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Better Brakes

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Making classic car brakes effective without losing originality.

It’s true that some classics have inadequate brakes – but very few were built with them. The vast majority of cars built since WW2 have been fitted with brakes plenty good enough to mix with modern traffic without embarrassment: you have to go back to the early 1920s, when most cars only had rear-wheel brakes, to find braking that really was inadequate.

That doesn’t mean that such cars are inherently dangerous: it means the driver has to be much more alert and capable of anticipating. Try driving your modern car using just the handbrake to get a feel for it – it’s perfectly possible and you will soon discover that revving the engine and changing down a gear doubles the retardation. That’s a good tip for later classics too, especially if you’re putting undue strain on the brakes, such as when descending mountain passes – engine braking can make the difference between a trouble-free, rapid descent and one brought to an early end by fade or boiling fluid.

Another simple tip is – push harder. From the 1970s, servo effort was steadily increased until many accidents were caused by cars skidding with brakes locked: it was too easy for insensitive drivers to lock up, and the rapid adoption of ABS was vital to address this. Classics may not have ABS but they do have your brain and your right leg muscles, which can be better than you might think. Clearly, you can safely apply a great deal more pressure in the dry than in the wet or on ice. If your brakes are capable of locking the wheels in the dry when stamped on hard, don’t upgrade them.

Tires also have a direct effect on braking: if your tires are old and hard, they will have lost 50 percent or more of their ability to grip, especially in the wet – so if you want better brakes, fit better tires.

Before planning to upgrade, try overhauling your standard braking system. It’s common for wheel cylinders to seize up, sliding cylinders or shoes to get stuck, or oil to get onto friction surfaces. Getting it all working perfectly with new friction material and clean, rust-free surfaces can transform a poorly braked car
.
Unsuitable brake linings can render a system almost useless too. Have you any idea what friction material is in your brakes? Older linings contain asbestos and generally work well, but can go off with age, while some early substitutes for asbestos were pretty hopeless. Modern alternatives such as EBC Green Stuff pads can greatly increase effectiveness without detrimental side effects.

Of course, there are circumstances where you may need better brakes – especially if you’ve upgraded the engine so the car goes faster. Often, convenient swaps can be made with components from later models.

Be careful not to go too far, however – if the stomp test in the dry has the front wheels locking, go back a stage. Consider also fitting a power brake booster to reduce the pedal effort required. Unless you’re racing or descending mountain passes, when there’s not enough time between applications for drum brakes to cool down, there should be no need to fit discs to a car designed to run with drums.

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