshaft will need to be removed, and the transmission crossmember will need to be lowered. Additionally, the shifter will also need to be removed, along with the clutch fork and throw-out bearing or the slave cylinder. You also want to look at your setup and decide how you plan to separate your transmission from the engine. You can either remove the bellhousing with the transmission or remove the transmission from the bellhousing. Each application will vary and you want to identify this upfront before you begin tearing the engine apart.

In my experience, I left the bellhousing on the engine and pulled the transmission away from it. This makes the transmission much easier to manage and is what most will be doing. However, to do it this way, you will need to turn the engine little by little to gain access to the pressure plate bolts. The same is true for the clutch installation. You will not want to use your starter for this, which makes the job time-consuming. Make sure you are turning the engine in the right direction to prevent any internal damage. Turning the engine over is much easier with the spark plugs pulled. If you intend to do so, you will want to remove your plugs before getting started.

Safety First

I cannot tell you exactly how heavy a steel case 4-speed transmission is, but I can tell you that when you’re on your back with your arms above your head, it feels like you’re lifting the whole car. Hence, why transmission jacks are so important. Yes, you can use a floor jack and yes, I am guilty of this—but don’t fall into that habit.

The last time I was wrestling with a manual transmission, it was on the ground and I was using a small floor jack to lift and lower the transmission as I was working. Taking the transmission out was successful, but the installation is where things got sketchy. I was trying to line the input shaft splines up with the clutch and my arms were getting really tired, as I was lying on my back and trying to lift the transmission up and in with my arms over my head.

In fact, my arms got so tired that I decided to take a second to try and get my strength back. Well, because the engine rocked backward without the engine in place, the transmission slid right back and caught my finger between that steel-cased transmission and the jack. It wasn’t so much the pain (although that certainly had me seeing stars), but when I heard the sound of metal hitting metal, I thought for sure that thing came right off.

No, I didn’t lose my finger, but this is why I highly recommend using the right tools for the job. While I can laugh about it now (I damn sure wouldn’t be if I lost that finger), there’s another lesson here. I broke the cardinal rule: Never do these things alone. Weight management in tight spots is dangerous and if you feel more comfortable with seeking professional help with this task, I do not blame you.

Keep It Clean

Lining up the clutch and the flywheel is one of those jobs made complicated by the temptation to cut corners. When you buy a clutch kit, the alignment tool is included. And if you have that, you’re golden. However, in my case, the clutch alignment tool included was not the right one (of course). Mainly, this is because I have an oddball setup. I tried everything from using sockets to line up the clutch and even the transmission. In the end, going online and special ordering my alignment tool was way easier than wrestling with a steel-cased transmission.

Weight management is tough and can lead to rushing, but you can’t forget to keep things clean. Being clean during a clutch installation is super important. You want to make sure that your flywheel and clutch remain uncontaminated. You will want to use a good cleaner to remove any dirt and oil from these components as you work. What should you use for this? Brakleen. Brakes and clutches have a lot in common, so brake cleaner is perfectly acceptable for cleaning either. As for rags, everyone knows that you can’t go wrong with using Scott Shop Towels.

Mind Your Nuts and Bolts

It’s also incredibly important to make sure you are torquing your nuts and bolts. Flywheels can fly off and cut through metal like butter. As you are working, you want to torque each bolt to spec to keep this from happening. Additionally, for proper clutch engagement, make sure that the pressure plate is also torqued to spec. In tight spaces, this can be a pain and you may be tempted to skip it and just ball park estimate. But I strongly recommend taking that additional time to make sure everything is snugged up properly.

Once the clutch is installed, you will need to adjust the clutch release point. You will be fiddling with this for a bit, but again, take your time. Setting up the clutch release point depends on how stiff the clutch is and how you drive. Though, for the most part, about halfway through the pedal swing is where you want to have the clutch engage.

Don’t Make More Work For Yourself

One thing you want to make sure of during a clutch installation is that the slave cylinder or throwout bearing is in good shape. I have a manual setup, so I opted to replace my throwout bearing even though it wasn’t in that bad of shape. I took this measure because the last thing I wanted to do was crack this thing open again a portion of a way through the clutches life. Baty agrees, “We always suggest to change all related bearings and inspect all seals and pivot points, while you have everything apart.”

In sum, this job is hard and potentially dangerous. Yes, my dangerous situation was a result of my own personal ignorance and I’ll be the first to admit that. But still, it’s important that you take your time and stay sharp. If you’ve decided to tackle a clutch installation, and you have the right tools for the job—as well as a higher level of patience than me—this job can be a real money saver. And maybe, even downright fun.

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