Winter Project – Disc Brake Upgrade

My 1967 Pontiac Tempest rolled off the assembly line with manual drum brakes at all four corners.  In the 2+ years that I’ve owned it, I’ve come to grips with the eccentricities of the not-so-affectionately nicknamed “death brakes.”  You could make the argument that driving a car with manual drum brakes forces you to be a better driver, because you must be constantly aware of traffic patterns and avoid hard stops at all costs.  I say this because not only do these types of brakes take more pedal effort than modern brakes, but they also fall out of adjustment often, behave erratically, and fade quickly.  During a panic stop, you must prepare yourself for the following scenario:

  1. Step firmly on pedal, which is much harder than the pedal in a modern car.
  2. Feel the car begin to slow down, then rapidly jerk to the right.
  3. Release the pedal to straighten car, then apply brakes again.
  4. Feel the car slow down more, then jerk to the left.
  5. If the car hasn’t stopped yet, expect the brakes to start fading and lose effectiveness until you stop via aerodynamic drag or impact.

I’d learned to adapt to this setup, but planned to eventually convert the car to disc brakes.  Well, “eventually” turned into this winter, as the last time I drove the car the brake warning light was flickering, indicating a fluid leak somewhere in the system.  I decided that my winter project (both the blessing and the curse of living in the midwest) for the car would be to completely rebuild the brake system.

Of course, in order to upgrade from drum to disc brakes in the front, there are a whole host of parts that have to come off, and I might as well replace them while I’m at it.  So not only did I purchase all the brake parts, I also have ball joints and coil springs on the list for replacement.  It’s likely that I’ll get carried away under there and end up with new tie rods and shocks as well.

This will be the biggest single project I’ve ever undertaken and I’m expecting lots of busted knuckles and headaches, but it should be fun and well worth it in the end – not only will the car be immeasurably safer, it will be much more fun to drive as well.  I’ll be posting regular updates as I work on the car, so look forward to in-depth how-to tips, photos of greasy, forty-year-old parts, and perhaps gruesome tales of sledgehammer and air chisel injuries.

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