Neglected Maintenance 101: Brake Work

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There is a reason why Jay Leno has a crew of guys to take care of his fleet of classic cars – and yeah, it’s because he can afford to pay them.P1060962

But the reason he needs to pay them is that there’s no way he could take care of the fleet himself. This problem – on a smaller-scale – is a problem many old car people have. There’s only one you – but you’ve got several old cars. Plus your “everyday” cars. Plus – probably – a job. Plus – usually – a family. Even if your life is cars, there’s only so much time in the day – and it’s easy to lose track, forget.

This happened to me again recently.

After doing an article about changing out the differential lube in my antique Pontiac Trans-Am (see here) I got to thinking about other maintenance items.

Brakes, for instance.

Several years ago (it turned out to be 12 years ago; even though I was sure it wasn’t more than eight at the outside) I rebuilt the entire system. Master cylinder to wheel cylinders. New stainless steel hard lines. Calipers, rotors, drums, springs and small parts – the works. Now, I knew the pads (and shoes) were ok because I don’t put more than a couple hundred miles a year on the Trans-Am and pads are usually good for at least 20,000 miles (that’s if you run the car hard; if not, 30,000-plus) and the rear shoes (which do less work stopping the car) ought to be good for – well, forever given how little I drive the car.

Ah, but, the fluid.

When I rebuilt the system, I filled it up with DOT 5 fluid – silicone. The stuff has a number of advantages, including a higher boiling point and (unlike standard brake fluid) it will not eat paint if you spill some. An important consideration with a classic car. Note: DOT 5 and other brake fluids do not – and should never be – mixed. If you want to use DOT 5, you must thoroughly purge the entire system of all the old fluid, which is virtually impossible to do without complete disassembly/rebuilding as residual (old, not silicone) fluid will still linger within the calipers, lines, wheel cylinders and so on.

Anyhow, that’s not primarily what I wanted to tell you about. What I want to tell you about is that even DOT 5 in a literally “all new” and – you’d think – hermetically sealed from the outside world system – will eventually turn to something ugly after a period of years.

In my case, 12 years.

When I popped the master cylinder reservoir to have a look – expecting to see relatively clean fluid and expecting to have to do nothing more than a thorough bleed/re-fill of the system with fresh fluid – I got a nasty surprise. The fluid – formerly translucent – now looked like Potomac River water. Muddy brown. And there was “mud” at the bottom of the master cylinder fluid reservoir, too. Goopy gunk – probably a mix of rust that formed as moisture (inevitable) accelerated the chemical deterioration of the cast iron walls of the reservoir. Even though the system was closed to the outside world, there was still some air gap between the fluid level and the lid (as in all brake systems) and moisture could precipitate out as a result of normal heat cycling. Give it 12 years … and, viola.

A mess.P1060964

So, instead of bleeding the system and replacing the old fluid with fresh fluid, I had to remove/replace the master cylinder, purge the lines and then refill the works with fresh fluid. A small job became a bigger job. A more expensive one, too. All because of losing track – and letting things slide.

Had I changed out the fluid once every three years, probably I would have not had a problem.

It is really important to periodically bleed/replace brake fluid – especially if the car is a cloistered classic that mostly just sits. You’d think just sitting – under cover, in a nice warm garage – would be an easier life than daily driver duty, but it some ways it’s not. The daily driver – being a daily driver – gets more attention paid to it. Since you depend on it, you’re likely to be more on top of maintenance. It occurs to you that, hey, I haven’t changed the oil in a while – but I’ve put another 8,000 miles on it since last year. Better get to it.

The classic car? It’s hardly been driven at all since last year – so everything must be squared away. Right?

Sometimes, wrong.P1060965

Jay has his crew to take care of things. I can’t afford a crew. But I can afford a notebook.  A little spiral thing I keep in the glovebox now. In it I record everything done – and when it was done. Now all I have to do is read through the thing once a year – and remind myself what needs doing, or soon will.

It’s almost as effective as Jay’s crew of guys – and whole lot cheaper!

Throw it in the Woods?  


    • Surely, you jest, Rich?

      Slang Dictionary

      Walla! definition
      [wɑ ˈlɑ]
      and Wala!; Wallah!; Viola!

      1. Voila!
      And there you have it! (All versions are misspellings or misunderstandings of the French The Viola! is a well-meant spelling error.!

      – a well-meant spelling error –

      Anyway, it’s clear that he had to fiddle with his brake system.

      I wonder if he uses synthetic rust protectants such as Barricade or Eezox on his car, or his bikes? Or, is wax a better option? Suddenly, I imagine a dehumidified garage. That would be great to have.

      I’ve been combating rust on a number of my things as of late and I just started using synthetic rust protectants for the first time. I’m considering getting some Ballistol and spraying down everything in my garage with it. Even the cat!
      Ha. Just kidding. But I’m serious about spraying the shit out of stuff with protectant. Start with lubing the door hinge on the car and work outward and don’t stop until I reach the very back of the gun safe?

  1. What I do, instead of flushing the braking system, is to draw out a few syringes worth of fluid from the master cylinder at every oil change. This keeps it semi-clean but is a snap to do.

  2. No Pontiac TransAm qualifies as an ‘antique’ car.
    They quit making antique cars in 1948 and began producing modern cars which have independent suspension, overhead valves, automatic transmissions and air conditioning.
    Just because the government has found another way to produce revenue by selling antique plates for anything over 25 years old, does not mean that cars over 25 years old are real antiques.
    My newest car is a 1966 and I rarely drive it because I prefer my cars from the 1930s

    • Overhead valves? You could, if you had the money, get a car with overhead cams in the 1930s. Independent suspension was also available in the 1930s.

