A car without a clutch…

Posted on October 1st, 2007 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

falcon.jpgThe other day I had to drive a car without a clutch.

Now you might do that every day but usually the car in question has an automatic transmission. But this one didn’t – it was my (now departed) EF Ford Falcon 5-speed. And the clutch gave way just as I exited a set of traffic lights, 6×4 trailer in tow. I bumped the gearlever into neutral and sidelined myself into a providentially located parking lane.

Hmm, I thought, what now?

I sent an SMS to my wife and considered. The presence of the trailer made things rather difficult – a flatbed truck to take the car back to my home some 30 (mostly country) kilometres away would certainly add up in cost when it had to be big enough to carry the trailer as well.

And that would be a major problem when, right now, we were flat broke.

Then I thought about the route home. One, two, three, four sets of traffic lights; two roundabouts; a very steep (and slow) section of country road; then some local streets. Could I do it without a clutch? I didn’t know – I’d never tried driving such a car. Let alone one with a trailer on the back.

Well, first things first. I waited until the traffic had cleared, selected first gear and then cranked the starter. The Falcon lurched forward, grinding along with the starter – and then the engine came to life. I roared forward, then reached the next set of traffic lights (very close to the first set – I was just passing under a freeway). The car continued to power forward as I lifted the throttle (no quick dipping of the clutch!) but thankfully the traffic cleared and I was able to make a turn through the green.

Hmm. Now what about second gear? I yanked the lever out of first, blipped the throttle and found that, somewhat miraculously, the gear lever slotted home into second. The next kilometre was easy – but then I reached the second set of traffic lights. It’s a weird feeling powering up to them, knowing that the only way to slow is to lose all engine power by knocking the lever into neutral.

And, as expected, I found that once into neutral, there was no way of selecting first gear again without first coming to a halt, switching off the engine, engaging first, and then cranking forward on the starter. Except this time I nearly didn’t make it – the road was slightly uphill and the starter motor was having a really hard time moving both the car and the trailer. But, after a pause in forward travel long enough for me to turn on the hazard flashers, the engine started and off we went again.

Things were going relatively smoothly as I negotiated the next two sets of traffic lights, then a roundabout and then another roundabout. After that I was on a country road and I felt the worst was over.

But I was wrong.

The road climbs steeply, sufficiently so that in the Falcon with a trailer I’d normally be back to third or, at a pinch, fourth gear. So which gear to try to get into well before the grade? I figured third gear and managed to get it without any crunching. But then, when I reached the steep bit, there in front of me was a crawling semi-tipper.


I couldn’t simply fly past in third gear (the road curves and there are double lines) and so I was forced, for the only time in the trip, to try to down-change. But I couldn’t. I got the gearbox into neutral but would it go into second? Nope…. I got slower and slower, the cars behind me starting to position themselves to overtake. I knew that if I came to a standstill – and had to turn off the engine to get it back into first – the starter would never have the power to drive me up this hill: if I couldn’t get second gear, I was a candidate for a flatbed. I shoved and grunted, and finally when the car was only just rolling, second gear slid home. Wasting no time, I roared away from the startled following drivers, overtook the truck and then left the gear lever in second for the next few kilometres. 

Now my biggest challenge was to make sure that I didn’t have to down-change behind slow vehicles climbing the rest of the hills. And buggar me if I didn’t see off in the distance a slow-moving motorhome. Rather than risk an on the fly down-change. I pulled over, switched off, waiting long enough that the obstacle had got well ahead and then drove the rest of the way up the hill in second gear, deliberately travelling slowly enough that I’d catch no-one up.

Home was then just a few easy, downhill, streets away.

Hell, I was glad to be there!

11 Responses to 'A car without a clutch…'

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  1. Ben said,

    on October 1st, 2007 at 9:24 am

    I had the same trouble in my EF. The end of the throwout fork has a hook with a slot in it that curls around the end of the clutch cable. The hook straightened out and I was left with no clutch operation. Although unlike you I didnt have a trailer, I didn’t find the jump to no clutch that big (I have been playing around with double clutching for a while for no apparent reason. That might be why). Was yours the same problem?

    I actually found this to be the only situation where the torque of the 4.0L was a significant advantage over a smaller engine.

  2. Luke Konynenburg said,

    on October 1st, 2007 at 11:29 am

    I run Coaches, and it’s not uncommon for someone in this industry to have to ‘bring one home’ without a clutch. Often when driving the Crash Boxes (non-syncromesh) many Drivers won’t use the clutch at all on simple shifts – it’s just amatter of matching the revs properly.
    If this happens to anyone else, the one bit of advice I would give is when down-shifting, you need an awful lot of revs to match the engine speed with the tailshaft, and thus be able to slot the gear home. It might sound crazy, but in the Falcon for agruments’ sake, you could need three or four thousand revs on board (its the opposite of when you’d normally change up remember?).

