Undercar: Diagnosing And Repairing Wheel Bearing Noise
Adapted from Larry Carley’s article in ImportCar
Though automatic transmissions outnumber manuals by a significant margin, manual transmissions still are a popular choice for many sports sedans and performance cars today. A five- or six-speed gearbox coupled with a high-output engine provides the motive power that satisfies the need for speed. It also means a lot of gear changes as the vehicle’s speed changes – which accelerates clutch wear and eventually requires replacing the clutch.
No clutch will last forever. The facings on the clutch disc wear as the miles accumulate. The pressure plate and flywheel can become scored, worn, warped or cracked from all the heat and friction generated by the clutch. A perfectly good clutch also can be ruined by oil contamination. Or, the cable or hydraulic linkage can fail, or the release bearing, pilot bearing/bushing or fork can wear out and prevent the clutch from working properly.
There are several things that can go wrong, so keep reading and we’ll examine the various complaints, one by one.
Giving the Slip
One complaint that generates a lot of clutch work is slipping. Clutches are supposed to slip while the clutch is being engaged so the vehicle doesn’t jerk or lurch forward when starting out. The clutch also needs to slip when the gears are changed to ease the shock on the transmission and drivetrain. But once the clutch pedal is fully released, the clutch should hold firm and provide a solid coupling between the engine and transmission. If it doesn’t, something is wrong and needs to be investigated.
Slipping will be most noticeable when the engine is under load, as when the vehicle is lugging at low speed in a high gear, when driving up a hill, when accelerating to pass another vehicle or when towing a trailer.
A little slippage usually leads to more slippage. Slippage increases friction and produces heat. The hotter the clutch gets, the less able it is to maintain its grip – and the more it slips. The vicious cycle that results can burn the clutch facings and damage the flywheel and pressure plate. So, the sooner the problem is diagnosed and repaired, the less likely these other components are to be damaged.
Normal wear is the most likely cause of slipping if the disc is worn down to the rivets and the clutch has high mileage. Oil leaking from a faulty rear main crankshaft seal or transmission input shaft seal also can contaminate the clutch linings and cause the clutch to slip.
One way to check for slippage is to test drive the vehicle and lug the engine at slow speed in high gear. If the engine races, you’ve confirmed the problem.
The clutch also can be checked outside the service bay by setting the parking brake, chocking the wheels, putting the transmission into high gear and slowly releasing the clutch pedal (make sure nobody is standing in front of the vehicle when you do this!). If the engine immediately stalls, the clutch is not slipping. If the engine continues to run when the clutch pedal is fully released, the clutch is slipping badly and needs repair. If the engine slows, but continues to run, the clutch is slipping.
If the vehicle is equipped with a dual-mass flywheel, a bad flywheel may be the cause of the slippage. Carefully examine the old clutch for heat marks on the pressure plate, disintegrated disc friction material and contamination of the friction material from external oil leaks. If no such evidence is found, the problem is the flywheel.
An aftermarket solid flywheel can be installed in place of an OEM dual-mass flywheel (if available). A solid flywheel is less apt to cause future driveability problems and will save your customer some money.
What’s all the Chatter?
Chattering is a grabbing or jerking condition that occurs when the clutch is engaged. It’s most often caused by oil or grease on the clutch linings.
External causes of clutch chatter include loose or broken engine or transmission mounts, misalignment of the chassis and drivetrain components, worn or damaged U-joints or CV joints, a loose transmission crossmember, a worn or bent release fork, or loose rear left spring bushings or spring U-bolt nuts.
What’s all that Noise?
Squeals and growls usually are caused by worn or seized bearings. Chirping noises are most often caused by vibration somewhere in the clutch actuator mechanism.
To find out what’s causing the noise, set the parking brake, place the vehicle in neutral and start the engine.
If you hear growling or grinding noises when the clutch is engaged, the cause is the transmission input shaft bearing.
A squealing sound that occurs when the clutch pedal is depressed and held is usually caused by a bad pilot bearing or bushing.
A chirping noise that intensifies when the pedal is slowly depressed would indicate a bad release bearing.
If you hear chirping while idling in neutral and the noise goes away when the pedal is slowly depressed, the fork/pivot ball contact point is making the noise.
Not Ready for Release
If the clutch does not release completely when the clutch pedal is fully depressed, the disc will continue to turn the input shaft. This may prevent the driver from shifting the transmission from neutral into gear, cause grinding when the gears are changed or cause the engine to stall when coming to a stop.