      Think your definition and dividing line needs some work.

  3. My girls friend has a nasty surprise on her SUV. She “knew” the tires were needing replacement. When she had that done, she had them “check the brakes”. Yup, new pads and rotors needed. She waited too long.

    Can you put up the checklist you use of :what needs checking / when” for the amatuers like her?

    I just drive into the dealer and say; “fleece me, please; just be gentle. Candy and flowers when you really $%@#^#@& me.” Just like when I go to the doctor or call the plumber.


  4. Since I found a new job where taking public transit is much more preferable than dealing with rush hour traffic into downtown, my poor car gets driven at least an average of once or twice a week. While that saves tremendously on gas, I still take it in for a check-up to my mechanic, especially before a road trip/vacation.

    Always feels good to stay on top of things even though I hardly know anything about cars.

  5. Eric,
    When we first started our clunker rehab business we bought several non-runners which had been sitting for quite a while. Lesson learned: unless it’s a classic or collector car there’s no money left in it. Gaskets, seals, fluids, etc. are the perishables in old cars, followed by our old friend, rust. Today I won’t buy a project car that’s been sitting for more than a couple of months unless it’s one of the aforementioned collectables. Too much time and money to fix, no profit left in ’em. But, I still have a few out in the boneyard. Been eyeing that old Studebaker pickup for a shop truck, though….

    Uncle Bill

  6. The first, i.e. earliest rather than most important, problem you will get if you simply leave a car in storage is that the tyres will deform from having the same loading for too long – which is why people put stored cars up on blocks. In the end, any rubber parts will give you trouble (see below)

    The chronologically next two problems to hit stored cars are likely to be battery problems and fuel tank gunking up in much the way Eric described happening to his brake hydraulics. These can most easily be avoided by: removing the battery and keeping it somewhere easy to inspect it and top it up with distilled water when it needs it (if it’s that sort of battery) and spot if it needs replacing; and, draining the fuel tank and putting an oxygen absorber pack in every so often (Mitsubishi makes one), or keeping a couple of inches of fuel in there and turning the engine over every few months. That last heads off the next problem, lubricant gunking up, which otherwise needs the oil drained and replaced with cosmoline or similar – which is even harder to get out later, unfortunately, and makes most sense if the whole engine is to be removed and packed with cosmoline for very long term storage.

    Of course, you would never have any problems of this sort if you just engineered them out the way God and Henry Ford intended (“if you don’t build one in, it can’t break and it can’t fall off” – and, he could have added, you can devote the savings in cost, weight and space to other things). For instance you would never have any problems with this newfangled hydraulic brake fluid if you just had push rods and bell cranks, dagnab it.

    Years ago I read a very amusing article in the British magazine Punch about getting a laid up car working again in 1945 Britain; it was a voyage of discovery since the car was a small workshop product made in small numbers by self taught brothers, so nobody knew anything much about it, but in the end it got restored because nothing had to be rebuilt from scratch, e.g. there was gravity feed rather than a fuel pump. The writer finished by saying he could never have done it with a modern (i.e. circa 1939!) car, because the rubber would have rotted. If anyone can find the article, it’s worth putting up a link to it.

    The general rule for maintenance when you don’t know what you are doing but have to do it anyway is, take it apart, clean it, put it back together again. Do not try this on the cat.

  7. I know many people don’t like plastic master cylinder reservoirs , but they avoid problems like this. It just takes a glance to see that the fluid is no longer that clean amber color (DOT3 or 4) . For someone like me a flash light can be used to see through the fluid. The iron master cylinders with stamped steel covers have to be opened to inspect. Not that great of a pain, but it requires action, not just noticing the fluid is darkening when the hood is open for something else.

    • I agree, Brent.

      GM went to a plastic reservoir (for the F cars) in ’81 – and of course, that continues to the present day.

      My bikes have either plastic or aluminum reservoirs, the latter see-through, the former with sight glass.

  8. Jay Leno should redistribute his automobiles to comrades in the collective who are glorious free riders in the interest of fairness and equality.

  9. I find that having to constantly brake for clovers keeps the fluid on it’s toes – so to speak.

    Unfortunately, my approach to maintenance is more like Eric in pre-brake fluid mode – IF IT AIN’T BROKE DON”T CHECK IT – after all if I don’t see anything wrong then all is ok – right?

  10. What works well for me (only 2 cars to maintain) is a whiteboard fastened to the garage wall with a list of all maintenance items and a column for each car with the date and mileage when performed. See it regularly as a reminder and it’s easy to erase and update each item when done; very low tech, about my speed 🙂

    • I’ve got three cars, a sub-compact tractor, and a garden tractor. I’ve got a couple sheets of paper for each tacked to the workshop bathroom door, not only listing the last time the maintenance was done but the bolt torques as applicable.

      I use all my cars as daily drivers, but for the old Land Rover it’s very odd when I have to flush the coolant or brake system because they’re due – it usually gets done because something failed or I upgraded something.

    • @MiB–now THAT’S a great idea, Mike, thank you!

      I’ll implement it this weekend. I was just thinking the other day that I’m behind on some stuff for my wife’s car, and it’s coming time to do the transmission fluid in the Rodeo.


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