Old Cars Weekly
By: John Gunnell
Photos by: John Gunnell
Yesterday, I was driving my 1988 Chevy parts-hauling pickup when a man approaching an intersection from my left "blew" a stop sign. I slammed my brakes and felt the pedal give way under my foot. A rust spot in one brake line popped, but luckily, the pickup has a dual-circuit braking system, so there was enough time to bring it to a halt on the front disc brakes.
Many old cars with original brake systems only have a single-circuit brake system, unlike my truck. On such cars, the master cylinder has only one chamber, and if a brake line should blow, hydraulic pressure is completely lost, and the driver has nothing but the emergency brake to prevent disaster.
For safety's sake, a few hobbyists have converted the original single-circuit brake system on their vintage vehicle to a dual-circuit system. Unfortunately, a car's originality is lost when this conversion is performed. But there is something that can be done: Line a master cylinder and wheel cylinders with stainless steel and employ stainless-steel brake lines.
With a stainless-steel brake system, a hydraulic brake system can look stock without worries of rust or internal degradation of cylinder bores and parts. An old car with stainless-steel brake components will hold up better in both road use and storage. The rebuilt system will last much longer than average steel components, but users may still want to conduct fluid flushes and check for parts wear on a periodic basis.
Prices of stainless-steel brake line kits vary. For a recent project involving a 1953 Pontiac, the cost was $179. Considering the advantages of stainless-steel brake lines, you'll probably save that much in repair and maintenance costs by not requiring more frequent brake maintenance.
The Pontiac brake line set came from Classic Tube and contained five lines matching the description in a 1955 Pontiac Master Parts Catalog. However, it did not match the arrangement on the car, because the last shop that worked on the car installed six brake lines. This meant that, after the stainless lines were installed, the car was more original than it had been before.
When doing a conversion to stainless-steel brakes, you may run into modifications made by dreaded previous owners or shops that did work for them. As it turned out, the 1953 Pontiac's brakes had been repaired by a shop that installed a right-hand-side rear wheel cylinder on the left side. Apparently, the installer also bent a new brake line to fit the wrong cylinder. This lesson taught me to check part numbers before sending them to be re-sleeved.
While waiting for the stainless steel brake lines to arrive, take photos or make sketches of how the brake lines are routed. Of particular importance is understanding exactly how the front brake lines run along the frame and bolt up to the master cylinder. Even when a person is careful to use a good penetrating oil and a six-point flare wrench, old brake lines can be a bear to remove. When taking them apart, there's a good chance that some will twist or break off. Without photos or a drawing, working out the proper routings can be very difficult. In a worst-case scenario, those expensive new stainless steel lines could be bent or kinked by improper installation.
When the new brake lines arrive, any long lines will have "shipping bends" that allow them to fit in the box. These must be carefully unbent to the proper shape. On the Pontiac project, professional mechanic Vince Sauberlich carefully bent the lines very slowly over his knee. A special bending tool can also be used.
While you might think the longest brake line - the one that runs from the master cylinder to the rear wheel opening - would be the hardest to snake into position, this wasn't the case on the Pontiac. The line that ran across the front, from left to right, was so hard to get into position that we thought it might have a wrong bend, but it didn't. The trick was dropping the steering idler arm, which provided the room we needed to swing the line across the car. It fit perfectly then.
Four lines ran into a brass fitting at the front of the master cylinder. Figuring out how to hook these up was another puzzle. Luckily, a photo of the original hook-up had been snapped, and it pointed out the proper arrangement.
After the brake lines are installed, go over the whole system and check the tightness of all fittings. Finish the brake job as described in the factory shop manual or aftermarket repair manual. Install the shoes, hardware, wheel bearings, and drums per the instructions for your application, and don't forget to hook up the emergency brake.
After filling the system with brake fluid, bleed the air out, following a manual's directions. The '53 Pontiac had a hard-to-bleed brake system, which may have been due to the fact that the master cylinder is mounted under the floorboards.
To adjust most brakes, insert a bent screwdriver or a brake-adjusting tool to engage the star wheel and turn the brake-adjusting screw. Moving the outer end of the tool upward pushes the star wheel down and expands the brake shoe closer to the drum. Move the shoes in this direction until you reach the adjustment described in your factory service manual, usually "very slight drag." Some will read "adjust until drum can just be turned by hand, then back off 'x' many notches." (A notch is one star wheel tooth and usually a click will be heard.)
After adjusting all four brakes, lower the car, re-tighten the lug nuts, and top off the master cylinder, if necessary. Road test the car. If it pulls to one side, more adjusting is necessary. If it stops smoothly and in a straight line, you're done. Plan on readjustments in a couple of weeks, after the car has some miles put on it.
This photo, taken well before the project was underway, helped determine how to properly attach the new stainless-steel brake lines to the master cylinder. Take photos or make sketches as you take things apart.
These are support brackets where brake lines meet, and U-shaped clips hold fittings to brackets. Use one wrench on the fitting and another on the nut. Old lines are often rusty and hard to separate, but penetrating oil or heat will help loosen them.
This brake line runs along the inside of the frame from the master cylinder to the left front wheel, but holding it like this on the outside of the frame helps visualize the final routing so you can better plan for proper installation.
Some new stainless-steel brake lines may come with "shipping bends" to allow them to be shipped in smaller boxes so they don't have to go by truck. This saves money, as truck shipping charges can be high.
Smaller sections of the new stainless-steel brake lines will have the correct factory bends. This is what you need for a perfect fit on your collector car. Shipping bends are not used on the shorter lines.
Vince Sauberlich is shown removing two shipping bends from the longest brake line. Shade-tree restorers may want to use a sand-bag or bending tool. Whatever technique you use, go slow and don't force anything.
Vince Sauberlich had to drop the pitman arm on the steering gear to route the front brake line into its proper position. The line was too long to flip and swing into position with the pitman arm in the way.
Having the car up in the air makes it a lot easier to install stainless steel brake lines since you wind up with more "swing room" to snake the lines in at different angles. In many cities, you can rent lift time at D-I-Y shops.