Yikes! No Brakes!
Bondorella’s Brake Failure
And how to fix bad brakes… the slow way…
I came to appreciate something a few Saturdays ago.
We take them for granted, assuming when we press the pedal, we’ll stop. But… OH HELL! When you press the pedal and it goes to the floor?? That’s a frightening thing, especially in bumper-to-bumper Southern California traffic.
En route to Oceanside, with freeway traffic crawling at 20 mph (thankfully), my brakes failed with (thankfully again) no great catastrophes. I got off the road, and had Bondorella towed to the Motor Palace.
The symptoms (pedal to the floor, pump up then sink back to floor) led us to believe the master cylinder had failed, so I bought a new dual reservoir MC from the swell guys at ABS Power Brake . After a crash course in master cylinder installation from the Internet, I went to work with some help on the first day from the ladies of my Gasoline Girls car club. If you’ve changed a master cylinder before, you may want to skip ahead—although you might get some good laughs at my newbie stupidity. If it’s new to you, read on! Maybe some of my mistakes can save you some pain.
The master cylinder on the F1 is located under the driver’s side floorboard. A couple days before, all connectors got a good squirt of penetrating oil to make removal easier. We sucked the fluid out of the old MC, unhooked the brake pedal (damn cotter pin took forever—TIP: leverage, baby! Pry that sucker out instead of simply pulling), disconnected the brake lines, brake light switch, and took out the three bolts connecting the MC to the cross-member. Simple enough. The area where it had been mounted was filthy, so it got a good cleaning to make sure no crud would land in the new one (TIP:wear safety glasses to keep all that crud from your eyes too!).
Problem number one: Putting the new MC in the old position wasn’t going to work. The old one used a bolt top accessed through the floorboards, the new one, a flip lever. Once in place, the lid couldn’t be unlatched (something I checked before bench bleeding and mounting in). For a fee, the guys at ABS swapped it for a remote reservoir unit. I also had to change out the brake light switch and add in-line residual valves since the master cylinder is lower than the wheel cylinders. I had new brake lines made too… and good thing I did! The rear line disintegrated in our hands when we tried to undo the rust-frozen fitting.
Here’s a handy TIP ABS shared with us regarding measuring new lines: Use a wire coat hanger to bend the lines into the right shape first. Another TIP: Don’t do as I did and measure EXACT. Too long can be rectified with a bend here or there; too short… uh… nuttin’ you can do but buy new line.
We bench bled the master and hand tightened into place. Next problem? While trying to bend a complicated S turn into the rear brake line to meet up with the new MC, we… broke it.
Yep. The new line. And ABS had closed for the day. Rebecca’s guy Ed stopped by and helped us out, reusing one of the old (but still solid) lines, and giving us a little lesson in line bending. (TIP: Don’t use pliers of any kind, it will kink the line. If it’s too thick to bend by hand, get a line bending tool.)
BUT… our problems weren’t over.
We ended up with connector issues at both Ts—Male/Male, Female/Female. Sadly Pep Boys didn’t have the right couplers (and no one else was open), so we had to call it a night. TIP: I haven’t verified this, but my pal Nathan suggested Ace Hardware for the fittings! ANOTHER TIP: There are several seating types, so make sure you get the right one. I needed inverted flare seat on one end, and pipe thread on the opposite.
Monday, with the needed couplers, I continued on, solo.
Here’s where I really humble myself. I went to reconnect the pedal, and quickly figured out—and this is embarrassing—the plunger needed to be in the MC before we bolted it in, otherwise, you can’t get it into the pedal clevis. Boy, did I feel stupid when I figured that out. And damn those bolts are hard to get to! At least we’d just hand tightened them.
Solution? I pulled everything out. Yep. Undid everything we’d done on Saturday and started over. I didn’t want to half ass the job (and it was headed that way). I also decided to replace that one line… you know, the one we first broke then Ed recreated using one of the discarded lines. Why? There was way too much extra line under the truck (even though Ed did a great job coiling it).
Then there was the issue of the plastic reservoir. I hated it. I’d asked about alternatives when I bought the remote reservoir, and the guy said no, they had only plastic, but I knew that wasn’t the case. I’d seen the options in the catalog. Not that I’m blaming him. He was very helpful. But I should have clarified I was willing to PAY for an alternative. ABS did in fact have an aluminum reservoir (which I bought). TIP: If you know something isn’t right, persist.
Next problem: the plunger between the MC and the pedal clevis was too long with the extension in, and too short without. ARGH! That’s the problem with trying to do a job like this at night after work. Nothing is open, so the job had to, once again, be put off. The next morning when I showed up at ABS, the guys told me I should “punch in.” Yes. I was THAT regular on my morning visits.
With the weekend rapidly approaching, I knew I wouldn’t meet my goal. Unlike some of the other G-Girls, Bondorella isn’t my daily driver, so I never have to rush to get a job done, but I did really, really want to go to Ventura Nationals. No such luck. Saturday morning, instead of meeting up with the crew for six a.m. coffee and donuts and a drive up the coast, I installed the MC with the new plunger (yay! Perfect length!), got all the brake lines in and tightened, mounted the remote reservoir to the fender wall, and started to bleed the brakes. Uh oh. Pedal pressed, fluid squirted out at three different points. ARGH!!! And I thought I’d tightened everything so well! Back in there with the wrench. Okay. Fine. Ready to bleed again.
