Project Phoenix: Baer’s Modern Brakes For Our Classic Size Wheels

Project Phoenix

As many of you will recognize Project Phoenix from past articles. We’ve been working on our LS-swapped 1968 Firebird for quite some time. While a modern powerplant lives under the hood of our classic bird, one of the overarching goals of the project has been to maintain a certain “era-specific” aesthetic on the outside. Specifically, drawing inspiration from the trans-am era of racing. Think, something the late, great Jerry Titus might have driven on his days off.

15-inch wheels just look great on classic muscle and pony cars. Unfortunately, that limits your choice of brakes…until now.

So, while advancements in wheel and brake technology have made it much easier to haul classics like our bird to a stop around the racetrack or autocross course, we were faced with a bit of a quandary when it came to upgrading our brakes. The car was previously wearing some heavy, chrome Cragar S/S of the 15-inch variety. We know the oval-shaped bolt holes do little for the performance under hard acceleration and lateral g’s, and as we mentioned, they’re heavy. So, we had plans to do away with them – however handsome they may be.

But we were faced with a tough decision. Should we upsize our wheels to accommodate larger brakes? Or, perhaps we could have found a factory upgrade from something like a later model Corvette, for instance.

While these brakes were a factory upgrade back in the day, they’re hardly capable of performance driving by today’s standards.

Well, the latter option had already been done, and we were experiencing some serious brake fade through several days of spirited canyon cruising. So, we knew those wouldn’t cut it, and frankly it was an upgrade that wasn’t worth the cost – especially when you consider the options now on the market, hint hint. Still, we wanted to gauge the response of our audience. So, we jumped on our social media platforms to gather some opinions on the matter, and it was a polarizing subject, to say the least.

Style Counts

Street Muscle’s Facebook page is now full of comments from our readers expressing their disdain for anything other than factory or classic aftermarket wheels on their beloved muscle cars – heaven forbid anyone uses anything larger than 15-inch wheels! Admittedly, that tends to be this author’s flavor as well, but there is certainly a place for larger wheels in the pantheon of muscle car styling. It just happens that 15-inch wheels scream classic, and deservedly so. They hearken to an era when performance meant going in a straight line faster than the car next to you, stopping was a bit of an afterthought…

But, even the road racing performance cars of the day were relegated to using 15-inch wheels. Sure some had 16’s, but 15’s we’re pretty much standard. Such was our dilemma.

Because, as we began developing the concept behind Project Phoenix, it left us somewhat limited in the breaking department. The modern pro-touring style build can easily accommodate any kind of brake system behind massive wheels. But for an homage to the trans am era of racing, we finally determined, Phoenix had to have 15-inch wheels. This is not something we were going to budge on.

In fact, we opted for some exceptional American Racing Torq Thrust II wheels. Sure, they’re not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination, nor are they made out of carbon fiber or even several pieces of forged aluminum, but they’re a gold standard among vintage wheels, and they fit the aesthetic perfectly.

We knew we were going to be replacing the rear end with a Moser M9 Muscle Pak, which you can read about in a later article coming soon. But for now, our focus was on the front brakes – where the majority of your stopping power comes from anyway. Regardless, if we were ever going to be producing even respectable lap times or autocross numbers, we needed more stopping power and more importantly, a brake system that wouldn’t fade as quickly, would bolt up to the factory spindle, and be an all-in-one package.

Out With The Old

Enter Baer Brakes. The company that churned out the original Baer Claw Brake System has revised that very same brake kit into its new Classic Series. Baer’s Classic Series is a direct bolt-on for Project Phoenix and the company has the same kit available for various early GM and Ford platforms as well.

In fact, we caught up with Rick Elam, Manager at Baer, and he told us, “a lot of companies will use OEM cast iron parts for disc brake conversions. A perfect example of this can be found within GM itself. People or companies will take a single-piston cast iron caliper and convert a drum car to factory discs. What the Classic Series really is, is a modern style brake at an affordable price point that fits a wide variety of cars with smaller wheels. You are literally getting the same brake that a C4 Corvette or a Mustang Cobra would have had on it, but in a smaller package at a frankly incredible price point.”

“And because you’re getting a modern brake for an early car, the nice thing is, a lot of the parts are OEM-type parts so replacements for maintenance are easy to get. Not only does it give you the modern brake, but it doesn’t stronghold you into using technology that’s either 40- or 50-years old or really making it difficult to get replacement parts for it when you do need to service them.”

“Don’t forget, it’s an offshoot of the original Baer Claw system. Since we did so much with those systems back in the day, we started looking at bringing them back. There were so many people that would call us looking for the older stuff because they liked it so much. So, we basically said, “Hey we have most of the parts to do this and enough demand for it, why don’t we bring it back and offer them to the people that want it, and it’s been great.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why people loved the original Baer Claw and the new Classic Series alike. The big things to consider are that it’s a modern brake for early cars at an affordable price point. That last part is what makes a lot of sense. Sure, for a comparable price, you could source OEM GM parts as Rick mentioned, but it might end up costing you the same amount in the end, and you’re still relegated to using a single-piston caliper that’s actually much larger and heavier than the Classic Series dual-piston unit.

