A Driving Instructor's Blog

I get a lot of hits on the rolling back and clutch/brake posts as a result of the search term “how do you hold the clutch so you don’t roll back”, “how to find the bite”, and (my favourite) “how to drive – find the bite”. There’s also the article about whether you set the gas before or after you find the bite.

This subject best dealt with by your instructor on lessons, because it is one of those things that is easier if you are doing it instead of just talking about it. But the first thing to do is get a rough idea of how the clutch works – not in technical detail, just very roughly. Note that the following is a simplified way of describing the clutch to people who really aren’t interested in detailed mechanical explanations. I know some ADIs who revel in providing diagrams of the actual clutch assembly, but this is more for their benefit than their pupils.Clutch or no clutch

When you turn on the engine, you have to be able to transfer the power to the wheels somehow. So the engine is connected to the wheels via a drive shaft – to start with, imagine you are in a car that has no clutch or gears.

As soon as you started the engine, it would turn the drive shaft, and that would turn the wheels – so the car would move forward (see left diagram). But this is a useless situation for controlling a real car, because if you braked and stopped, the drive shaft couldn’t turn, so the engine would stall. And if you didn’t brake, the car would just go forward out of control.

So, the drive shaft has a break in it (see right diagram) – this is the clutch assembly. You can think of it as two discs, one connected to the engine-end of the shaft, the other to the wheels-end of the shaft. The drive shaft also has a second break in it – the gear-box – but I haven’t put it in the drawings.

When the engine is running, and the car is in gear, with the clutch pedal all the way down the two discs are pulled completely apart. So the engine makes one of them spin (the orange section in the diagram).

If you gently raise the clutch pedal, the two discs get closer and closer together. As soon as they begin to make contact with each other – this is the bite (or biting) point – the engine is able to start trying to move the wheels. If the handbrake is on you’ll feel a slight bump as the system starts to take the strain. You may also feel or see the car dip/rise slightly at the back (look in your rear view mirror). And you might hear the engine sound change slightly, or see the rev counter fluctuate.

The trick is to be able to find the bite point quickly and reliably and to keep your foot still once you have. If you lift your foot too far past the bite point, the engine will start to strain and may stall (it’s also bad for your clutch), or the car could lurch forward if you take the handbrake off.

For completion, it is necessary to point out that with the clutch pedal all the way up and the two discs pushed hard together, you have the same situation you would have if you had no clutch at all – except that by pushing the pedal down again, you can get control of the car as you need it (and change gears).

I teach my pupils to find the bite without any gas to begin with (and I mean on the first lesson). If you can do it with no gas, and without stalling, you are doing well.

The next trick is to be able to set the gas, then find the bite. A lot of pupils I find have initial problems keeping their feet separate from each other, and as they find the bite they release the gas (and vice versa). But practice makes perfect.

I have a number of exercises I do with my pupils to get them to be able to hold the car on the bite quickly so that they can deal with junctions confidently.

One final thing: if you are paying for lessons all of this should be taught to you on the first lesson, and definitely by the end of the second. Even if you only take hour lessons, if you are sitting stationary listening to a lecture about the controls the whole time you are quite possibly being taken for a ride (no pun intended). You shouldn’t have to sort clutch problems out for yourself – it’s absolutely fundamental to a driving instructor’s syllabus and it’s what they get paid to teach.

I get a lot of pupils who have either skipped instructors because they weren’t getting anywhere, or who are surprised at what we do on lessons compared to their friends. ADIs often try to explain this away as pupils telling lies, but I find so few who can’t progress at a reasonable rate that I cannot accept there are so many learning elsewhere who are apparently so deficient.

Do I need to set the gas when finding the bite?

Technically, no. However, if you don’t have the gas set the car will easily stall, and you won’t be able to move away quickly to take advantage of lights changing or gaps appearing. Both of these can lead to problems with you causing hold-ups due to hesitation or simply stalling – and you know what that means if you’re on your test! So most of the time you will want to set the gas.

Can my car move without gas?

I don’t know! Try it. Most new cars can, but older ones – and especially ones which haven’t been serviced – may well stall.

Being able to move without gas is useful for low-speed manoeuvres and driving in slow-moving traffic. But if your car won’t do it then you’ll simply have to use some gas.

How does the rev counter help you find the bite?

To be honest, it doesn’t. The engine management system (EMS) is designed to keep the revs steady with little or no gas, so you have to virtually hit stalling point before you see the revs fluctuate significantly. Learners can’t factor in this EMS effect and usually end up moving their foot so much that they stall. Looking at the rev counter leads to more problems for learners, especially when they should be concentrating on the road and making quick decisions.

How can I find the bite quickly?

Practice! It isn’t rocket science, but neither is it reasonable to expect to be able to do it the first time you get in a car. It takes time to perfect, and some people pick it up better than others. A good exercise is to put the car in gear, then repeatedly find the bite, de-clutch, find the bite again, and so on… over and over again, but without stalling. Then try it with setting the gas first – exactly the same way, but set the gas, then find the bite, then de-clutch/off the bite, then repeat… again and again. Try to put it into practice every time you move off (from a parked position, from lights, at junctions, on hills, and so on). Your clutch ankle will develop a “memory”, and both your feet will gradually develop synchronisation.

Another exercise is to find a gentle uphill slope, drive slowly up it a little way, then take your foot off the gas and de-clutch. As the car rolls to a stop, set the gas and bite to hold it still. Then drive a little further and do it again. Obviously, someone needs to keep an eye on what’s going on behind – it has to be a quiet road – but concentrate only on the gas and bite at this stage. When I do it with my pupils, I do all the checks and operate the handbrake – I want them to just concentrate on the pedals.

Once you develop the habit, you’ll wonder why you ever had trouble with it. It’s like anything new – a new computer game, learning to juggle, playing an instrument, and so on. You can’t do it first time, but you get better each time you try. Another tip is not to think too much about what your feet are doing. The more you think about what’s going on in the floor well, the more you will hesitate and doubt what you’re doing is right.

