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The vast majority of clutches ultimately rely on frictional forces for their operation. The purpose of friction clutches is to connect a moving member to another that is moving at a different speed or stationary, often to synchronise the speeds, and/or to transmit power. Usually as little slippage (difference in speeds) as possible between the two members is desired.

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 causes 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.

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."

The default state of the clutch is engaged - that is the connection between engine and gearbox is always "on" unless the driver presses the pedal and disengages it. If the engine is running with clutch engaged and the transmission in neutral, the engine spins the input shaft of the transmission, but no power is transmitted to the wheels.

The clutch is located between the engine and the gearbox, as disengaging it is required to change gear. Although the gearbox does not stop rotating during a gear change, there is no torque transmitted through it, thus less friction between gears and their engagement dogs. The output shaft of the gearbox is permanently connected to the final drive, then the wheels, and so both always rotate together, at a fixed speed ratio. With the clutch disengaged, the gearbox input shaft is free to change its speed as the internal ratio is changed. Any resulting difference in speed between the engine and gearbox is evened out as the clutch slips slightly during re-engagement.

Clutches in typical cars are mounted directly to the face of the engine's flywheel, as this already provides a convenient large diameter steel disk that can act as one driving plate of the clutch. Some racing clutches use small multi-plate disk packs that are not part of the flywheel. Both clutch and flywheel are enclosed in a conical bellhousing, which (in a rear-wheel drive car) usually forms the main mounting for the gearbox.

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