Jim Smart
August 7, 2007

We place emphasis on going faster and making more power, but how often do we address safe and effective stopping? Not often enough. We don't need to say this, but we will anyway-stopping is more important than all the horsepower and torque on the planet. Bling and speed aren't worth a flip when your investment is all smashed up because you couldn't stop in a safe distance.

Have you thought about your brakes lately?

The master cylinder applies hydraulic pressure to the brakes. When you step on the brake pedal, you force fluid under pressure to each of the four brakes. Because fluid cannot be compressed, it becomes the perfect medium to convert foot power to brake power. This is a single-reservoir master cylinder common in Fords prior to 1967.

Brakes just aren't a priority in the "fun" department when it's time to spend money on a classic Ford. We like speed equipment, and we like the bling that makes engine compartments, bodies, and interiors look sharp. Money wasted is the money you don't spend on good brakes.

Brakes tend to be a mystery for most of us because there are so many options available, and most of us are baffled as to how they work. What kind of braking system do you need? What type of friction material-organic, metallic, semimetallic, or carbon metallic? What size rotors? Slotted or cross-drilled? How many pistons in each caliper? Disc or drum? What about master-cylinder size and type? Power or manual brakes? Mineral-based or silicone brake fluid? Do you need a proportioning valve?Rubber or braided hoses? Man, it gets complicated.

To choose the right brakes, you need a basic understanding of braking systems. Hydraulic brakes date back to the beginning of the 20th century. They didn't become standard equipment on Fords until the '30s as power and speed increased respectively. Although this may sound like boring high-school physics, braking is nothing more than the absorption of kinetic energy (matter in motion), which is just a fancy term for friction bringing your Ford to a stop. Pads squeeze rotors and linings rub against drums, which turns linear motion (kinetic energy and friction) into heat.

This is a large, single-reservoir master cylinder for front disc-brake use. A larger reservoir is needed to accommodate the demand of front disc brakes. Shown here is a disc-brake master cylinder with power booster.

The Necessity Of Stopping
How well your Ford stops depends on its stopping capacity. Capacity comes from having enough hydraulics and plenty of friction. Power to apply pads to rotors and shoes to drums comes from having enough hydro-mechanical advantage-simply put, plenty of leverage under the dashboard coupled with just the right master-cylinder bore/piston size to brake comfortably. We don't want too much braking or too little. We want brakes to become an extension of our minds, much as we would from engine, transmission, and handling performance.

We could not have achieved the kind of stopping power we have today without hydraulics. It has been said you could move the world via the power of hydraulics-putting fluid to work under pressure. Hydraulics enable us to do what is physically impossible-steer big construction equipment, move heavy loads, vector huge jets about the sky, run elevators, lift cars, press parts together, pry components apart, and dozens of other uses. Hydraulic clutches use hydraulic pressure to release the clutch. That little bottle jack used to put your Ford on jackstands is the application of hydraulics. Turning a corner in your power-steering-equipped Ford or Merc is applied hydraulics. The examples are endless.

Beginning in 1967, Ford went to a dual-braking system for improved safety.

When you step on the brake pedal, you are applying physical energy to a master cylinder to generate hydraulic power. Pedal pressure becomes linear motion-like a doctor using a hypodermic needle to inject medication into your body. A hypodermic syringe is hydraulics-moving fluid under pressure-just like we do with a brake pedal. The master cylinder consists of a cylinder, a piston, and a rod; the rod is tied to a brake pedal. When you step on the brake pedal, you push a piston in a sealed cylinder full of fluid. Fluid travels through steel lines to your brakes.