One final point: until Google’s driverless cars are commonplace, it remains your responsibility to control the car. There are no quick fixes or situations where you can switch off your concentration. You have to learn how to do it properly – if you don’t, you stand a good chance of having an accident when you start driving alone.

How can I move away quickly?

People find the blog on this search term, usually specifying diesel or petrol. Moving off quickly is the same in either type – it’s just that diesel is more forgiving than petrol.

The sequence of events in moving off is: set gas >> find the bite >> release the handbrake >> apply more gas >> raise the clutch smoothly >> accelerate away. Obviously, you have to look around to make sure it is safe, but the sequence given is the physical actions involved in moving away.

To begin with, learners have to do this slowly in order to acquire the habit. As more skill is developed, the whole sequence can be shortened by doing each step more quickly. The mistake people make is overlapping the apply more gas >> raise the clutch smoothly >> accelerate away part. This results in stalling or kangaroo-hopping. However, the shorter time it takes to do this, the quicker you can move away.

How do I know I have the bite?

If you listen you can hear the engine noise change very slightly. If you concentrate you can feel the car take up the bite. And if you look you can see the car either rise or dip in the rear view mirror depending on whether you’re in first or reverse gear. With a little practice, your ankle will get a “memory” of where it needs to go to and you won’t have to think about it yourself.

Does the front of the car rise when you find the bite?

If the handbrake is on, the rear of the car dips slightly when you find the biting point when you’re in a forward gear. I suppose you could argue that the front rises, but that’s only because the back end dips – so that’s what you should look for. If you’re in reverse, then the back appears to rise slightly.

It’s much easier to see this in the rear view mirror rather than looking forwards – that’s down to simple geometry and the fact that you’re further away from the rear of the car in the driver seat, so the length of the car amplifies the apparent movement.

If you’re holding the car firmly with the footbrake then you probably won’t see any rise or dip, so be careful. If you repeatedly find and release the bite with the handbrake on, the car bounces visibly up and down. If you do the same with the footbrake you won’t see any movement unless you find a lot of bite – and that puts you close to stalling, which is why it isn’t a good idea to find the bite with the footbrake on unless you’re very careful (and on your test you’ll likely be nervous, making stalls that much more possible).

If you don’t have any brakes applied at all then the car will just move as soon as you have the bite, so the question of rising or dipping is irrelevant.

My instructor said it is wrong to see the car dip when you have the bite

Well, your instructor has got the wrong end of the stick! The simple fact is that when you find the bite, the car starts to try to move. If the handbrake is on then the car will dip as it pulls against the brakes – how much depends on how much bite you have (you probably won’t see any dip at all if the handbrake is not applied). You certainly don’t want so much that the car dips right down, but you do need enough so that it will not roll back and will at least hold steady when you release the handbrake. Beyond the holding point it will dip slightly, and if you find the bite quickly you’ll probably be able to see it, no matter how small it is.

No one is saying that you must look for the dip. It’s just another feedback mechanism you can use if you want to.

Can I use the biting point when I do a hill start?

If you don’t, you’ll roll backwards as soon as you disengage the brake! This is exactly what the biting point is for on a hill – to prevent you rolling back.

I’m still having problems

As I said above, finding the biting point isn’t rocket science. However, that doesn’t mean that it comes naturally to everyone, and especially when they have to do it for real. You see, sitting on a quiet slope practicing is one thing, but trying to do it when you’re under pressure at a junction or when there is other traffic around is something else entirely.

Try to stay calm, and shut out all those other distractions. Finding the bite is exactly the same whether you’re on the quietest of side roads, or in the middle of rush hour at a busy junction. The only difference is how you feel and how you therefore react. If you’re stressed, you get jumpy – and if you’re jumpy, then you can easily get your timing all wrong and stall.

Trust me: the secret is in there somewhere. You have to find it.

Is there a video which can help me?

The clutch plates are not visible so you cannot film them in action. You can find animations showing how the clutch works, but they’re just visual representations of what I’ve described here – and being honest, most of them tend to make the principle seem far more complicated than it needs to be if you just want an idea of what is happening when you drive. I’m thinking of making an animation myself, and if I ever get round to it I’ll post it on here.

Whoever used this search term couldn’t possibly want to see a video of someone’s foot going up and down (and probably only slightly, anyway).

Should the car hold still at the biting point?

If it is pointing uphill, yes. But it doesn’t matter if it moves forwards or backwards very slightly – just adjust the pressure on the pedal to control the biting point precisely.

Do you keep your foot on the biting point while driving?

No. Not when you’re driving normally. If you even rest your foot on the clutch pedal when driving you run the risk of causing the plates to slip needlessly, and that will lead to increased wear. It can cost a lot of money (upwards of £500 on some cars) to replace the clutch, so it’s not something you want to have to do regularly. Driven properly, a clutch should last easily more than 60,000 miles (well over 100,000 miles isn’t uncommon).

If you are driving slowly – in heavy traffic, for example – then you might want to use the bite to control the car’s speed in some cases, but only for short distances. At very low speeds, if you can’t have the clutch all the way up you don’t want to have it at the bite all the time for the reason given already. It makes sense to alternate between coasting and giving it a nudge with the bite in such cases (coasting at 1mph is not the same thing as coasting at 30, 50, or 70mph).

Remember also that most new-ish cars will drive themselves with the clutch all the way up in 1st and 2nd without stalling, and timing your driving and clearance to cars in front so you can just let the car cruise with the clutch fully up is another good technique to learn when in heavy traffic.

You should avoid holding the biting point for extended periods to prevent unnecessary wear.

