In many ways, hot rod builders are on their own when it comes to brake system component selection and system design. Unlike any of the production-based brake upgrades discussed this far, building a hot rod from scratch (or even from a kit) entails a unique collection of brake system considerations and constraints. With custom frames, powerful drivelines, modified bodies, and cut-and-paste suspension systems, there is little opportunity to learn from the original vehicle when the time comes to create your own hot rod brake system.

Yet the laws of physics still apply in these applications, making basic brake system design criteria just as important here as they were in Chapters 11, 12, and 13. The pages that follow will expose you to some of the most common design compromises, hardware considerations, and installation pitfalls that are either unique to, or exaggerated by, hot rod brake systems.

The Vehicle

The subject of this hot rod brake upgrade project began life as a 1940 Ford pickup truck. Although it still possesses some token bits of the original body and frame, little else resembles what rolled off of the assembly line over 60 years ago. Custom roadster coachwork, independent front suspension, Chevy power under the hood, and a host of complex chassis changes only begin to describe the level of change this truck has experienced.

Although originally equipped with hydraulic brakes (mechanical brakes were only dropped the year before in 1939), the single-circuit master cylinder and four-wheel drum brake layout was dated at best. Therefore, as long as the rest of the truck was being significantly modified and updated, the brake system was upgraded as well.

We were fortunate to catch this 1940 Ford hot rod pickup in the middle of its own brake upgrade project. When embarking on your own hot rod brake system upgrade, it sure helps to have the vehicle up off the ground in a clean and well-lit garage. If possible, having most of the body and powertrain out of the way makes the job that much easier. (Randall Shafer)

The Objective

Like most vehicles of this type, this hot rod was primarily designed for cruising along on a Sunday afternoon drive. Therefore, increased thermal capacity was not high on the list of needs or wants. At the same time, optimizing brake pedal feel was not critical for the truck’s intended use. In short, the most important brake system performance requirement was to slow the truck in a stable fashion during emergency-type events. Naturally, the parts had to look good (since that’s a big part of what hot rodding is all about), but performing a single stop quickly and reliably from a moderate speed was the most stringent brake system performance design target.

Front Brake Upgrade

The forward frame rails of the truck had already been modified to accept one of the most common independent front suspensions used in the hot rodding community. Lifted straight from a Ford Mustang II, this setup can be found hanging off the front end of countless hot rods today. In this application, the upper and lower control arms had already been replaced with custom tubular pieces, but the front uprights, bearings, and brake hardware were straight from the Ford parts bin.

It took a significant amount of modification to adapt a Mustang II front suspension to the stock front frame rails. However, the front brake hardware remains essentially unchanged from the Mustang II design. Note that many hot rodders upgrade their Mustang II front end with a set of 11.0-inch diameter rotors and aftermarket caliper mounting brackets. (Randall Shafer)

Chosen more for availability and fitment than for thermal mass and effective radius, the front rotors measured a relatively small 9.0 inches in diameter and 0.9 inches in thickness. Although the straight vanes in the vented friction discs were not expected to be as efficient as curved vanes would have been, any front rotors would be more thermally robust that the stock front drums.

Like the front rotors, the front calipers were chosen more for convenience than for performance. These remanufactured single-piston calipers were based on the original Mustang II floating design. Their compact dimensions were the final consideration, as this would lead to flexibility in wheel selection later in the project.

The Mustang II front brake calipers contain relatively large brake pads held in place by floating caliper bodies. The single piston in each caliper was designed to be offset relative to the center of the rotor friction disc, resulting in a larger effective radius. In plain English, this means higher gain is possible in a smaller package. (Randall Shafer)

Although a more modern Ford rear axle had been installed, in the interest of both time and money it was decided to leave the rear drum brakes in place. Of course they would receive a fresh coat of paint and fresh internal components, but with so little weight over the rear tires there was no reason to improve their performance. Even though it was still a pickup truck, its heavy hauling days were over.

While the stock single-circuit master cylinder was swapped for a tandem unit, its location under the vehicle was retained. The tight confines dictated that an opening be cut in the floorpan to allow access to the brake fluid reservoir. Check out the elegant routing of the custom-bent brake lines! (Randall Shafer)

Brake Pedal Considerations

In 1940, vacuum boosters were still several decades away from becoming mainstream brake system components. Therefore, because the truck was originally built without a vacuum booster (in other words, built with manual brakes), the brake pedal ratio was exceptionally high compared to conventional standards. Employing a pedal ratio of approximately 8.0:1, the stock brake pedal was required to swing through a relatively long arc as brake pressure was generated in the master cylinder.

Since the truck’s master cylinder was originally mounted beneath the floor of the vehicle, retrofitting a vacuum booster, even one with a relatively small diameter, would have been difficult at best. While upgrading to vacuum-assisted brakes would have been desirable from both a gain and pedal feel standpoint, in the end the stock manual pedal assembly was kept intact. In fact, with the exception of a thorough visual inspection and a fresh coat of paint, the pedal was lifted straight from 1940 without alteration.

This hot rod builder chose to retain the long, spindly stock brake pedal on the right without modification. Without the benefit of a vacuum booster, the pedal ratio needs to be as high as possible to maximize overall brake system gain. The pedal on the left originally operated the clutch, but was later removed since an automatic transmission was being installed. (Randall Shafer)
For improved pedal spacing, it was necessary to cut off the brake pedal pad prior to installing the brake pedal assembly. Once the final positioning of the steering column and floorpan were determined, the pedal pad was welded back in place. Notice the aftermarket chrome throttle pedal seen hanging off of the firewall to the right. (Randall Shafer)

Residual Pressure Valves

In many hot rod applications, the master cylinder is mounted below the hydraulic components at the wheel ends (disc brake calipers and drum brake wheel cylinders). Thanks to gravity, this arrangement results in brake fluid flowing from the wheel end components back to the master cylinder reservoir when it’s not pressurized. When the brakes are next applied, reduced pressure is available, accompanied by excessive brake pedal travel.

In order to prevent this phenomenon from occurring, a residual pressure valve can be installed in one or more of the brake lines. Acting much like a one-way flow restrictor at low pressures, these devices hold a constant amount of pressure at the wheel ends, preventing fluid from draining back to the master cylinder when the brakes are not applied.

Any time you’re using a low-mounted master cylinder, it’ll be necessary to install one residual pressure valve for each hydraulic circuit (blue and red). As long as they’re installed in the proper orientation, their physical location in the hydraulic system doesn’t matter. For ease of service and inspection, though, it makes sense to mount them where they’ll be readily accessible.
When using a residual pressure valve, it’s important to install it in the correct orientation. For this reason, the inlet and outlet port assignments are usually stamped or engraved in the valve body. The 10-psi rating found etched into this valve indicates that it’s suitable for use with drum brake hardware. A 2-psi valve would be used for disc brakes. (Randall Shafer)

Based on the type of brake being used at a particular corner, different levels of residual pressure are appropriate to prevent drain back. Generally speaking, disc brakes require approximately 2 to 5 psi valves, while drum brakes, due mostly to their built-in retraction springs, work best with 10-to-15 psi valves.

If you’re unsure of the relationship between your master cylinder and the wheel end components, it’s best to be conservative and install a pair of valves. Even if drain back is not a problem, installing these valves does not pose any other negative performance impact to your vehicle’s brake system operation. When in doubt, it’s better to be safe than sorry.