I was riding my motorcycle today through downtown Cleveland when the car in front of me slammed on their brakes to avoid an accident. I was only going about 15 miles an hour but I had to react fast. I was able to use my handlebar brake for the front wheel but not my pedal brake for the rear. I slid sideways but recovered in time. I had to laugh. I had told Jeremy Lambert, my student worker, a story about brakes just an hour earlier.
In 1959 we became a two-car family; Dad bought an Anglia, or English Ford, for his use and let Mom drive the 56 Chevy. In 61 he bought her an Impala. The Anglia was a boxy compact, three-in-the floor manual transmission. Dad prided himself in doing all of the maintenance work on it. I was of course his assistant in all of these projects. He drove it from 1959 through 1971. Sometime around 1964 or 65 he replaced the brake shoes.
Back in those good-old-days changing brake shoes was a little complicated. After removing the old shoes and installing the new ones there were two additional tasks to complete the job. First, the brake lines had to be manually bled, i.e., any air that had gotten into them in the process of changing the shoes had to be removed. This required someone, the assistant to the mechanic, to sit in the driver’s seat and press the brake pedal while the mechanic opened and closed a bleed valve on the wheel. This was repeated for each of the four brakes.
Once the brakes had been bled they had to be adjusted. This required a special curved tool that was inserted through a hole on the inside of the wheel to advance a tightening caliber. [Stay with me; I’m going somewhere.] Dad bent a screwdriver and made his own tool. Each of the breaks had to be manually calibrated so that they all grabbed at the same instant. I assume that with proper tools a mechanic could do this through careful measurements. [For the last few decades automobile brakes have been self calibrating.]
Dad didn’t have the tools; he had a method. Our cement driveway was sixty or seventy feet long. The method was to accelerate as fast as possible and then slam on the brakes. The skid marks revealed the order in which the brakes grabbed and thus indicated which ones needed to be tightened. Dad adjusted the brakes; I drove the car. After four or five joy rides down the driveway Dad said, “Son, I’ve almost got them set. This time I want you to go as fast as you can and hit the breaks as hard as you can.” Did I have a great father or what?
I gave it all the four cylinders could crank out as I accelerated down the racing lane. Just in front of the garage sat a fifty-five-gallon metal drum full of water. Prior to tackling the brakes, we had worked on Dad’s outboard motor adjusting the carburetor for our next fishing trip. To get the most speed and traction I needed to get closer to the drum before hitting the brakes.
As instructed, I slammed the brakes as hard as my pre-pubescent pencil-thin legs could. The car briefly tilted forward as inertia met friction and immediately changed its mind and lunged into the barrel. A geyser erupted before my eyes and rained oily water down around me as the little car-that-could drove the barrel into the garage before coming to a full stop. Dad with non-characteristic excitement ran up beside me and said, “Son, what did you do?”
I responded, “Nothing, I did what you told me to do and it just happened. There aren’t any brakes.”
He got in the driver’s seat and pumped, but there was no resistance. Then he climbed under the car and found the hole in the brake line. The metal tubing had rubbed against the car frame until it was paper thin. My extra effort had provided the aneurism that set in motion a little excitement and necessitated another father-son project. Dad never said a word about the event. I think he was in shock and full of fear. He wasn’t afraid of what might of happened; he was afraid of what was going to happen. What was my mother going to say about her pre-teen, youngest son being instructed to drive as fast as he could in the driveway?
I am thankful for good brakes. I try to use them as little as possible, especially on short driveways.
April 30, 2010