My feet or toes keep catching above the clutch pedal

The larger shoe size you have, the more likely this is to happen. However, even people with size 12s can find the bite without their feet catching if they learn to do it right. The secret is to always hit the clutch pedal with the “knuckle” of your foot (i.e. along the line of the ball of your big toe). Don’t let this contact point slip down towards your arch. It can sometimes help if you keep your heel on the floor when finding the bite (conversely, for some people, not keeping your heel on the floor helps). If you do keep your heel down, do it lightly and let it slip along the mat as you raise the pedal instead of letting the contact point with the pedal drift.

Oh, and one more thing. If you have large feet, for goodness sake don’t try and drive in shoes which have pointed toe caps. Go for something which doesn’t add extra length to your feet.

Should I keep my heel on the floor when I find the bite?

It doesn’t really matter. However, using your heel as a brace can help you with the fine control. That’s because lifting your whole leg means that your thigh muscles – which are best suited to kicking a ball the length of a football field, or something similar – are doing all the work, whereas using your heel as a pivot point means your ankle and calf muscles are involved, and these are better suited to the fine control needed.Electricity pylons

The triangle is the strongest shape from an engineering perspective. It’s why they use them in things like pylons and aerial masts – you can’t deform them like you can a rectangle or other polygon. If any of the angles change, the length of the sides have to change, and that isn’t possible under normal circumstances. If the ball of your foot touches the pedal, and your heel stays rooted firmly to the same spot on the floor, a triangle is formed by your foot, the floor, and the direction the pedal moves. And that’s where we have a potential problem with the heel-on-the-floor method.

By pressing the pedal you change the angle between your heel and the floor, so the length of one of the sides has to change – and that can mean your foot slipping on the pedal.

The secret is only to use your heel as a brace and to allow it to slip lightly along the floor if necessary, so the top of your foot remains in a fixed position on the pedal. Furthermore, you only need to keep your heel on the floor up to, and slightly past, the biting point – which minimises the change in angle at your heel. On most cars the amount of pedal movement between fully down and the biting point is only a few centimetres, so the amount of slippage is virtually nil anyway. You do not need to try to lift the clutch all the way up like this.

If any of my pupils is having trouble with clutch control, it is nearly always because they are lifting their whole leg. In most cases, keeping their heel down sorts the problem out – once they get into the habit of doing it. Often, they’ve been doing it their way for so long, it is hard for them to kick the habit.

Should I keep my heel on the floor when I change gears?

You certainly do not need to keep your heel down for the entire distance of clutch movement.

However, if you are having trouble with “clutch bump” – where the clutch makes a bumping noise when you lift it and the car jolts slightly – it is because you’re lifting the pedal too quickly. Assuming that this is also due to your thigh muscles fighting a losing battle with the springs on the clutch pedal, you may find it useful to follow this procedure when you change gear: clutch down >> change gear >> raise your toes (heel down) to the bite >> raise them just past the bite >> lift your heel and bring the clutch fully up.

What this does turn the movement into a rocking action, which acts as a buffer, so instead of the pedal springs throwing your leg up, your lower leg muscles do the important bit before handing things back to your thigh muscles. It yields a much smoother engagement of the clutch plates. After a bit of practice it becomes second nature.

Can you find the biting point with the foot brake on?

Yes, but I do not recommend it. Try this experiment.

With the hand brake on, and your foot OFF the foot brake, find the bite a few times (with or without gas – it doesn’t matter). Feel how the car bounces underneath you.

Now try the same thing with your foot firmly on the foot brake (you can leave the hand brake on or take it off – it doesn’t matter). There is no bounce at all, and you may even stall it before you realise you have the bite.

If you have the foot brake on, you cannot apply gas while you find the bite. And you get no feedback (that bouncing) telling you how much bite you have. If you misjudge it you will stall. On test – where you’ll be nervous – that could easily make the difference between a pass and a fail, and in normal driving it could be dangerous if you stall in the wrong place.

My advice is not to do it unless you really know what you’re up to.

Incidentally, someone recently found the blog with the question “how do I find the bite with the footbrake on?” The fact that they asked this question is a perfect reason why they shouldn’t try. If you know what you’re doing, you wouldn’t be asking, and if you don’t… well, you’ll get yourself into a mess.

When I change gear, should I use gas when I lift the clutch?

Ideally, you want to apply gas just as you move through the biting point as you raise the clutch. If you apply gas too soon the car makes a revving noise and it may lurch or feel bumpy when the bite takes hold – especially if you lift the clutch a little too quickly.

To begin with, you might want to raise the clutch first, then apply gas. As you gain more experience you can experiment with your timing so that you can accelerate away smoothly. Obviously, if you raise the clutch but don’t apply any gas after that the car will not accelerate at all – sometimes, that may be what you want, but normally you have to apply gas in order to move away briskly from a stopped position.

Should I keep the gas set when I change gear?

In most cases, no. If you put the clutch down with gas still set the engine will rev loudly, which is a good signal that you shouldn’t do it. If you then lift the clutch the car will lurch, which is another sign that you’re doing it wrong. It will wear out the clutch more quickly, and with a new clutch costing anything from £400 upwards, this would be the third sign that you’re doing it wrong.

Having said that, there are some situations where having the gas set as you declutch, then find the bite again almost immediately can be useful – on steep slopes where you don’t want to roll back, for example. However, it is certainly not something you should be thinking about at this stage. Furthermore, it isn’t something you should be doing regularly – no matter how many advanced driving certificates you have.

The correct procedure is to take your foot off the gas, declutch, change gear, raise the clutch, then apply gas again.

Should I change gear while I have the clutch at the biting point?

No. In most cases if you try that the gear lever will either not come out of the gear it is in, or it won’t go into the gear you’re trying to move it to. At best it will be stiff. It’s one of the main reasons learners have problems changing gear – they don’t put the clutch fully down, so they can’t move the gear lever.

