Stop! 10 Tips for Safe, Sure-Footed Brakes


This article is from an archival issue of the magazine. Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it’s published, and get access to our full digital archive, by subscribing to Grassroots Motorsports. Subscribe now.

Of all of the systems in a car, the brakes could be the most important. A car that can’t come to a safe, sure stop has no business being on the road or track.

While today’s cars come from the factory with solid, capable binders, that’s not to say that everything parked in our stables is so well equipped. Some older cars weren’t quite as blessed from the manufacturer, while others have had their brakes mangled and neglected over the years—sometimes by a goodhearted previous owner trying to make things better, and other times by someone who was too cheap to do things correctly.

Whatever the cause for the diminished performance, we have 10 tips that will rejuvenate and maximize almost any braking system. In most cases, this work can be done in a day with basic hand tools.

1. Pick the Right Compound

It’s very important to have the right pads and shoes fitted to your car. They have to be matched to the way you drive and how much heat your brakes generate.

If you fit racing brakes to a street car, you can expect worse-than-stock performance from them—they’ll never get hot enough to generate the necessary friction for optimum stopping power. Likewise, street pads on a race car will overheat quickly (even catch fire) and won’t do the job, either. And bargain pads are anything but a bargain—they often work poorly no matter how they’re used.

2. Look for Leaks

If anything is leaking in your braking system, fix it immediately. Make a visual inspection of all brake components and look for wet areas—you should find none. If you can’t find leaks but you are losing fluid, you haven’t looked hard enough. The fluid is leaking somewhere—it doesn’t evaporate.

3. Bleed Them Correctly

There are a lot of ways to bleed brakes, and some are better than others. We’ve always preferred the two-person way: One person goes to each wheel and bleeds the brake according to the shop manual instructions, while another person works the pedal. Some people prefer power bleeders. Either way, if your brakes aren’t bled properly, you’ll always have a soft, spongy pedal with too much travel.

4. Make Sure They’re Assembled Correctly

If a car has had at least one previous owner, assume that someone with a lack of mechanical ability has touched the brakes. It’s very common to find incorrectly installed or assembled brake parts. With drum brakes, it’s common to see linkages or shoes installed backward. With disc brakes, calipers sometimes get switched side to side. Check a manual or a trusted Web site to make sure your brakes are correctly put together.

5. Adjust the Drums

Many older cars have at least two drum brakes, and many are not self-adjusting. After making sure the adjusters are not frozen, adjust the brakes so they just start to drag. If you get them too tight, you’ll know in the first few hundred feet of your first drive. If they’re too loose, you’ll find that your pedal goes too far to the floor. Properly adjusted drum brakes account for about 75 percent of the pedal’s feel, so spend some time on this.

6. Adjust the Parking Brake

Your parking brake works, doesn’t it? It’s also called the emergency brake for a good reason, especially on single-circuit brake systems, so make sure it not only works, but it is adjusted properly and releases properly. Stuck parking brakes can quickly make brakes feel and act funny, and they wear things out more quickly.

7. Check the Hoses

A visual inspections of flexible brake hoses is pretty easy—look for leaks and cracks, discarding any hose with either.

Sometimes hoses will swell as they age. To check for this, feel the hose as an assistant steps hard on the pedal. If you can feel much swelling at all, get a new hose. Another good test is to clamp each hose shut while an assistant steps on the pedal. If the pedal is much harder with the hose clamped, it is probably time for a new hose.

By the way, always replace hoses in pairs if they are installed in pairs. For example, don’t replace just one front hose—the car will likely pull to one side because of differing amounts of compliance in each front line.

8. Rotor and Drum Surfaces Do Matter

The surface finish on your rotors and drums is another important aspect to stopping power. Obviously, grooves are bad, but so is glazing. New parts or a trip to a shop that can put a good surface finish on your parts will help get you the stopping power you need.