Also, we should mention all the calipers are weather sealed. So they’re completely “dot compliant”. Although, Rick told us, technically there’s not really any such thing as dot compliance – they just meet all dot specifications. Better still, the systems are complete, which means they include all the hardware and brake lines. Rick mentioned that as well, “that comes up a lot when people call. They want to know what other parts they need to buy. But, it comes complete with the braided stainless steel brake lines.”

Well, you can certainly count us among those people clamoring for the original, so we were stoked to find out Baer was revamping the Baer Claw system. And in that spirit, we elected to install them on Project Phoenix. So, read on to see the steps it took and our video of the whole process.

Brake fade is a real thing, and we were experiencing quite a bit of it due to this antiquated system.

Before we could bolt on our new binders, we had to remove the old ones. The removal was pretty straightforward, and we’ll save the step-by-step for the installation of the Classic Series, as it repeats most of the steps.

The old system was seriously crusty. It gave it all it had, too.

In With The New

We started off the installation by assessing what tools we’d need to accomplish the conversion. We ended up using an impact driver, standard 3/8 ratchet, torque wrench, 19mm socket, pliers, rubber mallet, vice grips, and a crescent wrench.

When Baer says the Classic Series is a complete package, they mean it!

With the old brakes removed, we began the installation of new parts by securing the supplied backing plate with the hardware included in the kit. There are two different length bolts that fasten the backing plate to the spindle. The longer bolt goes toward the rear. If we have one critique against the supplied instructions, it’s that it can be a bit confusing the way Baer depicts this step. However, through trial and error, we figured out that the backing plate must be oriented in the correct fashion per side, or the caliper will not bolt to it properly.

The threaded portions of the backing plate face outward.

We gave the directions a good once-over and made sure to torque everything to the required specifications (105 lb-ft for all the hardware). The directions Baer provides are thorough and informative.

The rotors come with new bearings, pre-installed wheel studs, and dust caps.

The next step was to install the new drilled and slotted rotor. The main thing to consider here is the direction of rotation. The internal ribs of the rotor face rearward. While spinning the rotor, we tightened and loosened the spindle nut to seat the bearing and set the preload. You don’t want any lateral movement in the rotor, but you also don’t want any binding when the rotor spins. Dialing it in didn’t take long, just a bit of patience. Next came the cotter pin to secure the spindle nut, and the dust cap. When Baer advertises this kit as “complete,” they’re not kidding. The rotors come with bearings, pre-installed wheel studs, and even dust caps.

The final portion of the install consisted of turning the wheels from full-lock to full-lock and checking for any clearance issues. In our case, we had to re-clock the stainless braided brake lines.

With the backing plate secured and our new rotors set in place, we were able to bolt up the bright red Classic Series caliper with the iconic Baer logo. Outside of the performance implications involved with an upgrade like this, the aesthetic aspect is a major plus! With the new American Racing wheels going on, we couldn’t bear the thought of the crusty old brakes peeking out from behind them. The last step was to attach the stainless steel, braided brake lines, and bleed the whole system. If you’d like a detailed look at the entire process, check out the video we shot below.

Classic Looks / Modern Performance

Among the key benefits of upgrading Project Phoenix with Baer’s Classic Series are weight savings, and heat dissipation. It might not be dozens of pounds, but if we can shave a some unsprung weight off of the front of the car, we’ll look for opportunities to do just that. We  also mentioned the amount of brake fade we had previously experienced, and the drilled and slotted rotors in the kit will mitigate that. The improved cooling properties of drilled and slotted rotors over solid units are well documented.

Again, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an equal upgrade for such an affordable price. Considering the whole front brake kit from Baer comes in under the $700.00 mark, it’s a very economic option that not only improves the stopping power of a classic car but adds to the good looks as well…unless you like the whole rusty caliper and rotor look.

After a few hours of light work, we had our new Classic Series Brakes installed.

As we wrapped up our conversation with Rick, we asked about the other applications the Classic line currently caters to and what plans they have for expanding that line in the future. He had this to say, “we’re constantly working on expanding that line. The next wave of Cassic Series Brakes is going to be 11- and 13-inch stuff for the front and 11.1650 for the rear. A lot of making that happen for more vehicles is going to be developing the intermediate components (brackets). We want it everywhere we can put it.”

“Ultimately, our goal is to cater to a very wide variety of early domestic vehicles with 11-inch front 10.5 inch rear. But that’s just going to be the first stage – for the people running 14, and 15-inch wheels. Then there’s a whole variety of people running bigger wheels, like 17-inch Torque Thrusts, we’re going to do a 13-inch front and an 11.1650 rear. So, we’ll have different size packages. We’re currently finalizing Mustang II and GM G body systems. We’re also going to look at second-gen F bodies. We plan on taking a look at all these different early cars that the Classic line would be perfect for. If we can find a way to put them on there, we’re going to do it!”

The Baer Brakes peeking out from behind the American Racing Wheels look fantastic!

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About the author

Vinny Costa

Fast cars, motorcycles, and loud music are what get Vinny’s blood pumping. Catch him behind the wheel of his ’68 Firebird. Chances are, Black Sabbath will be playing in the background.
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