Technically, if you get the revs right you can do it, and it is a favourite discussion topic of people who think they’re advanced drivers. If you want to be lazy and change gear without pushing the clutch down, switch to an automatic. Or wait for Google to perfect its self-driving car. Otherwise, learn to do it properly.

Why does my car move with the handbrake on when I find the bite?

The handbrake is just an anchor to keep the car from rolling away. It is not designed to stop the car, nor is it designed to prevent it from being driven away. If you forget to take the handbrake off, most cars will easily pull away. If the car moves when you find the bite, it will be because you either haven’t got the handbrake on tightly enough, you’re finding too much bite, or perhaps a combination of the two.

It isn’t something you should be doing deliberately or often. It will wear out the pads more quickly and extended periods of driving with the handbrake significantly applied could damage the car. However, a small movement when you find the bite and before you take the handbrake off is no big deal. Just learn to be more gentle finding the biting point.

One final point: the handbrake or brake pads may be damaged or badly worn. The handbrake cable can stretch and eventually snap (it’s happened to me twice in my driving lifetime), and the pads wear down with time. Have your car checked regularly.

Can you find the biting point with the car switched off?

Someone found the blog on that search term. Technically there is still a biting point if the car is switched off. If you park the car on a hill facing upwards then you should leave it in first gear so that if the handbrake fails there is engine resistance to stop it rolling away uncontrollably. Similarly, if parking facing downhill then you should leave it in reverse. Obviously, for either of these to have any effect then the engine must be connected via the clutch and gears to the wheels, and therefore there must be a biting point.

Also, if you have a flat battery and the car will not start normally, you can get someone to push you and  – once the car is  moving fast enough – you can put it in gear and bring the clutch up. At this point it should fire up. Once more, the clutch is obviously working normally.

However, you cannot feel the bite unless the car is moving in these situations (or unless the engine is running if you’re stationary). So the bite is only of practical value if either the engine is running and/or if the car is moving.

How often should I hold the car at the bite?

Use it when you need it – for very short periods. As I explained above, doing it too much wears the clutch plates out so use your own common sense. If you try to second guess traffic lights or queues of traffic and end up having to stop – especially on upward slopes – use the handbrake instead.

Can you hold the car using just the biting point at junctions?

Yes, it’s known by various terms such as “holding on the bite” and “riding the clutch”. If you know what you are doing you can approach traffic lights or a junction without braking at all, then as the car rolls to a stop find the bite and hold it perfectly still. Usually you’ll brake gently to get your speed down, then apply the technique for the last few metres. Obviously, you need an upward slope to do this, otherwise you’ll not stop but roll forward. And you’ll often need to apply a little gas to prevent stalling, especially if you’re driving a petrol car (and even more so if it’s an older car, which is more prone to stalling).

You often see people doing it badly at traffic lights as they rock back and forth, or creep forward over the line. If this happens, use the handbrake until you’ve perfected your control because it can be dangerous if you get it wrong.

Remember that if you don’t use the footbrake no one behind will see your brake lights, so bear that in mind. Also remember that you shouldn’t hold the car on the bite for too long as it will wear down the clutch quicker – and that can be very expensive.

What happens if you hold the car at the biting point for too long?

Three things (all related):

  • the clutch plates get hot
  • they start to smell
  • the plates wear down quicker

A new clutch is going to cost anywhere from a couple of hundred pounds to around £1,000, unless you can do it yourself (and you need to be a mechanic to do it). A clutch for my Ford Focus Navigator costs about £800 including fitting, and it has to be off the road for several days while they do it, because it is a huge job.

Your clutch will wear out eventually anyway, but it isn’t something you want to be happening more often than is absolutely necessary.

How many miles do I lose from my clutch if I hold it at the biting point?

There’s no way of quantifying this accurately. A well-treated clutch can last for well over 100,000 miles – certainly, at least 60,000 miles. If the clutch is abused then it might wear out in half that. In dramatic cases, and this happened to me, serious abuse could smash the clutch immediately (one of my pupils broke it by lifting it too quickly while my car was less than a week old!)

Don’t drive with the clutch part-way down, don’t try and hold the bite at every set of traffic lights (especially when they only just turned red), and don’t over-rev to get that burning smell. The clutch will last a long time if you stick to that.

I drove up a hill in 1st gear and got a burning smell

As explained in the main article above, if the clutch plates spin (or slip) against each other for too long they get hot and that produces the familiar burning smell. If the clutch pedal is all the way up (make sure your foot is off the pedal), then the plates should not slip and you will not get that smell.

If the clutch is badly worn, then under heavy load – for example, when the car is going up a hill and a lot of gas is set – the plates will slip. You need to get your car looked at, and brace yourself for the cost of a new clutch.

I chose the wrong gear and got a burning smell

As I have explained, if the clutch plates rub together for too long they get hot – that’s where the smell comes from. You can get them hot by holding the biting point for too long. You can get them hotter quicker by holding the biting point and applying gas – the more gas, the faster they’ll heat up, as the plates rub together more. Another possible way of doing it is to engage the wrong gear so that when you raise the clutch there is a sudden change of speed.

You can think of it like getting a rope burn. If you hold a piece of rope gently and someone pulls it through your hands, it will get hot (similar to holding the biting point). If they pull it faster, it’ll get hot quicker (like holding the bite and applying gas). If you hold the rope tightly and they pull hard, it’ll get hot very quickly even though it hasn’t actually moved much (this would be similar to selecting the wrong gear)

Of course, I am assuming the smell was that of burning clutch – it may have been something else, so you might want to get your car checked at a garage if you’re worried.

Is the bite higher when you’re on a hill?

Yes. Remember that the biting point is basically the point where the force of the engine trying to push the car forward is carefully balanced (by you) with the force of gravity trying to make it roll backward. As the slope increases, the roll back force will increase and you will therefore need more engine force to balance it. However, you shouldn’t be thinking of it like that when you’re driving – it’ll just end up going wrong. You need to practice finding the bite so the car doesn’t move forwards or backwards. You can see, hear, and feel – you don’t need to start measuring as well.

