The Australia captain finished unbeaten on 125 out of 303 for three, sharing an unbroken stand of 174 with Steve Smith (70no) after opener Chris Rogers set the tone with a Test-best 84.
The tourists therefore hinted at a much-needed revival at Emirates Old Trafford as they battle to somehow save the urn from 2-0 down.
Yet that was only half the story of the opening day in Manchester, with Cricket Australia so bemused by the DRS process which saw Usman Khawaja caught behind for just a single off Graeme Swann as to issue a statement that chief executive James Sutherland is seeking clarification from the International Cricket Council.
It is the latest instance of review system controversy blighting this summer's Ashes, both former Australia great Shane Warne - on television commentary - and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd voicing incredulity at Khawaja's dismissal.
Clarke ensured that Australia did not lose their cool with an exemplary 169-ball century, after which England seamer Tim Bresnan gave due credit for a gritty performance the hosts knew was always in the offing.
"The conditions were pretty good for batting, so we're quite pleased with the way we stuck in there," he said. "It's not like we didn't create any chances. We passed the outside edge frequently.
"On another day those might be nicks. We might come back tomorrow morning and get the nicks we didn't get today. We hope we'll get our rewards in the end."
Clarke's innings was a perfect demonstration of a captain leading from the front.
"Credit to him," added Bresnan. "We were expecting a fight. I think every time you play against Australia you expect them to fight hard.
"Their backs were against the wall, so why wouldn't they push even harder? We were expecting something like this. It's up to us now to counteract that tomorrow."
- Sports & Recreation
- Usman Khawaja
- Cricket Australia
- Graeme Swann