One of the hallmarks of classic muscle cars is the distinct lack of modern technology. Everything about them is simpler, from the engine controls, to the wiring, to the overall mechanics of the car. While some find that simplicity appealing, some like bringing the classics up to modern levels of technology. However, one area that is often the last to be considered is a brake upgrade.
Arguably one of the most important systems of the car, just like everything else, braking systems have become far more advanced since these cars were on the showroom floor and could all benefit from being upgraded in one form or another. “In that era, they didn’t know what they didn’t know,” says Mark Chichester of Master Power Brakes. “Some of the ways that calipers were retained on spindles was just crazy and very inefficient. Today nobody would even consider building systems that way.”
Identifying the Problems
When looking at restoring or upgrading the performance of your brakes, there are two main categories where your system’s performance can be lacking; on the application side, and those within the actual mechanical components of the brakes themselves. “The apply-side issues would stem from single reservoir master cylinders, a hard brake pedal on power systems, and a too-firm pedal in general when applying the brakes,” explains Chichester. “On the mechanical side, the big issue we hear from customers is inconsistency when applying the brakes, fade during braking events on drum brake equipped vehicles, and an overall lack of feeling safe when applying the brakes.”
Javier Nunez of Classic Performance Products agrees with drum brakes causing a significant percentage of muscle-car owners’ issues. “OEM brake systems that consist of old drum brake setups are simply outdated. While drum brakes may provide decent stopping power initially; the hotter they get the more they fade,” relates Nunez. “After the drum brakes, the most common brake related issue customers are looking to fix is a hard pedal feel or lack of power assist.”
However, poor performance issues generally boil down to a handful of causes. One reason is a lack of maintenance by the owner. “For whatever reason, people seem to be very diligent about changing engine oil and with keeping up on coolant and transmission fluid, followed by the rear differential. Then, the last two systems that people think and worry about are the power steering and the brake system,” Chichester explains. Just like any other system in your car, your brake system – especially one original in design if not the actual original parts – needs to be maintained.
The next common cause of braking issues is the fact that, even if well-maintained, original parts aren’t magic, and wear out over time. “Age and the associated wear are definite factors in poor performing original brake systems,” says Chichester.
Even OEM systems in perfect working order may not offer even casual street cruisers – let alone heavily-modified cars – enough braking performance. “OEM design is part of the issue, but not necessarily due to poor design,” says Chichester. “The original designers didn’t know what would be needed in 40-years, let alone where technology might take things. I think with the OEs’, they built to their needs at that time, and as a society and a group of car people, we have taken those needs much further.”
So that leads to the inevitable conclusion that all of us come to, eventually, as the solution to our problems: that it’s time to upgrade. “The cost to repair and replace all of the original components generally gets pretty close to the cost of converting to a newer and more modern brake system,” says Chichester. “Especially if you’re looking at your car with a single master cylinder and four-wheel drums, that may or may not have been maintained very wheel throughout its life. It is simply cheaper in a lot of ways to upgrade to a disc brake conversion.”
As long as the brake system is properly sized from the apply side, I don’t think ‘too much’ is ever possible. – Mark Chichester, Master Power Brakes
Manual or Power – Which One’s Better?
If you’ve decided that you’re interested in ditching your 45-plus year-old brake technology for a modern disc brake conversion, you’re in for a lot of decisions. There are options ranging from simple manual systems with single-piston calipers and basic rotors, all the way up to completely aftermarket power brake systems with six-piston calipers and massive drilled and slotted multi-piece rotors.
The first thing to address is whether to stick go with a manual or a power-assist system. Both manual and power-assist systems only affect how the brakes are applied, and have no effect on the actual mechanical braking performance of the vehicle itself.
“Most people prefer to go with power brakes. The unfortunate part is people do it for the wrong reasons,” says Chichester. “There seems to be a misconception that power brakes make for better brakes. What most people don’t understand is that the brakes are the same no matter what apply side they have.”
Largely, the difference between manual and power-assist comes down to physical pedal effort and pedal fee. “The Power side offers a situation where less pedal effort is required to get to the same braking point,” explains Chichester. “The only thing that might make the brakes ‘better’ is that the same pedal application results in a faster action on the part of power brakes.”