I suppose I should also mention the obvious point that you don’t need the bite if the car is facing down a hill (unless you’re reversing up it). The bite pushes the car one way and the roll due to gravity the other.

Do newer cars have a lower biting point?

Generally, yes – but as I have said, clutches are self-adjusting to a certain extent (on some cars, anyway). However, it is common for pupils to have to adjust to an older car when they’ve been taught in a new driving school car, as the bite is often somewhat higher up.

Do all old cars have a high biting point?

Not necessarily. If they still have the original clutch, and if the clutch has not been adjusted, then the bite is likely to be very high compared to a newer car. Generally, you will find that this is the case. However, if the clutch has been replaced, or if the garage has adjusted the cable, then the bite could be very low and similar to a new car. As I have explained elsewhere, this caught me out some years ago when I had my clutch replaced in a car which was by then about 10 years old – I couldn’t move for a couple of days without stalling until I got used to the new position.

I had my clutch cable replaced and the bite is now different

If you read the description of how the clutch works you should be able to understand why this is. Whenever you buy a new car (and I just mean a different car – it doesn’t have to be brand new), the clutch will initially feel different to what you’re used to. There’s probably nothing wrong – it’s just different – and you’ll get used to it in a day or two. It’s going to be the same if you have any work done on your clutch, and a new cable is bound to feel different. It’s only a problem if the bite is so high up that the clutch is slipping when you take your foot off the pedal.

Based on my own experience, there is usually a bigger difference in where the biting point is after mechanical work when you take your car to a small back street shop instead of a main dealer. The dealers seems to work to rigid guidelines, whereas general mechanics do their own thing which results in more noticeable differences. I’m only surmising, and I’m not saying the back street mechanics are wrong. All I know is that whenever I’ve taken cars to general mechanics for repair, I notice differences when I get the car back. However, if my Focus has to go to the dealer – even for a complete clutch replacement – when I get it back it is exactly as it was before it went in.

Is the bite different for diesel cars compared to petrol?

No. The clutch works in exactly the same way and any differences in the actual biting point are not down to the fact that the car is diesel or petrol. What IS different is the torque of the engine, and if you find too much bite in a diesel then you may notice the car moves away more quickly compared to a petrol vehicle.

Should I brake before I put the clutch down?

It depends on how fast you’re going. If you’re slowing down from a cruising speed, then you should brake first – that way you get the advantage of “engine braking” (this is where the engine slows down as you take your foot off the gas, but since the clutch is still up it will also slow down the car). If you put the clutch down first, the car is effectively free-wheeling under its own momentum and the force of gravity, and that means the brakes have to work harder as there is no engine braking. On a downward slope, it will actually speed up in most cases if you put the clutch down first.

If you are slowing down below the lower speed for the gear you are in, then you will have to put the clutch down to either stop or change to a lower gear. If you brake too much for the gear you’re in, the car will start to rumble to let you know it is struggling. That rumble is a precursor to stalling, so you should change gear if it happens. Brake too much without depressing the clutch and you’ll stall.

What is engine braking?

When the clutch is at the biting point, it controls the speed of the car. You can rev as much as you like, but apart from a funny smell as the clutch plates get hot the car will not go any faster if you keep the biting point. This is why clutch slipping (or riding the clutch) is good for low speed manoeuvring. However, when the clutch is all the way up it is the engine which controls speed. Add gas to make the engine go faster, and the car goes faster too. But take your foot off the gas and the engine slows down – and the car does the same. That is what is meant by engine braking.

Learners often make the mistake of pushing the clutch pedal when they want to slow down. This only works at very low speeds (i.e. during manoeuvres) and if you’re on a relatively level surface – and not always even then. If the car is pointing downhill, all engine braking is lost if the clutch goes down before the brake and it will rapidly pick up speed. Try to keep the clutch up for as long as possible, and use the brake to slow down before de-clutching.

Should I find the bite at junctions?

I’m not quite sure what (or why) you’re asking, but yes! Nothing annoys me more than a pupil who takes the handbrake off before they have set gas and/or found the bite when moving off – you are not in control of the car if you do that, and on any sort of upwards slope it will roll back, which is not good.

As I also explained above, you can hold the car at junctions just using the bite (or gas and bite).

Can you find the biting point by pushing the clutch down ?

Yes, of course you can. Using the analogy of the volume control on your ipod, you can turn it up to the ideal level if it’s too quiet, or down to the ideal level if it’s too loud. The biting point is the ideal position to hold the car balanced – not moving forward and not rolling back – so it doesn’t really matter which side you come in from. Generally, though, it’s easier to find it from below because you get feedback from  the car as the bite takes hold.

How do you explain the biting point to a learner?

You can (hopefully) pick this out of the explanation I gave above, but in a nutshell, the biting point is when the two clutch plates begin to make contact with each other as the clutch pedal is raised – the one connected to the engine then starts to try to push the one connected to the wheels round (i.e. the ideal position to hold the car balanced – not moving forward and not rolling back). You need to hold your foot still once you’ve found it – otherwise it isn’t a “point” and the car will not be in control. And also remember that all learners are different, so if you’re an instructor you may need to look for different ways of explaining it before it clicks with them.

Does the rev counter help learners to find the bite?

No. The bite is controlled with the clutch. The rev counter shows how much gas has been set. Learners shouldn’t really (in my opinion) set gas using the rev counter anyway since they start focusing on the wrong things. They should set the gas by ear.

There’s so much to remember

It might seem like that, but just think about when you first learnt to ride a bike, or took up any hobby or skill-based activity. You don’t give a second thought to staying in the saddle, playing the right chords, or hitting the ball cleanly with the bat anymore, although while you were learning you had to. It becomes a habit. That’s what you want your clutch control to become – a habit. And it will become one quicker than you think… as long as you think positively.

