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Tech Talk with Master Power Brakes

Detroit Automakers and Standard Disc Brake Offerings: What Took So Long?

Posted by toby on Oct 15, 2014 1:45:39 PM

If you look back at the muscle car era, you’ll notice an emphasis on bigger engines, more horsepower, and the need for speed.  And while Detroit engineers did an admirable job designing faster cars in the late 50’s and 60’s, much less thought was given to bringing these cars to a safe stop.  Being in the brake business, this got us thinking—why did it take Detroit so long to offer disc brake technology as a standard option?

British automotive pioneer Frederick William Lanchester patented the first caliper-style automobile disc brake in 1902.  Lanchester’s design used copper braking medium, but the poor state of roads during this era caused the copper to wear quickly.  It would be another 50 years before early disc brake technology made its initial appearance on commercially manufactured vehicles here in the US.

The post-World War II saw two notable vehicles with standard disc brake technology—the 1949 Chrysler Crown Imperial and the 1950 Crosley Hot Shot, which borrowed from WWII aircraft braking design.  Despite their early introduction and ground-breaking design, neither of these systems could replace tried-and-true drum brake technology, and in an ironic twist of fate, Hot Shot drum brake conversions were quite common.  Over the next 20 years, disc brake technology would become more available as an expensive upgrade, but not until the tail end of the muscle car era would drums give way to disc brakes as standard equipment.

There are a number of reasons that it took so long for disc brakes to overtake the older drum technology.  For starters, you need to look at Detroit’s mindset in the 50’s and 60’s.  Engineers from the Big 3 have catered to a market that wanted faster cars with sticker prices that didn’t break the bank—safety features like improved brakes were not a hot button.  Detroit has also been famous for a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality.  Until one of the major auto manufacturers started pushing improved disc brake technology as a standard feature,  most of the improvements to brake systems reflected a “bigger is better” approach.  Most automotive engineers questioned the need to develop new braking technology when they could simply make existing brake systems bigger.  The flaw in this approach seems obvious today--regardless of size, drum brakes are always more susceptible to heat build-up than disc brakes.  Built up heat inside drums causes brake fade—and even with a power booster, you’ll experience a loss of braking power with excessive heat build-up.

In the end, even though many of the muscle cars from the 60’s and early 70’s never came with standard disc brake technology, the increased speed and power associated with these cars led to an eventual emphasis on improved safety, including brakes.  There are many old car enthusiasts who pine for the good old days—the classic lines, the raw power, and the distinctive sound of a V8 or a Hemi firing up.  We still have a slice of that tradition alive and well today—and with the addition of a new disc brake conversion kit, you can preserve what was great about the past while driving a safer car.



Topics: classic cars, drum brakes, muscle cars, Car History, Disc Brakes

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