I made the decision to have hydraulic brakes put on my 1930 Model “A”.   The task is beyond my capabilities due to my age, arthritis, and a lack of machining capabilities.  It is not as if there are antique auto restoration places on every corner and most modern auto shops would not go near this job.  Where to go to have this done?  Don Davison who lives up on the hill north of Garrettsville quickly comes to mind.  I did a story on him last year, have seen what he can do, and had him iron out some mechanical problems in my Model “A”.  He and his son have spent a lifetime working on antique cars.  Don senior has worked in some of the finest restoration shops in northern Ohio and he has many of those specialized, old time machines in his barn/restoration shop.

“Yeah we can put those hydraulic brakes on your car”, he immediately quipped.  “Here are a couple places where you can get parts; the parts alone are going to be in the neighborhood of $2500 and we will have to machine them to fit just right.  They never fit right just out of the box.”  $2500, I gasped to myself, and thought, I’m sure that you can double that with labor.  Well, I’ m not building a show car.   I’m building a dependable driver that I can safely drive on tours and to shows.  Maybe next year I will worry about having the paint job upgraded.

There are a couple ways to go to accomplish this hydraulic brake conversion. You can locate a 1939 or newer Ford and cannibalize that system, adapting it to your car like the hot rodders have done since 1939. Or you can buy a system from an Old Car parts supplier like Mac’s Auto Parts in New York that offers conversion parts to convert your car to Bendix hydraulic brakes (from 1940s Lincolns). Nowhere do they claim that it is a complete kit but as pictured in their catalog, most (90%) of the required parts are offered. You will need to procure a couple wheel and backing plate spacers from some suggested other suppliers and you will need to adapt (invent) a mount for the master cylinder. There are some adaptations available elsewhere for the master cylinder in the range of $350.  The total bill for the parts will be in the neighborhood of $2900. Gasp, Gasp, Gasp. On the other hand, procuring and rebuilding a cannibalized system from a 1940s car will probably cost at least that much if not more.

This will be a more expensive proposition than I anticipated.  But then I relive coming down a hill to one of our main highways as I have experienced so many times with this car.  I have both feet on the brake pedal, pressing as hard as I can, one hand on the wheel, one hand on the accelerator so that the engine doesn’t quit—(old time carburetor), and one hand on the emergency brake.  Wait a minute what’s wrong with this picture?  Right, I’m not Buddha!  I only have two hands!  By the grace of God and the emergency brake I come to a stop just inches from the main highway, engine dead because I had to let go of the throttle.  Hard stops invariably kill the engine on Model “A”s because the gas in the carburetor bowl shifts and starves the engine for fuel. Could I have stopped with only the service brake?  Never.  Modern brake shoe composition makes it impossible to apply enough foot pressure to stop the car.  They are made for hydraulic systems.

Davison outlines all the parts that I will need.  I order them, they come in less than a week.  As with every repair that I make on antique cars, there will be unseen issues develop and more parts will be needed before it’s done. We set up a date to begin. Davison is actually pretty good about making deadlines, given that he services a number of antique cars that, like me, have unplanned urgencies.  He is also known to do house calls.  Don Davison is somebody that all antique car owners should have on speed dial. Many of us do!

The remake begins.  Don and son take the whole mechanical system off the car—service rods, backing plates wheels hubs, brake drums, shoes—the whole shooting match. It’s not unlike a heart transplant. Having rebuilt the whole mechanical brake system last year myself, I can’t bear to watch though.  Just call me if I need to run for parts.   Later that day I get a call from Don. “You will need to order this special spacer from a place in Colorado.  It seems that MACs forgot to mention it.”  He gets them on the phone and orders the part, I get the phone and give them my credit card.  So it goes, maybe two more times. The parts generally come in two days.   “While we have everything apart you ought to think about front tires and an alignment—they are both well worn”, says Don.  “You’re right Don, we will do that shortly after we hit the road”, I say.  In just over a week the job is completed.  It takes several trial runs and a couple of adjustment cuts to the drums so that they don’t rub the backing plates.  “Take it for a few days and drive it a bit. Probably will need an adjustment again.”  I drive it for several days and actually drive it on an old car tour. While driving I noticed an increasing rubbing and noise from the back side of the car—around the rear wheels.  Probably the backing plates rubbing again?  So back to Davison.  They jack up the car, start it up, and run it.  The noise is definitely not from the wheels.  It is coming from differential.  Oh boy, didn’t figure on that!  They do more diagnostics –Definitely something worn big time in the differential.  What to do now. Don says, “Drive it sparingly for a few weeks until we can get it into the garage and tear apart the differential.”

Here is the breakdown on parts and costs for the conversion to hydraulic brakes:

Hydraulic brake convenience kit from Macs        $2,883.54

Spacers and adapters not furnished by Macs        $   352.00

Labor          $1,800.00

Total  $5,035.54

Does the car stop now?  I can now stop coming down a steep hill with one foot on the brake pedal.  It is very nice to know that I can panic stop without driving off the road to miss the car in front of me.

The Old Road is a column that features antique automobiles, old cars, their owners, and their stories of the road, the restoration, and the acquisitions.  Do you have a restored antique auto?  Perhaps you have an old daily driver or a no longer drivable derelict with an endearing family history sitting out in the barn or a field?  Maybe you have questions about restoration.  Drop me a line: E-mail me at Skipstaxidermy@yahoo.com, or give me a call at 330-562-9801, I’d like to hear from you.

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Skip Schweitzer, of Mantua, can be described from early on in life as an avid outdoorsman and old car restorer and aficionado. He comes from a long line of great lakes fishermen and hunters. He is a taxidermist and a retired psychologist. His grandfather Charles, a machinist and fisherman who fed his family with fish during the Great Depression, was one of the original auto restorers at the Thompson Auto Museum, now the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum. Skip learned to hunt, fish and restore cars from his father Roy and learned the value and appreciation of antique automobiles from his grandfather. Skip has, over the years, restored upwards of 25 automobiles including many Fords, Studebakers, Buicks, Jeeps and VWs. Skip has written extensively on automobiles and outdoors for several newspapers, magazines and auto publications this past 20 years. His current antique automobiles include a 1930 Ford Model “A”, and a 1970 Volkswagen Cabriolet. Skip’s most frequent bylines are, Outdoors With Skip, and The Old Road.