A clutch that won’t release may have a misadjusted linkage, a broken or stretched release cable, a leaky or defective slave or master clutch cylinder, air in the hydraulic line or cylinders, or corroded, damaged or improperly lubricated input shaft splines. Other problems include a worn pilot bearing/bushing, a worn bearing retainer, bent or worn release fork or pivot ball, bent clutch drive straps, bent or distorted clutch disc, an improperly installed clutch disc or clutch, or mismatched clutch components (new installation).
Other things that can cause the clutch to drag or not release include heavy gear oil in the transmission that’s too thick for cold weather, defective or worn clutch pedal bushings or brackets, or flexing in the firewall or any release component attachment point.
What Went Wrong
Before you replace a clutch, it’s a good idea to examine the old parts to see what might have caused them to fail. If you find an oil-soaked clutch, for example, don’t even think about installing a new clutch until you’ve found and fixed the oil leak.
If the fingers on a diaphragm clutch show heavy wear, it may be because somebody didn’t install the release bearing correctly, the hydraulic system wasn’t fully retracting, the release cable was sticking, misadjusted or had a defective self-adjuster, or the driver had the bad habit of riding the clutch.
If the fingers on a diaphragm clutch are worn unevenly, it means the clutch was distorted when it was installed because somebody didn’t tighten down the cover bolts evenly when it was bolted to the flywheel. The pressure plate will often show chatter marks on the side opposite the finger wear on the diaphragm.
Because of the labor that’s required to change most clutches, you don’t want to have to do the job over – especially at your own expense if there’s a comeback. The best advice is to replace all the major clutch components when servicing the clutch – not just the part or parts that are obviously worn out or broken.
Most experts recommend installing a new clutch disc, pressure plate assembly, release bearing and pilot bearing/bushing (if one is used), and resurfacing the flywheel.
The clutch is a system, so it’s important to use parts that are properly matched and meet OEM specifications for quality and performance. Installing a complete clutch kit from a quality supplier is your best insurance against comebacks and customer complaints.
Another item that should also be replaced is the release cable on older vehicles with this type of linkage. If a vehicle has a hydraulic linkage with a lot of miles on it, it would be wise to replace the master and slave cylinders, too, even if they are not leaking.
Why? The slave cylinder is the lowest point in the hydraulic linkage, so most of the rust and sediment that has been accumulating over the years ends up in the slave cylinder. Common sense tells you this will eventually cause problems, so replacing the slave cylinder now will give your customer many more miles of trouble-free driving. At the very least, you should flush the hydraulics and refill the system with fresh fluid.
If the old clutch has seen a lot of abuse, or the vehicle has been modified for more power, a performance clutch set designed to deliver higher torque capacity should be installed to beef up the drivetrain. But avoid performance clutches that are overly aggressive and sacrifice driveability to achieve more bite.
The flywheel should always be resurfaced or replaced. Oil, dirt, grease, warpage, cracks or grooves on a flywheel will cause clutch problems. So too will excessive runout. Remember to mark the index position of the flywheel before you remove it so that it can be reinstalled in the same position as before. If a flywheel is cracked or damaged, or cannot be resurfaced, replacement is required.
With stepped flywheels, equal amounts of metal must be machined off both steps to maintain the same relative height difference between the two. If only the wear surface is machined, it will reduce the pressure exerted by the pressure plate against the clutch disc.
Use a pilot tool to align the clutch disc to the flywheel when the clutch is bolted in place. Eyeballing it isn’t good enough because the transmission input shaft may not slide into place when you try to maneuver it into position. Tighten the pressure plate bolts gradually in a star pattern to avoid distorting the clutch. Never use an air ratchet.
On vehicles with hydraulic linkages, you may need a bleeder tool to get the air out of the lines if you’ve replaced the master or slave cylinder, or flushed and replaced the fluid in the system.
Lightly lubricate the splines on the transaxle input shaft and the release fork pivot, and make sure the new release bearing is properly installed in the release fork.
When reinstalling the transmission, support the weight of the tranny until it is bolted in place. If you let it hang while the input shaft is engaged with the clutch, it may bend or distort the hub in the clutch disc and prevent it from releasing.
Proper adjustment of the clutch linkage also is a must after replacing a clutch. Follow the procedure in the manual and make sure you have the right play.
Finally, do a short test drive to make sure the clutch is operating properly – meaning normal pedal travel and feel, no noise, and smooth engagement and shifts.
Note – Technical assistance and clutch photos provided courtesy of LuK Automotive Systems.