Nunez agrees that most customers prefer the feel of power brakes, largely because that is what they are used to in their daily drivers. “Most muscle car owners also own a late-model daily driver which has power brakes.” Says Nunez. “The only time we would recommend manual brakes is when it’s a light performance build, and there is truly no room for a power assist.”
However, Bill Fowler of Baer Brakes points out another reason why going with manual brakes might be the right direction for your brake upgrade. “If the engine in the car makes appropriate vacuum – we suggest a minimum of 14-inches of vacuum at idle in gear with an automatic transmission – then a factory style vacuum boosted system will be hard to beat,” Fowler says. “As an engine gets more radical and vacuum falls or boost is added, then the switch to a manual setup is a good idea.”
A manual brake setup gives you an enhanced brake ‘feel’ and more control. – Bill Fowler, Baer Brakes
Fowler also adds that there is definitely some personal preference involved when making the decision between manual and power-assisted setups. “A manual brake setup gives you an enhanced brake ‘feel’ and more control. That gets you ‘closer’ to the car and the contact patch and really ups the fun factor.”
Once you’ve decided whether to go with a manual or power-assisted setup, then it’s time to decide on the actual brake hardware that will be used – mainly caliper and rotor type and size. One thing that all the experts agreed on, without hesitation, is that there is no such thing as “too much brake” in regards to the rotor and calipers. However, there is such a thing as too much brake pressure.
“There is a situation where you can have too much assist,” Chichester warns. “As long as the brake system is properly sized from the apply side, I don’t think ‘too much’ is ever possible.”
Nunez also warns of mismatching components, front to rear, specifically oversizing the rear brake system. “Having excessive amounts of brake in the back can cause the rear to react too much. Our kits are designed with complementary front and rear brake sizing,” says Nunez. “Proper use of a proportioning valve will also eliminate this issue.”
However, there are factors other than absolute performance that often affect brake choice, sometimes to the detriment of performance of the vehicle. “More often than someone wanting too-much brake, is someone wanting not enough brake.” Chichester reveals. “I find that to be a worse problem. People have the desire to do disc brakes but they want to keep their stock 14-inch wheels. It can be done but it has to be done by using smaller-than-desired rotors and a much smaller-bodied caliper, which generally means smaller surface area in the piston.”
Having excessive amounts of brake in the back can cause the rear to react too much – Javier Nunez, Classic Performance Products
At some point, those compromises – all in the name of retaining a smaller wheel – can become unsafe in some applications, and disc brakes stop being a viable option. “If the design constraints become unsafe, we recommend you keep the stock drums. At least you’ll have enough to stop the vehicle with the drums. It may not be as consistent and it will fade fast but at least there is a proper system to stop the vehicle.”
That’s not to say every disc brake conversion requires the use of massive diameter wheels, but that just like every other system on a vehicle, when you upgrade, sometimes it snowballs beyond just the original part being upgraded.
As long as you are prepared to use an appropriately sized wheel to fit the caliper and rotor, really your pockets are the only limiting factor on disc brake choice. “The largest system that your budget or desired wheel size will allow will give you the greatest safety margin, the greatest amount of car control, and the best appearance,” says Fowler. “It’s a win-win-win.”
The key word in “brake system” is “system”. All of the components you choose must complement one another in order to end up with a properly functioning, well-balanced brake system. “Some people will buy their front wheel components from one person and then buy the apply system from another person,” says Chichester. “We see a lot of wrong bore sizes in the master cylinder when that happens, which causes the pedal to feel totally unlike what it should. The best avenue a customer can take is to go down one road and buy products from one vendor.”
Fowler agrees with that sentiment, saying, “The savvy muscle car owner will want to work with a company that helps them look at the complete package and gets them to the best results for their hard-earned money.”
So whether you are looking to just upgrade your street cruiser to a basic disc-brake system, or you’re looking for serious stopping power to match the gobs of horsepower your heavily-modified muscle car, the keys to success are the same. Plan out your project, set out realistic goals, do your research, and don’t be penny-wise and pound foolish with your component selection.