The braking system is by far the most important in any car when it comes to safety. Your vehicle might have all sorts of issues and still be safe, but having sound brakes is non-negotiable. Without functional brakes, an accident will almost certainly happen, and most of the time, it can be catastrophic.
So, when you hear noises coming from the car while braking, you should take immediate notice. Although brake systems in modern vehicles are bulletproof, bad things can still happen, especially in older cars. Therefore, you should ask your mechanic to regularly check and take care of your brakes so you can be safe on the road.
But, most of the time, noises you can hear when braking don’t come from the braking system. That’s mostly true for clunking noise when braking. These can come from various suspension components and can be dangerous, but they could also be an issue that’s not a safety hazard.
Regardless, you should always check to be sure, and this article will help you with that. So, let’s check all possible culprits of clunking noise when braking and how you can diagnose them!
Main Causes of Clunking Noise When Braking
1. Worn struts or shock absorbers
In my career at the shop, the most common cause of a clunking noise when braking is a worn strut or shock absorber. I put both these parts together simply because people think of them interchangeably, although they are different.
Namely, the shock absorber is not designed to carry the weight of the vehicle but only to dampen the ride from road irregularities. The shock absorber is connected to a spring, which carries the weight of the vehicle.
Meanwhile, the struts can both carry the weight of the vehicle and absorb shocks. Thus, they are more compact and better suited to modern front-wheel-drive cars with space constraints.
But regardless, both parts can cause a clunking noise when braking.
2. Worn control arms
The control arms are a crucial part of any suspension system, as they connect the wheel to the chassis of the car. They are usually very bulky but will still wear out over time. When that happens, you’ll most likely feel vibrations from the steering wheel or your car steering to the side.
However, in some cases, you might hear a clunking noise when braking. This usually happens if they are loose, i.e., not connected tightly to the wheel or frame.
To check whether the control arms cause the clunking noise when braking, you’ll need to jack up your car with a lift and see whether the connections are tight using your hands.
3. Worn ball joints
The ball joints serve a crucial role in providing the wheel with power and torque while letting it move freely up and down and, in the case of front-wheel-drive cars, turn left or right.
When the ball joints wear down, they can make all sorts of noises, but most of the time, it’s a clunking noise while you turn. Your vehicle might also wander left or right, and you might feel vibrations through the steering wheel.
However, in some situations, you might hear the same clunking noise when braking. To check whether the ball joints cause the noise, you’ll also need a lift to jack up your vehicle and check whether there is play using pliers. Like with every other suspension component, it should be tight and not move at all.
Ball joints aren’t very expensive and generally easy to replace, but you’ll still need to trust a mechanic with the job. If you are a DIYer, remember to properly lubricate the inside of the ball joints. They usually fail because of a cracked rubber housing, which then leaks the grease that lubricates the insides.
4. Worn sway bar links
The sway bars are crucial in keeping your vehicle stable and planted while turning by limiting body roll. Sure, your car still experiences body roll while turning, but without the sway bars, also called anti-roll bars, the issue would’ve been much worse.
Every modern vehicle is equipped with sway bars on both axles. They are pretty simple parts that use the force that lifts the inside wheel while turning to lift the outside wheel, thus reducing body roll. Some off-roaders, though, like to disconnect the anti-roll bars to give the wheels more freedom of movement while driving on challenging terrains.
When the sway bar links wear out, they can create all sorts of noises. Most of the time, they produce a knocking noise while turning, but they can also give a clunking noise while braking. However, your vehicle might also wander to the side and lean excessively through corners; if you feel that happening, then it’s 100% the sway bar links.
You could also lift your vehicle and check the sway bar links from underneath. Use your hands (wear gloves!) and move the sway bar links in all directions to see if there is play. The sway bar should be stiff and not move at all; if it does, you should replace the sway bar links.
5. Loose bolts
Loose bolts are one of the most likely causes of a clunking noise when braking – very logical, right? Most of the time, it will be the bolts that hold the brake caliper in place, but the bolts that hold the wheel or some bolts that tighten the suspension components could also produce similar noise.
Fortunately, checking whether the bolts are loose is fairly easy. Locate where the noise comes from, jack up that side of the vehicle, remove the wheel, and check whether the brake caliper is snug into place. If it’s not, tighten it properly, and the issue should be gone.
6. Misaligned brake pads
The brake pads are what stops your vehicle every time you hit the brake pedal. Thus, they are a crucial part of any car and need to be replaced at certain intervals.
The brake pads usually produce squeaking noises when braking because they are worn out. However, if they are misaligned, which can happen due to bad installation or wear, they will produce clunking noise when braking.
Regardless of the noise, it’s crucial to replace the brake pads on time, as they are usually inexpensive and readily available. If you don’t do that, you risk severely worsened braking performance of your car. Moreover, worn brake pads can also damage the rotor (disc), and replacing them will be much more expensive!
7. Worn body mounts (body-on-frame vehicles)
If you own a truck or an SUV with a body-on-frame chassis, then the clunking noise could be a consequence of worn body mounts.
The body mounts keep the frame and body of your truck/SUV connected, but they can wear out over time. This is usually because they have rubber inserts for higher flexibility, which can become more brittle as they age.
As a result, you might hear metal-on-metal noises when braking or even when turning. It’s recommended that you immediately replace all body mounts with new ones, as they are a crucial structural part of your truck/SUV.
8. Loose parking brake cable
Although not a big issue by itself, a loose parking brake cable could also rattle while braking and turning or even driving in a straight line. Tightening it is usually very quick, though in some cases, you might need to replace the cable, as it can wear down over time.
Is It Safe to Drive My Car If It Produces Clunking Noise When Braking?
I would advise against driving your car if it produces clunking noise when braking. The noise might come from various parts, but all of them are crucial for a safe ride. Thus, you should immediately visit a mechanic and check your vehicle.
Can I Diagnose the Clunking Noise?
You could if you are an experienced DIYer and have access to a car lift. Or, you can purchase a repair manual online for your particular vehicle, where you can find every diagnosing procedure as recommended by the manufacturer. You’ll still need a car lift, though, which is why I recommend visiting an experienced mechanic to most people.
The parts you’ll want to check are all suspension components (struts, shock absorbers, control arms, ball joints, and sway bar links), brake pads, all bolts underneath the vehicle, and the parking brake cable. You can check most parts using your hands, but for some, like the ball joints, you’ll need a pair of channel-lock pliers.
Your vehicle should not produce weird noises while you drive, and this includes turning and braking. If you hear strange sounds, you should immediately check your vehicle to find the culprit. Delaying this could make your car unsafe to drive, but also damage other components and lead to more expensive repairs.
In my experience as a shop assistant, the cars that were maintained and fixed on time always lasted the longest and were the cheapest to run. Not to mention, you can always rely on a well-maintained car and literally trust it with your life!
I’m Ivo Gievski, the content writer for Tireer. We built our website with over 15 years of experience and extensive research in the automotive and technology sectors. My dedication to delivering high-quality content is unwavering, and I strive to continuously hone my skills to stay ahead of industry trends and provide readers with informative, engaging, and valuable insights.