I wish I could say we bled the brakes and I went on my merry way… but… no such luck.
Clearly, air had to be getting into the system somewhere, because even after four bleeds using both a Vacula (vacuum sucker… don’t you love the name?) and manually bleeding the system, the pedal still felt spongy. There were no puddles or drips anywhere, but I went through and tightened all of the brake lines again and discovered the brake light switch, although not dripping, was coated in brake fluid, so I changed it out to an old Harley-Davidson one, and that fixed the small leak. BUT… the pedal still felt wrong, so on to the next course of action…
I’d never taken the drums off of my truck and had no idea how to do it, but I realized there must be something more going on in there. A quick briefing, and I got the left hub off. No issues inside. It looked great. But when I pulled the passenger side—holy hell! What a mess! The adjuster spring had broken, so the spring and adjuster were just rolling around in the hub, the wheel cylinder had clearly been leaking, the drums were grooved… in other words, I’d finally found my problem.
Rather than buy new, Chinese-made wheel cylinders, I rebuilt my Made In USA cylinders using a rebuild kit—which was super easy to do. Hone the cylinders, insert new innards. Simple.
I also got new springs, new brake shoes, new bleeders, and had ABS turn the drums. Things went together quite easily, other than fighting with the shoe return springs using a Matco spring tool. Turns out my old swap meet Proto tool for drums worked much better. I’m sure the Matco is good for something… just not my brakes.
Finally, after a month on jack stands, I fired up Bondorella and went for my first test drive under the pink strands of the setting Southern California sun. But the brakes, while significantly better, still weren’t quite right. First press, a wee bit soft, next pump hard as can be. So… back to the shop again to pull the rear drums, which really, I needed to do anyway. Why do a job three-quarters of the way?
Next day I pulled the rear drums, and they looked fine, although the adjuster on the passenger side was frozen, so I took that apart and cleaned it, put the drum and wheel back on, bled the brakes again but STILL the same problem. ARGH!!! I was so insanely frustrated I told my guy I was going to take it to the brake shop in the morning and have them fix it the rest of the way. I was done.
But then I had lunch and cleared my head. (TIP: When you hit a wall, walk away.) I thought more about the problem. It didn’t seem like air in the lines because the pedal didn’t sink to the floor, it seemed like something else. So I went back to the shop and posted on the H.A.M.B. and on Facebook, laying out my problem. Rich B. from the H.A.M.B. saved the day! Several people had asked if I’d adjusted my drums, and I had, BUT… turns out I didn’t adjust them correctly. Rich explained how he adjusts his drums (tighten all the way to a stop then back them off) and that’s when I realized how far off I was. I had tightened until a slight drag then backed them off. So I did it his way, and what do you know? PROBLEM SOLVED!!! The brakes were firm as can be and stopped like a dream.
Yes, it took me three weekends (and a few weeknights) to do the job, but I can now look back with pride knowing I did it all myself (with advice from lots of great people) and I didn’t have to bring someone in for the rescue. That is a mighty fine feeling.
So what is the RIGHT way to do this job? Can’t really tell you that, but I can tell you what this newbie would have done differently:
- DO A FULL INSPECTION: I have a feeling it wasn’t my master cylinder that failed, but rather all of the problems in the right front hub. Had I pulled the hubs from the beginning, I would have had a better idea of the real problem. (Although I don’t regret upgrading the master cylinder).
- ADJUSTING: Before doing anything, make sure your drums are adjusted properly, that way you’re not chasing a problem that has nothing to do with your new parts!
- MEASURING: I should have taken measurements of everything, like the piston to pedal clevis length, the full length of brake lines, a measurement of where the residual valves would be in the clear rather than ending up on bends or behind brackets (as both of mine are).
- PRE-TIGHTENING: I should have made sure every single fitting I could get away with pre-tightening was done, like the brake light switch onto the T, and the brake lines coming into the T, and even the rear residual valve. I could have probably slid that entire piece in without too much hassle rather than piecing it together under the truck.
- BLEEDING: If you bleed the system over and over but the pedal still doesn’t feel right, check your brake adjustment. Here’s the key: If you press the pedal and it pumps up on second pump and DOES NOT SINK TO THE FLOOR… it’s probably an adjustment. If you pump it up and it GRADUALLY SINKS to the floor, you either have air in the system or a DOA Master Cylinder.
Thanks for making it through this lengthy post. Big thanks to each and every one of you who offered advice, and to ABS for their continued patience–and of course, to my feller, who pumped the brake pedal like a champ when we were bleeding, and for talking me through anything I didn’t quite know how to do. If you’ve come across this post because you’re about to tackle a brake job, I hope my tips help make it a success!
And now… I’m going to confess something very girlie. When I went for the test drive post adjustment, and the brakes felt so… PERFECT… I actually cried. Like a fool. Sitting behind the wheel with my eyes welling up. After such a frustrating couple of weeks, I could hardly believe I’d done it. I fixed my brakes, and that felt really, really good.
Until next time… Happy Wrenchin’!