Cohort Outtake/QOTD: Bryce’s Minx Gets Discs – What Are Your Drum Brake Experiences?

drum brakes

Prolific CC Commenter Bryce posted this shot of his Hillman Minx titled “Drums out; discs in”. Well, that and a whole new front suspension and cross member, thanks to a more recent Hillman parts car he picked up a while back. So the question today is all about drum brakes: are they a dangerous nightmare to be avoided or are their limitations exaggerated?

Corvair curve

Of course any car can benefit from disc brakes, but the issue about drums is not exactly black and white. A drum brake can be quite powerful, but the biggest issue is fade from /heavy/repeated use, as well as from being over-stressed. My first several cars were a Corvair and VW Beetles. With their rear engines, braking power was much better balanced between front and rear axles due to the rear engines. I never felt under-braked in them.

It’s also the reason why the original Toronado and Eldorado were so under-braked. With their front weight bias and lightly loaded rear axles, they simply overpowered their front drum brakes.


Size is of course a big factor too, in drum brakes, and some of the better American cars had quite massive front brakes, and finned too. I had a Peugeot 404 sedan and wagon at the same time. The sedan had discs; the wagon drums. But the drums on the wagon were huge and wide, and had double-leading shoes (meaning two wheel cylinders per brake). These were the best drum brakes I’ve ever used, and I liked them better than the discs in sedan, which also were unassisted. Ironically, I was tempted to swap out the sedan’s discs for the drums from a wagon.

The wagon’s brakes were also unassisted, but drums really don’t need assist, as they are self-energizing. The 404 wagon’s brakes had the most progressive and sensitive response of any brakes I’ve ever driven; the equivalent of a manual rack and pinion steering on a light car. A dream to use, and I’ve missed them ever since.

Niedermeyer Cars 001 (6) Leaving LG 2 950

The drums on my ’66 F100 are modest, at best. They’re the same size as on a Ford passenger car, which is pretty pathetic. I made several trips up I-5 from Los Gatos to Eugene hauling our massive amount of stuff/junk, towing an un-braked (but pretty light) trailer). Getting out of the Bay Area during morning rush hour was more than a bit hairy, because if I left extra space in front of me, other driver constantly filled it in. I had one or two scary moments. But once out of the metro area, the roll up I-5 was fine, as long as I stayed on the right lane with the other big truckers. And I shifted down on the grades.

One time I had a transmission problem, and it kept popping out of second right on the longest and steepest grade of the trip, the Siskiyou Pass, and I only barely got the rig stopped, with all the pedal pressure I could summon! One stop, on cold brakes, and it almost didn’t fully stop at the end, the brakes useless.

CC 158 125 800

Except for that hairy moment, which wouldn’t have happened if my transmission had stayed in gear, I’ve managed to get by ok with the drums on the Ford, even pulling very heavy loads, since I just keep my speed down and always am very cognizant of what gear I’m in on any grade. But Ford really could have put some larger brakes in these, like the ones used in the 3/4 ton F250.

So what are your experiences with drums? Live with them, or swap them out?