Ever since I lost the brakes in my Studebaker five years ago, I take any opportunity given to share my misadventure with other classic car owners when I hear they haven’t upgraded their brake systems (you’d be surprised how often this comes up!) I remember telling myself “my brakes are fine” and “they’re just old, but they’re okay.” That is until myself, my car, as well as others were put in danger due to my brake failure. While retelling my brake loss story always brings a few chuckles (Laugh #1: I was wearing a swim suit when it happened; Laugh #2: I jumped OUT of my moving car!), rolling in a classic car with sub-par brakes is no laughing matter. So I’m sharing a few brake tips here followed by the Grease Girl and the Hot Rod Bomb comic I made to re-tell the full story. And yes… it’s all true!

1. Ditch the Drums

I held off on converting my vintage drum brakes to new disc brakes for various silly reasons – “I want to keep that part stock,” “It costs too much money,” & “Drum brakes stop fine.” Now that I’ve finally converted my 1955 Studebaker to disc brakes, it’s what I’ll be doing to all the other classic cars that come across my path. Not only do they give me far superior stopping power, but they’re significantly easier to work on!
I used a disc brake conversion kit for my Studebaker from Hot Rods and Brakes.

2. Never Stay Single

Feel free to stay a single lady as long as you want, but never stay with a single reservoir master cylinder powering your brake system! The master cylinder being the main “pump” that powers your hydraulic brake system (it’s what the brake pedal connects with). A single reservoir master cylinder is an outdated part with only one reservoir holding brake fluid in it – and the problem with this is that if one component of your brake system fails, you can say goodbye to brakes on all four car wheels. BUT if you upgrade it to a dual-reservoir master cylinder that has two pools of fluid, a brake part failure only means losing either your front or rear brakes. Waaayyyyy better.
I purchased my dual master cylinder from ABS Power Brake.

3. Pump, Power, Shift

Many people have never thought about what they’d do if they lost their brakes! First give them a few quick pumps and see if you feel that giving you more brake pedal. If that doesn’t work, power off your car because even at idle many cars will still move along. Once the power is off, use your transmission to help you slow down (yes, even if it’s an automatic). You can shift from drive to second to first – and if you must, park (though your car won’t pop into park if it’s at speed & this could cause damage to your transmission… but better a part ruined than the entire car!) Also, don’t forget about the emergency brake (you should have one of those… I didn’t!)

Just don’t do what I did – jump out and try to stop the car yourself!!! Without further ado…


Have you ever lost your brakes or had a scary car emergency situation? Share you story in the comments below!

7 Responses

  1. JP Kalishek

    brake fail, brake fail.
    I may have shared it at the time of your just having survived (and I do remember “demanding” photos of you in the swim suit (~_^) )
    Long ago(mid 1980’s), I had a Dodge Colt, 76 model, and hurt the engine in a freeze (in New Orleans no less. one of the rare hard freezes and I guess the antifreeze was too low of a concentrate) so I needed cheap transpo and it’d help if it could carry an engine for the car … enter a coworker who sold me his old ’72 Ford Courier p/u.
    For a whopping $125
    The old Mazda engine had issues . . . you sometimes pulled out into traffic and it didn’t go, yet didn’t stall, but ran r e a l l y s l o w, then would run fine for days. I was putting a redone engine into the Colt, and needed something from the autoparts store or something, so in the truck I go, and down West Metairie Ave. I go. West Met is two lanes a side on either side of a Canal.
    I get to Transcontinental DR (also 4 lanes, but no canal, just a wide “Neutral Ground”) and the light changed to red, and I had no brakes …change down gears (it was a manual trans but it had no compression so from 4th to 1st change and it didn’t even chirp the trires), lane change to the left lane as there were no cars stopped there on my side the light, pumping the brakes like mad, oops, someone in both lanes stopped in the gap for the crossing blvd/neutral ground so I made a right … from the left lane … on a red … right in front of a JP sitting at the light, looking right at me (Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Dept. Deputy) and still hammering away the the brake pedal I get the truck slowed on the sorry excuse for a hand brake and make another right onto Aero Street (so the Deputy won’t have me out in the busy street) and I get out holding a bottle of brake fluid, the registration, and my insurance card.
    The cop just slowly drove by and gave a thumbs up. Guess he was impressed,
    I filled the reservoir and got a pedal back, slowly drove back home after getting what I needed, and parked the truck in front the house, and finished my car. The pedal was very long by the time I got home.