9. Check the Linkages

A lot of the brake pedal travel and feel is dictated by compliance in the system. After you’ve checked that all the components are not leaking and are in good shape, look for wear (and therefore compliance) in the pedal/master cylinder linkage and in the rear brake/parking brake linkages.

A small bit of wear in any of these can translate into an inch or more of pedal travel, plus a sloppy feeling. When you repair or reassemble these linkages, make sure to grease them appropriately for smooth operation.

10. Do You Really Need Those Big Brakes?

While most people seem to think a big brake kit is a great idea, it’s sometimes not necessary, especially if your car runs on the street. Many people jump to a big-brake kit before they even maximize their stock setup.

If you can lock up your wheels and tires, you don’t need bigger brakes—you need stickier tires. Once you’ve got the stickiest tire you can fit, then you can start thinking about bigger brakes.

Next, consider whether you can lock your brakes up when they’re cold, and how many stops it takes to induce fade. If you can induce fade, then you may want to experiment with different pads (or shoes) before jumping on the big-brake bandwagon. Remember, big brakes usually weigh more than the pieces they are replacing, and weight, especially rotating unsprung weight, is something we usually want to avoid.

Now We’re Stopping

Before you accuse your car of having badly designed brakes, make sure you’ve looked at the preceding areas. Your car should stop straight and within a reasonable distance. The pedal should move no more than a couple of inches. Don’t accept the “it’s an older car, what do you expect?” excuse for bad brakes—make sure they’re in good shape before considering upgrades.

Practical Application: Redoing Our Civic’s Brakes

None

Brake issues are never something that should be ignored. One of the cars in the GRM fleet—our 2000 Civic Si, a former project car and cover model—recently cried for some brake help.

We had installed a big-brake kit up front a few years ago, and now they were making a racket and shaking the steering wheel whenever the middle pedal was pushed. They had served their purpose in life and it was now time for a total redo.

First we looked at the car’s current use. While our Civic was initially prepared for autocross, lately it has spent its time doing daily commuter duty. Scratch the need for huge, manhole-sized rotors. What we needed were solid, effective brakes. Going back to the stock-sized brakes would also allow us to return to 15-inch wheels.

First, we picked the right compound. Sure, it sounds cool when you tell your friends that you’re running racing pads, but in reality track-ready compounds squawk and squeal. They can also be quite dusty and harsh on the finish of your wheels. Many race pads also need a little bit of heat in them to work properly, meaning that first stop in the morning on the way to work can be a little dicey.

We decided to go with a solid, high-performance street compound and ordered a set of Hawk HPS pads from The Tire Rack for $55 per axle set. Hawk promises high friction when hot or cold as well as low dust and rotor-friendliness.

While our Civic was equipped with the big-brake kit, the stock rotors and calipers sat on a shelf. We could have simply bolted them back onto the car, but instead we did the prudent thing and had the calipers rebuilt. Each seal kit cost us less than $15 from Majestic Honda and eliminated any worries that a mouse had nibbled on an O-ring or something.

Since the stock rotors no longer looked so fresh, we turned them into Challenge trophy bases and bought new ones. Again, we picked effectiveness over sexy looks and ordered a pair of Brembo stock-type rotors from The Tire Rack. We paid about $70 for the pair. We have punished these Brembo rotors on past project cars and always come away happy.

Finally, we needed new lines. While the stock rubber lines passed a visual inspection, we figured it was kind of silly not to do an easy upgrade while everything was going to be apart. In keeping with our near-one-stop shopping, we ordered a four-piece set of Goodridge G-Stop braided stainless-steel brake lines from The Tire Rack. These set us back $108 and came complete with all of the required hardware, including new banjo bolts and washers.

Once the new hardware was hung and the system bled, we were instantly rewarded with solid brakes—no more shimmy, no more shrieking and no more having to make excuses to our passengers. The brakes are now totally civil whether hot or cold, and there’s no dust, no noise and no issues. The pedal is firm, too.