  3. Philip Armbruster said,

    on October 1st, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    Ah Julian , you show your callow youth.
    I have done this many times, once from an underground carpark in KL in a Mazda 323. Try going through the boom gates!
    Changing down is not hard, just double declutch without double declutching. Ie blip to match engine speed to road speed.
    I was once in a GM bus( the old Ansair type) near San Francisco when the clutch failed and the driver didn’t have a clue. Looking at a six hour wait , I trained the driver how to get home.
    I doubt 5% of drivers now would know how to double declutch.
    Regards Philip A

  4. mark Naish said,

    on October 2nd, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    I usd to drive w/o a clutch quite often in my 48-125 when the clutch pedal bracket on the gearbox broke regularly. If one was lucky, you could anticipate the lights, and “double” into first, which you had to be able to do in one of those anyway, if you wanted to be a “cool” driver

  5. Richard Laxton said,

    on October 2nd, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    I lost the clutch in a 4.2L diesel patrol a few years ago and drove over 300km without it. Of course the trip was not simple since the Princes highway was closed and we had a detour through the back streets of Sale. We ended up lost and having to do three point turns stalling and key starting on each part! The only advantage was that a long stroke diesel needs a compression stroke on only one cylinder to fire and start running so key starting even up a steep hill is pretty easy. It was pretty nerve racking coming up to a set of lights, down shifting to try and stay in a realistic gear and hoping it would go green to avoid another key start!

  6. Anthony Z said,

    on October 3rd, 2007 at 9:13 am

    I’ve lost two clutches, one in a old Toyota Carona, and one in a XE Falcon. Driven properly, using “blip” changes, neither were a huge challenge to get home. The Falcom lost it comming out of Sydney, which was a 450 km trip home, mainly the hume luckily.
    From time to time, I drive my car without a clutch, just to make sure I’m reving to the right point for downshifts (useful on the track)..

  7. Francois vJ said,

    on October 3rd, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    My father showed me how to drive a car without using the clutch when I was about 16 and for the last 10 years I have practised to get it perfect. So much so that I can drive any car without the clutch (but don’t use the starter motor teqnique out of mechanical sympathy unless there is actially no clutch). I have taken the technique a step further and can now do flatfoot downshifts without the clutch from 4th to 3rd. If you are quick you can do this one say for very rapid overtaking: Slide the car out of 4th and hold the gearleaver against the 3rd gate with firm pressure, but don’t force it, whilst putting your foot flat on the floor. If your timing is right, the car will slide into 3rd with the increasing revs and you will rocket off.

  8. Ben said,

    on October 3rd, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    I dunno about flatshifting… It would tend to put a bit of shock on the gearbox, and if you get it wrong, you just lost a second or so on a normal shift, while trying to overtake.

  9. Mark said,

    on October 4th, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Having spent much of my youth driving a procession of Datsuns i found it quite easy to shift up and down through the box without missing any changes. I would frequently catch my passengers watching, trying to work out how i did it. The secret is all in matching the revs and guiding the shift lever, rather than forcing it.

  10. Mick said,

    on October 9th, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    I will often drive clutchless in heavy traffic for all but initial start from standstill. Provides a source of challenge (and useful practice for times such as Julian’s) during the incredible tedium that is Sydney traffic. Plus my left leg gets to bludge…

  11. Tim said,

    on February 5th, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    Got a 99 falcon longreach ute. I actually shocked my self one day when I changed up to 3rd and realized that I hadn’t used the clutch, ever since then I have occasionally changed gears without the clutch, matching the revs is usually the hardest part, but now I can confidently change up and down (even 1st) without the clutch. Probably no good for the syncros in the long run, but its all a bit of fun.

  12. Andrew said,

    on February 22nd, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    This is very interesting, I have for quite a while now known it can be done and even know about the rev-matching etc. but these days cars are made to be easier to use more reliable and therefore much of the useful experience you would of gained from driving older/less reliable cars is slowly being phased away. I am now learning to drive a 13 speed roadranger truck, and have just started to change a few gears without any real jerkiness from the gearbox, and I must say unless you really dont care one way or another about being a skilled driver you must learn to drive one of these gearboxes in your life time. Either that of a roadranger in a truck or bus, or at least a box from a very old car.