I can’t find my biting point

Unless there is a fault with your car, yes you can.

The biting point is when the clutch plates just begin to engage with each other, and this is controlled by raising or lowering your foot on the clutch pedal to adjust the distance between the plates. You have to practice and develop finding the bite quickly.

If this question/problem arises due to switching between your instructor’s car and your own, it’s something you have to live with (or get fixed at a garage). All cars are different depending on age and adjustment, so the position of the biting point will change. I remember having the clutch replaced in my own car some years ago – when I went to pick it up I couldn’t move it out of the garage to begin with as the bite was now much further down the pedal movement and I kept stalling it. It took a few hours driving to get used to it. It’s normal.

My car has a weak biting point

Although this could mean a lot of things (it was a real search term used to find the blog), it most likely refers to the clutch slipping. That usually means the clutch is virtually gone and needs to be replaced. Trust me, if you try to drive your car it could easily just give up on you and leave you stranded (with expensive recovery charges).

I couldn’t find the biting point in my car today

If you are a new driver (or a learner), sometimes in panic you might get your feet mixed up and not realise it. I know this sounds silly, but certainly in the early days I find many of my pupils can do that, and they are confused by what is happening until I explain what they were doing. I wouldn’t expect someone who is at test standard (or who has passed) to make this mistake, though.

Another possibility is that there is something wrong with your car. If your clutch is badly worn the two plates can slip and in that case nothing happens, so you wouldn’t be able to find the bite because there isn’t one! I know that from experience – the clutch in a car I used to own started slipping, and since I became an ADI I had one clutch fail completely after only 15,000 miles or so. If the clutch fails completely, even with the pedal all the way up and the car in gear there is no significant contact between the plates, so nothing happens.

And another possible fault is that your clutch cable has snapped or is snagging somewhere. I’ve had both of those happen to me over the years too. When my clutch cable snapped one time, the pedal just fell the floor. On another occasion, the cable had frayed where it went into a cable guide in the foot well and the jagged ends kept catching.

Logically, it can only be either the driver or the car which is at fault, so if you’re sure you were not doing something silly then there must be a genuine fault. Get it checked at the garage urgently – and don’t risk trying to drive it.

What happens if you lift the clutch too quickly?

This is very bad practice. At the very least, the car will jump when you do it, However, lifting the clutch too quickly can damage it, and it can then fail unexpectedly. That’s what happened when my clutch failed after only 15,000 miles. I think that the material that makes up the surface of the clutch plates had cracked, and this made it wear out very quickly. I can pinpoint the exact moment – and the exact pupil – when this damage was sustained, so yes, you CAN damage the car if you keep lifting the clutch too quickly.

My biting point doesn’t bite

As mentioned above, if you’re in gear and the engine is on, if you lift the clutch all the way up and get no bite then your clutch is probably broken or worn out. At the very least, there is something wrong with your car and you need to take it to a garage.

Will the car roll back when you have the biting point?

By definition, no. However, if you haven’t got enough bite then it might – just as too much bite will make it move forward.

You have to try to understand what the biting point is – and how it is part way between no engine control of the wheels at all and total engine control of the wheels. The exact point of bite varies depending on the angle of incline.

Do I need to keep my foot on the clutch when I have the biting point?

Yes, of course you do. If you understand how the clutch works from what I have explained above, then taking your foot off  just means you don’t have the bite anymore. You take your foot off gently as you accelerate away, but if you want to keep the bite (for control at low speed, or if you’re waiting to move off) then your foot has to stay in control of it.

Taking your foot off quickly is almost guaranteed to end up either in a stall or a kangaroo-hop down the road. If nothing else, taking your foot off too quickly will result in a jerky move off.

How do I get the biting point in a left-hand drive vehicle?

It’s the same as I’ve explained above.

How do you take your foot off the clutch?

If you mean when changing gear, as a general rule the procedure is quick-down/slow-up. It doesn’t matter how quickly you declutch (i.e. push it down), but you need to bring it up smoothly and steadily. If you just let it go the car will jump and make a bumping noise, which isn’t good. At low speed, lifting it too quickly could make it stall or kangaroo-hop, especially if you haven’t got enough gas on. It can also cause serious damage.

With my pupils who have problems with what I call a “bungee leg”, I get them to count it up – 1-2-3-4. For comparison, pushing it down would just be 1. But don’t get bogged down with the numbers. This is just to give you an idea and no one is going to start measuring it with a stopwatch or anything.

Will a racing accelerator help me stop stalling in traffic?

This was actually used to find the blog.

If you mean fitting some kind of boy racer mod, then NO. Stalling happens because you aren’t controlling the pedals properly, not because of the kind of pedal you have.

If you mean applying some gas before you find the bite, then more gas before you raise the clutch further, YES. That’s what I have explained above.

Where should the biting point be on my clutch?

With a new clutch the pedal is usually a few centimetres off the floor. Although the clutch in most cars is self-adjusting to some extent, as it wears the biting point gets higher and higher until the clutch will start to slip even when the pedal is all the way up. If you’re driving your car every day you won’t notice the biting point changing until it starts to slip. However, if you have the clutch replaced it may take a little getting used to as the bite point will suddenly move right down to the bottom of the pedal’s travel again. It’s no big deal and you’ll just have to get used to it.

My car makes a noise when I find the bite

A slight change in engine revs is normal and nothing to worry about. However, if you mean that is makes a squealing noise (referred to as “clutch squeal”), then you should get it looked at just to rule out anything serious.

Not long ago, a pupil of mine managed to bring the clutch up and down three times so quickly that it is impossible to demonstrate it. The car certainly made a bang-bang-bang sound at the time, though. After that, the clutch made a squealing noise whenever it was at the biting point. I took it to the garage and it needed a new clutch – what I think had happened is that the rapid collision of the clutch plates had cracked them.