As a side benefit, we could also go back to 15-inch wheels and the popular 205/50R15 tire size; the 215/45R16 size we had to run to clear the big brakes is now getting hard to find. (While we’re now running a slightly narrower tire than before, the treadwear and UTQC figures have remained identical.)

So, how’s the measured, real-world performance? A 60-to-zero stop now takes 155 feet, which is one foot shorter than we were with the stock brakes. Plus modulation feels excellent, and there’s no dust or noise. Chalk a brake redo up to one of those mods that’s both a performance and bona fide safety upgrade.—David S. Wallens


This article is from an archival issue of the magazine. Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it's published, and get access to our full digital archive, by subscribing to Grassroots Motorsports. Subscribe now.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Honda articles.
Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Alfaromeoguy
Alfaromeoguy Reader
12/7/18 7:43 p.m.

No. 3 and 8 photos.  Alfa Romeo spider  front brakes...lol

dean1484
dean1484 MegaDork
12/7/18 7:53 p.m.

It has always amazed me when I take an older car and put a new set of good quality rotors and carbon ceramic street pads. 

My 2007 Saab had decent stock drakes but after swapping in zimmerman rotors and the above pads I can easily stop the car with light pressure from my big toe.  

The technology improvements in stock replacement brake pads in just the last 10 years is amazing. 

MondoMike
MondoMike New Reader
12/7/18 8:18 p.m.

What are peoples opinion of ceramic brake pads? I just purchased a set for my old MGA. It's not on the road yet so I haven't actually tried them but it seemed like a good idea at the time. 

dean1484
dean1484 MegaDork
12/7/18 8:55 p.m.

I have found that new rotors are very important. I bed them in by getting them very hot by making a series or aggressive stops followed by dragging them while driving getting them even hotter. Then drive the car like normal letting the cool. Once down to a normal temp I park the car and let them cool completely.  Every vehicle I do this way has spectacular brakes the next time I drive it and they get better after a couple more drives. 

Flynlow
Flynlow HalfDork
12/7/18 8:56 p.m.

Hammertime!

Mndsm
Mndsm MegaDork
12/7/18 10:18 p.m.
Flynlow said:

Hammertime!

Disappointed this was not the first post. 

759NRNG
759NRNG SuperDork
12/7/18 10:29 p.m.
dean1484 said:

I have found that new rotors are very important. I bed them in by getting them very hot by making a series or aggressive stops followed by dragging them while driving getting them even hotter. Then drive the car like normal letting the cool. Once down to a normal temp I park the car and let them cool completely.  Every vehicle I do this way has spectacular brakes the next time I drive it and they get better after a couple more drives. 

How long is the dragging while driving  portion of this exercise &then driving like normal part....overall time spent???

Knurled.
Knurled. MegaDork
12/8/18 10:18 a.m.
MondoMike said:

What are peoples opinion of ceramic brake pads?

 

They are fine as long as you treat them like Mogwai.  Don't let them get wet,

 

Most of my scary "brakes are not working!!!" moments are related to ceramic pads and wet-weather condtitons.

rslifkin
rslifkin UltraDork
12/8/18 10:48 a.m.

Personally, every set of ceramic pads I've worked with have been garbage.  Yeah, they don't dust much (and the dust is hard to see anyway), but they don't like heat (I've seen a few sets crack and others glaze very easily).  And none of them have stopped all that well in general.  I'll gladly take more aggressive pads that are harder on rotors and make more dust because they actually work. 

wspohn
wspohn Dork
12/8/18 10:59 a.m.

Ceramic pads are great - they produce very little dust and assuming that you select a suitable compound they have excellent fade characteristics.  I've had excellent service with the EBC Redstuff material, but if you want great street performance from pads that aren't ceramic, the Porterfield R4-S are very good as well.  Neither are race pads; both have significantly better initial grab and heat performance than lesser pads for the street.

On most cars, big brake kits are really big ego kits.  It is comical to see the people that want them for the street trying to rationalize how they ar 'necessary' when drivers running the same cars in SCCA with stock brakes at far higher speeds and producing far more heat than any conceivable street use could possibly produce have no issues at all with them.

