Despite the inexorable growth in the number of automatic transmissions on the road, the future is expected to remain strong for the clutch market. Rumours of its demise are, as Mark Twain said, “greatly exaggerated.”
“I think the clutch population is about the same and will continue to be about the same,” says Steve De Tomaso, a marketing veteran with Sachs North America. He says that a recent resurgence in the popularity of the manual transmission can be traced back to the rise in sport compact interest, as well as changes in transmission technology. “They’re pretty cool. Some of the little four cylinders have six-speed transmissions.” It all shows evidence that automakers have far from given up on the stick, which is good news for the aftermarket.
Traditionally, the percentage of market share that the aftermarket holds for automatic transmission repairs lags far behind car dealers in all but the oldest category of the vehicle fleet.
De Tomaso says that one of the longer-term trends to benefit the ubiquitous clutch’s longevity is the application of advanced technology to the gearbox transmission.
“The Electronic Clutch System that has been pitched to automakers is basically a manual operated by servos. There’s no actual clutch pedal, but it is really a clutch pedal operated by computer.”
The system is similar to what clutch maker Luk calls the Automated Manual Transmission, or what is available as the Sequentronic transmission on some European-market Mercedes-Benz cars–including the low-end C-Sports Coupe.
“The real gain is that the manual transmission is still much smaller and lighter than an automatic and its efficiency is still better than the automatic,” says De Tomaso.
Bob Rose, national sales manager, Fenwick Automotive Products, agrees with De Tomaso regarding the long-term prospects of the clutch aftermarket. “The clutch market is still clipping along. For 25 years they have been saying that the clutch market is going to die. You have to understand that the cycle has gone around again.”
He too mentions the resurgence in the youth movement’s enthusiasm for automotive performance, but also credits the continued growth in the utility vehicle market.
Trades have realized, he says, that the manual transmission offers advantages in heavily loaded applications, and that is bound to remain a continued source of business.
“And it offers a substantial fuel economy advantage, which is the other issue between an automatic and a manual. But whether that was the case or not, you’re still into another generation that likes the stickshift.”
Sales, he says, have continued to show the market is robust.
“The kit market for clutches is worth just over $300 million U.S. and right now, with the life of vehicles being longer due to improved quality, people are holding onto them longer. That is helping to improve the aftermarket,” explains Earl Bloom, director of sales and business development, Valeo Transmissions. Valeo, which has served as a bulk supplier to the aftermarket for years in addition to its position as an original equipment supplier, has recently launched an aftermarket clutch kit program.
“Basically the drop in manual transmission popularity has stopped. About 10% of all new vehicles sold are with manual transmissions, which is about the same as last year,” says Bloom, “and now you have vehicles like the Cadillac CTS with a manual. You would never have thought years ago of a Cadillac with a manual.”
It is useful to note that the popularity of automatic transmissions versus manuals is essentially reversed everywhere else in the world, where the stickshift dominates. Only in North America do automatics rule.
And Bloom isn’t blind to the fact that popularity rates are down substantially from what they were a decade ago, when, he says, 24% of all new cars had manual transmissions, but adds that there are a great many cars in the vehicle fleet as a result of those earlier sales–a trend which is returning.
“You see it on the sports cars and the small cars typically purchased by young people and then souped up. That is a very important part of the market.”
There is another shift in the market that he believes is significant.
“There seems to be a push in the market for a quality product. The remanufactured clutch is pretty well out of the market, as is the import product that has a perceived quality problem. The push now is for quality manufactured product, preferably for the OE product.
“Over the years, there have been several players who have tried to go to market with cheaper product and they have actually found that sales have been affected in a negative way. Sales go down, warranty goes up.
“So there is now a move back to the quality producers, even if it is at what might be considered a premium cost. I see that as a positive for the entire market.”
Not everyone agrees with the eternal promise of the clutch, though. Mike Hartney, sales manager for Luk Automotive Systems, says that the move by automakers in the future will almost surely be toward the automatic transmission.
“I think what you’ll see in the future are more multi-speed automatic transmissions and a lot of [continuously variable transmissions] and options for people who may have chosen manual transmissions.”
The trends are driven by a need for automakers to continually improve fuel efficiency. CAFE regulations in the U.S. that require automakers to meet total average fuel economy numbers for the total number of vehicles they sell send them searching for single-digit percentage improvements. One way to do this is to keep an engine operating at close to its optimum rpm. Closing the ratios between gears helps this. Racecars do it to optimize performance; automakers are looking to improve mileage and reduce pollution.
This has driven development of CVT transmissions, automatic transmissions with as many as six speeds, where four was deemed a new development only a decade ago, and an increasing number of six-speed manual transmissions.
“That’s been the trend. Back in the ’60s, most of the standards were three-speed. Performance equipment was a four-speed. Ford made an Escort back in 1981 with a four-speed transmission and a 1.6 litre engine. Jumping from first to second you had to roll the dice. With a six-speed you can keep the revs up.”
He adds that hybrid automatics–really automated gearboxes–have been developed to further refine the use of the gearbox-clutch assembly. The Automated Shifting Gearbox is one way of retrofitting a manual transmission at the automaker level to provide automatic shifting, or driver-demand shifting, while retaining the relative simplicity of the manual gearbox.
“Fuel economy is the big boondoggle. You’ve got CAFE standards in the U.S. So that means if you want to keep selling Excursions, you have to sell a bunch of Focuses.” The issue is so important in the U.S. that Chrysler even had the PT Cruiser classified as a truck so that it could average out its fuel economy with the Dodge Ram, says Hartney.
Still, he says, the future of the clutch is looking strong.
The longevity of vehicles, the sheer number of clutch-riding car owners, and the unabated use of clutches in light and medium-duty trucks, all point to continued sales well down the road, regardless of what is coming out of the assembly plants today.
“If they stopped making vehicles tomorrow,” he observes, “the clutch aftermarket would still have a very happy future.”
A Clutch Without a Pedal
From a driver’s perspective, the Mercedes Sequentronic gear shift that serves as our cover model and graces this story may look like the business end of one of those shiftable automatics, but it’s not. It is in fact the driver interface to an automated manual gearbox, with a clutch, gears, and everything.
Though not showing up as an option on the C-Class Sport Coupe for Canada–only the five-speed automatic and six speed manual have that distinction–Sequentronic is essentially an add-on unit to a manual six-speed transmission being offered in virtually the rest of the world on C-Class, E-Class and vans fr om the automaker.
The system adds hydraulic and sensory systems on the transmission casing in a unit that contains all the additional components required apart from the control unit and the shift lever. The hydraulic unit is coupled to the central shift shaft and carries out the gear changes. The central release bearing operates the clutch; an integral sensor monitors this component’s movements. Energy supply comes from an electric motor and a hydraulic pump. A special oil reservoir on the underside of the transmission supplies the system with hydraulic oil. The reservoir module uses sensors to keep the required pressure constant, so that the hydraulics are operational quickly.
The sensor system monitors the movements of the shift shaft and determines which gear is currently selected. Another sensor relays data on the transmission speed. All the sensor signals are transmitted to the microcomputer.
The control module also processes information on the current engine speed, engine torque, wheel speed and on the different brake system functions.
Other suppliers have similar such automated manual transmissions, which is proof that faith in the future of the gearbox and the clutch is far from waning.