Should the clutch be rough uphill?

Someone found the blog on precisely that search criterion. The short answer is that no, it shouldn’t. However, I suspect that someone may have confused “roughness” with being in the wrong gear, and if you try to drive the car like that then it will struggle – on the flat or uphill. The rumbling and stuttering could well be described as “rough”, but it doesn’t mean there’s anything is wrong with the clutch.

On the other hand, if your clutch is worn and starting to slip, the slippage may become more apparent going uphill, and this could be described as “rough” in certain circumstances.

How do I drive/reverse on a steep slope without burning the clutch?

Someone found the blog on that search criterion. By definition, when you are at the biting point the two plates of the clutch are slipping over each other. If you hold them there for too long they will get hot and start to “burn” (you can smell it when it happens), and this applies on the level and on gentle slopes – not just steep ones. Burning happens quicker when you have higher revs (i.e. a lot of gas set), since the plates will be slipping much faster. It also happens quicker if the engine is working hard, since on a steep slope you’ll need more bite so the pressure exerted on each other by the plates (i.e. the friction) will be greater.

If you’re driving on a steep slope you have to make sure you have enough gas and bite to prevent the car stalling or rolling backwards/forwards, but not so much gas that the clutch plates heat up too quickly. However, if you drive on a steep slope at the biting point for any distance you’ll just have to accept that the clutch plates will get hot.

Having said that, it really boils down to technique, and that comes from experience. A new driver might well be very nervous on a slope and will over-rev, even though they’re moving very slowly and take a long time to complete their route. A more confident driver, who understands the physics of the car, will be able to negotiate the same route more efficiently and so minimise clutch wear and tear.

What causes my car to “switch off” when I’m driving up  steep slope?

It’s stalling. You’re either in the wrong gear, not using enough gas, or a combination of the two.

What does it mean when I have to lift the clutch all the way up to make the car move?

There is something wrong with your car! Probably the clutch is almost completely worn out and it will fail soon. You need to get it looked at quickly so you don’t break down somewhere dangerous. If you lift the clutch all the way and still don’t get any bite, the clutch is definitely gone.

How quickly can the clutch go wrong?

It can be perfect one moment, then as you try to move away the car won’t go because the clutch has failed at that instant. That’s happened to me before with a school car.

On another occasion, I was driving along in my own car (before I became an instructor) and the clutch cable snapped. The pedal fell to the floor and I couldn’t move the car once I’d pulled over. And more recently, a pupil somehow managed to lift the clutch, put it down again, then lift it once more in the space of about a microsecond. It made two loud thumping noises, and after that I noticed there was a squealing sound if you found too much bite (or even just held it on the bite). I took it into the garage and they had it for a week while they diagnosed it and then replaced the clutch. That would have cost me £800 if I’d have had to pay for it myself.

On the other hand, a long time ago I had been warned at every MOT over a period of four years that “the clutch was wearing a bit low”. It then began to slip – and you could see the rev counter go up even when the car didn’t accelerate when you put gas on. I bit the bullet, knowing it was going to cost me around £400, when the slippage became annoying. And it did cost me almost £400.

How much does a new clutch cost?

It varies, but it isn’t cheap. I paid about £400 for one in a Citroen Xantia about 10 years ago. As I mentioned above, a recent clutch replacement in a Ford Focus would have cost me £800. One of my ex-pupils who I saw recently says he needs to get his replaced in his Ford Mondeo, and that it will cost him nearly £1,000 (more recently, he told me he’d had it converted from a dual-mass flywheel type to regular clutch, then a week later his timing belt went and wrote off the engine). I know another ex-pupil paid almost £1,000, but that was for a souped-up Mini Cooper which he and his father raced on race tracks. On the other hand, you might get it done in some cars for a couple of hundred. You’ll need to call a garage and ask.

It’s expensive however you look at it, so take care of your clutch!

I had my clutch replaced and now the biting point is completely different

Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt! And it’s horrible, isn’t it?

Don’t worry, though. When I bought an 18-month old Citroen Xantia many years ago, at its first MOT the garage told me the clutch was worn and would need replacing soon. Since I didn’t do many miles, I ended up driving it for at least another 4 years, but eventually the clutch began to slip and I had to bite the bullet. When I went to pick it up after the clutch was replaced I couldn’t move it out of the garage!

As time had gone by, the biting point had risen gradually and I had just gotten used to it. With the new clutch, the bite was now right back at the lower end of the pedal movement and my foot’s “memory” kept trying to go to the higher position – which meant stalling. A lot.

It took a few hours to get used to it, and a few minutes each day for about a week until my foot was re-trained. It’ll be the same for you, so just persevere and it’ll be all right.

I just bought a car but I keep stalling it

A lot of my learners tell me this. Again, don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with it or you. All cars are different and whenever you get in a new one it will take time to get used to it.

My car is more difficult to drive than my instructor’s car

Again, a lot of my learners come out with this. The thing is, the instructor’s car is likely to be new and fully serviced. However, your first car is likely to be an older model which perhaps hasn’t been serviced regularly. You’ll get used to it, believe me.

Can the biting point change?

Yes. Even in a new car it will be slightly different depending on how steep a gradient you are on. On a really steep hill, you will need more bite (and more gas) to counteract rolling back than you would on a gentle slope.

However, as the clutch plates wear down over time, the biting point will change position, and the position the pedal has to be raised to will also change. Clutches are self-adjusting up to a point to minimise this effect, but as the clutch plates get very worn the pedal will eventually come all the way up and you’ll notice “slipping” if you rev hard – that’s where the plates slip over each other even with the pedal all the way up.

Normally, you won’t notice the change in position over time until slippage starts to occur (the garage normally warns you you’re getting near a replacement long before it becomes a problem). However, if you drive different cars, where one has a very worn clutch and one has a new one, then you may stall a few times until you get used to the differences each time you switch.