Mike, the MGA has limited pad selection as that Lockheed caliper wasn't widely used, so you have to look a bit to find decent pads.  Hopefully the ceramic pads you found are good ones.

Knurled.
Knurled. MegaDork
12/8/18 10:59 a.m.

In reply to rslifkin :

Brake dust is a sign that you are not a wuss.  Wear it PROUD.

 

 

rslifkin
rslifkin UltraDork
12/8/18 11:30 a.m.

In reply to wspohn :

On a car that sees street use but also some use that's harder on the brakes heat wise (like an occasional HPDE), a BBK can be helpful by allowing you to get away with less aggressive pads that are more streetable instead of having to use super high temp pads that don't work on the street and needing to swap pads (and possibly rotors). 

dean1484
dean1484 MegaDork
12/8/18 1:27 p.m.

In reply to 759NRNG :

never actually timed it but there is a 1/3 mile strait that I drag them pretty hard at 35-40 mph and I make three runs.  After the first you can smell brakes a bit by the third you can really smell them.  For cool down I drive at normal speeds 30-45 mph with minimal brake use (country back roads stuff). for 10-15?min or so.  Brakes are still warm when parked but you don’t smell them   

 

80sFast
80sFast New Reader
12/8/18 4:26 p.m.

Any places to find good tutorials on bedding brakes? 

tyronejk
tyronejk New Reader
12/10/18 8:58 a.m.

So what's the difference between glazed rotors and bedded rotors?

rslifkin
rslifkin UltraDork
12/10/18 9:23 a.m.
tyronejk said:

So what's the difference between glazed rotors and bedded rotors?

I'm pretty sure it's the difference between hot enough to cut into the surface a little and get some pad transfer (bedded) vs getting them too hot (glazed).  

gearheadmb
gearheadmb SuperDork
12/10/18 9:44 a.m.
MondoMike said:

What are peoples opinion of ceramic brake pads? I just purchased a set for my old MGA. It's not on the road yet so I haven't actually tried them but it seemed like a good idea at the time. 

The biggest problem i had with customer cars when installing ceramic pads was comebacks for noise. They liked to squeal. This was 8-10 years ago so they may be better now.

80sFast
80sFast New Reader
12/10/18 9:59 a.m.
rslifkin said:
tyronejk said:

So what's the difference between glazed rotors and bedded rotors?

I'm pretty sure it's the difference between hot enough to cut into the surface a little and get some pad transfer (bedded) vs getting them too hot (glazed).  

So how can you tell the difference?

gearheadmb
gearheadmb SuperDork
12/10/18 10:08 a.m.

Any doofus can slap a set of pads on, If you want to step your brake service game up, focus on fitment. Replacement pads are almost always tight out of the box. Clean up the corrosion and crud buildup where the pad contacts the caliper or bracket. If it has shims take those off and clean behind them. Check the pad fitment. It should be easy to move the pad back and forth with your fingers with little to no resistance. If they are still tight break out your file. The backing plate on the pad typically has a burr around the edge from the manufacturing process, plus a thick coat of paint causing it to be bigger than intended. Start filing until you get the proper fit. Then put a thin layer of lube where the pad contacts the bracket. I use antiseize.

Next make sure your sliders still slide. Take the pins out and clean them up good. Now this next part is important, those round slide pins many times ride in rubber orings. If you use a petroleum lubricant on a rubber oring it swells. Then your pins dont slide any more. So you know that little pack of synthetic brake lube the parts guy tried to sell you? It turns out hes not an idiot, or a corporate toadie. That synthetic stuff serves a real purpose. Use it on your pins.

If the last guy didnt follow these steps, and you do, you will feel an improvement in braking performance.  I hope this helps somebody.

Our Preferred Partners
RLacpYp2eANvGhchEzamZI4SrBFs3DbuFPxI9k3LKlF8wm0IjktL1P9ClAXeddcF