    Weeks later, as I’m wondering what to do about the truck, a knock at the door.
    “How much for you to sell that truck?”
    A guy from around the corner and his son were looking for a project.
    I told him the brake story and warned about the sometime “hey, lets kill the driver by not accelerating” issue and said “Make an Offer”
    “$400 dollars” … Sold!
    He and his son were going to low rider it, but after a bunch of engine and of course, brake work, found a better 72 Courier, and just cleaned up my old bomb enough for Grandad to drive it around. The old thing tooled around with a bed Capper on it for years afterward. The truck they ended up lowering got sold, and they moved on to playing with Opal GTs.
    Best $125 truck I ever had.

    I did up it with a $100 Dodge D50.
    The truck was sold to a guy by a kid who “killed it” (what? you mean you should change the oil and filter eventually?) for a $20 bill, both working for a buddy and my buddy said he knew the guy would never get it converted to a race truck (he was gonna dirt track it) and could I save him the thing cluttering up the gas station lot for years?
    Told him if it started I’d give him $100 bucks for it.
    He got it to back fire through the carb after 5 hours of fiddling, and I gave him the money anyhow.
    He was broke and needed it anyhow.
    10 minutes later I had a cut bit of pin installed in the cam chain sprocket and drove the truck home.
    I got several years driving out of the old D50.

  2. sser2

    I understand Grease Girl’s desire to upgrade brakes on her antique car. But I bet that she did not properly examine and service her brakes since she acquired her car. Worn brake cylinders or drums, hardened rubber, fluid leaks, cracked brake hoses, rusted-through lines, maladjusted pedal and brake shoes, or simply low fluid level – any of these issues could lead to catastrophic brake failure. Keep your brakes as recommended in the factory service manual, inspect them often, and you will be safe, like millions of drivers of old times have been.

    I am a bit leery of rushing to convert to disk brakes and dual master cylinders. OEM brakes have been carefully designed and tested, as a system, for balanced and smooth operation in a particular car. I don’t think that Garage Joe operations who supply conversion kits have the same level of engineering. Typically they just slap together some Ford rotors with some Chevy calipers and home-brew hubs. Are these kits DOT-compliant? Are they liable if a brake mishap occurs? When it comes to brakes, I’d rather have them engineered by professionals, not by rednecks.

    • Kristin Cline

      You’ve got great points regarding brakes, thanks for sharing! When I lost my brakes, it was because of the line, not the cylinder. In addition to fully inspecting & replacing parts throughout the system after that happened, I didn’t trust keeping a single master cylinder. It’s an outdated part and dual is an easy safety-upgrade to make. I just recently swapped to disc on the front, and it’s just much easier to service and provides a more confident stopping for driving in as much traffic as I do (as well as the occasional mountain climb out of town). Before purchasing any hot rod components, companies should always be researched!

      • Anatoly Grishin

        Kristin – much appreciate your reply! I am restoring a ’37 Plymouth, and, as you could guess, facing this dilemma: go original or convert to one of the disk kits from the internet.

        The first choice is more expensive: $200 for NOS front drums (if i could find them), $400 for the Ammco brake gauge (those Lockheed hydraulic brakes must be precisely set, which is impossible to do without proper tool), then new set of linings and hoses (not a problem), and lining arching service (a forgotten craft that only few shops have equipment and knowledge to do). On the positive side, if I go original, I know that there will be proper balance of rear and front braking effort, and brakes will be appropriate for the large size original wheels, which I want to keep. According to owners’ testimonials, when OEM Mopar brakes are properly set, they are as efficient as anything else – can lock all four wheels when pushed hard. On the negative side, only one hydraulic contour, which, as you rightly mentioned, is not as safe as dual master cylinder.

        The second choice appears cheaper and more practical. $325 for the kit (supports, hubs and bearings) + $100 for calipers, rotors, pads, and hoses, + $50 for master cylinder. On the positive side, improved safety and simple setting and servicing. But on the negative side, kit hubs are aluminum (they could be strong enough for smaller new style wheels, but not for the bigger 6.00-16), the front-rear balance will change (bad thing, I know from experience); the new master cylinder will be without backwards valve, which is critical for proper operation of OEM rear drum brakes; the pressure in rear wheel cylinders will change, and stopping power of front disc brakes may be lower than what is needed (Chevrolet Celebrity, whose front brakes should go with the kit, has smaller wheels). In addition, there is precious little information from owners about how conversions work on older cars. From what I found, people weren’t happy, mostly because of screwed up front-rear balance.

        I would really appreciate if you share driving experience in your Stude with front disc brakes.

        Decisions, decisions…

  3. sser2

    As a side note, a friend of mine had brake failure in 1986 Mazda 626, a car with front disk brakes and dual master cylinder. The cause, as it turned out, was leaking rear wheel cylinder. Fluid got low, brake warning light was ignored, and all of a sudden the car failed to stop at red light. Hit a motorcycle in front of her, which in turn slammed into another car. The Mazda and the motorcycle were totaled. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt. After covering the damages, her insurance sued her for neglected car maintenance.


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