Why does my car kangaroo-hop when I change gear?

Well, assuming that there’s nothing wrong with it, the usual reason is not enough gas and/or lifting the clutch too quickly. The kangaroo-hop is the car’s way of being undecided over whether to stall, or whether to keep going. Putting on more gas and lifting the clutch smoothly will sort the problem out.

If you still have problems – and especially if other people experience it when they drive your car – get it looked at by a garage. There could be something wrong with the fuel system.

Should I switch to an automatic?

Well, if you are genuinely having trouble with clutch control, switching to an automatic transmission vehicle would definitely remove any need to worry about the clutch, because autos don’t have them – just a brake and a gas pedal.

I’d recommend taking a test drive with an instructor who has an automatic before committing yourself. Remember that if you pass your test in an auto, you can only ever drive autos unless you pass a manual test at some later time. As long as you’re aware of this then there is no problem.

How do I use the clutch in heavy traffic?

Use your own common sense. In 1st or 2nd gear the car will usually drive itself with the clutch fully up without you having to use any gas. In mine, for example, I can travel at a steady 3-5mph in 1st gear on a level road without my feet on any of the pedals. In 2nd gear my car will move at a steady 10-12mph. In either case, I can add a little gas if I want to go a little faster, and ease off again to allow the engine to slow me down – or I can use the brake gently if necessary. Obviously, on a steep hill you may need to use gas anyway otherwise you might stall. This technique is great when traffic is moving, but slowly, and it stops your legs from getting tired.

Trying to do this in 3rd gear is risky as the car will usually struggle and will stall more easily. However, it might work in your car, so find somewhere quiet and try it. Find out what your car can and can’t do and learn to make the most of it.

If the traffic is stop-start you won’t be able to keep moving at a steady speed. The important thing is to look and plan well ahead, and anticipate having to slow down or speed up slightly based on what the cars ahead are doing. Don’t just look at the one directly in front of you – look as far down the road as you can and anticipate what is going to happen. Leave a big enough gap so that you don’t have to keep stopping for every pause in the traffic, but not so big that people behind are tempted to overtake. Try to match your speed to the overall flow (i.e. don’t keep getting left behind, and don’t go racing up such that you have to brake sharply to a stop).

Obviously, if you have to stop then you will have to declutch at the right time to avoid stalling. However, in very slow traffic you will have to coast more frequently than you would normally. Hopefully, you weren’t taught that all forms of coasting are wrong, because they aren’t. When you are driving in stop-start traffic, you are not driving in the normal sense – it’s just a controlled series of stops or brakes punctuated by short distances of moving. A useful technique is to give the car a nudge using gas and bite as usual, then declutch and let it coast. Give it another nudge as needed, and be ready to brake when necessary. On upward slopes, use gravity as a braking aid, and don’t be afraid to hold the car on the bite for short periods if you can see the cars ahead are starting to move. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to use the handbrake if you do have to stop and are not confident with holding the bite. Again, leave a gap so you can control your movement in plenty of time.

By combining the two methods described above based on what is happening in front of you then you should be able to drive smoothly and under control in heavy traffic.

Do you use the clutch to brake?

NO! You use the brake to brake – the clue is in the name. You only put the clutch down if:

  • you’re changing gear
  • you’re stopping
  • you’re going slowly and you are deliberately coasting to control the car

If you immediately put the clutch down when you want to slow down from normal speeds, the car will not decelerate at all except due to gravity. If you’re going down a hill or around a corner gravity or centrifugal force will actually make it speed up. It’s called “coasting”, and the lack of engine braking is one big reason why you shouldn’t coast around most corners or for extended distances.

If you want to slow down, the first thing you should do is take your foot off the gas. The engine will slow down, and if the clutch is up it will cause the wheels (and therefore the car) to slow down. This is what is known as “engine braking”. You lose all that if you put the clutch down and break the connection between the engine and wheels.

But should you never coast?

As I said above, you can coast at low speeds if you need to control the car (e.g. in slow-moving traffic). You coast a little every time you change gear or come to a halt. And some corners – very sharp ones, for example – lend themselves to coasting (partially, at least) because you have to go very slowly. Just make sure you regain control by finding the bite as soon as it is safe to do so.

If you’ve had someone teach you to change down through the gears (“sequential changing”) instead of just slowing down and going into the one you need, you should not put the clutch down and keep it down while you change through all the gears. The whole point of sequential changing is that you bring the clutch up after each gear change to utilise engine braking.

What causes a gentle rocking motion when you’re driving along a road?

In most cases, it’s actually the road and not your car. Sometimes, when they build the road, for some reason the machine which lays the tarmac doesn’t do it so it’s completely level – it has small undulations in it. If the undulations are spaced right, and if you’re travelling at the right speed, a combination of the car rising and falling by just a few millimetres and the suspension reacting sets up a rocking motion. In some cases it is really annoying and it can even make some people seasick!

The same fault in laying tarmac can also create a situation where, at a certain speed, a combination of closely-spaced undulations on the road leads to a strange whining noise inside the car (this happened when they re-laid road near Saxondale roundabout just outside Radcliffe on Trent a few years ago – the magic speed was 50mph). It tends to reduce once the road settles a bit, but you can still hear it sometimes.

Why do most instructors seem to have diesel cars?

In the vast majority of cases, this is simply because it costs less to run a diesel (more miles per gallon). I know when I switched, my fuel costs dropped by about half.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that diesels are currently being demonised by the media. If sales of diesel cars are falling, then dealers will be anxious to shift them by offering good deals, and this may be involved somewhere along the line. Another thing to consider is that many instructors have diesel versions of cars no sane person would be seen dead in (until they start drawing their pensions) – often also because dealers have been desperate to shift them and so are offering crazy deals. These oddball cars also usually have very small engines, and have better fuel economy than their larger cousins.

It’s mainly down to simple mpg, though.

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