What you need to know to survive catastrophic brake failure


I’ve nearly made a career out of touting “The Big Seven” reasons a vintage car is likely to leave you waiting for a tow on the side of the road—fuel (specifically, the lack of it), ignition, cooling system, charging system, belts, ball joints, and clutch hydraulics. I’ve often had folks ask me if clutch hydraulics and ball joints are on the list, why isn’t brake failure?

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/articles/2018/09/24/what-you-need-to-know-to-survive-catastrophic-brake-failure


Circa 1982 I was working out of town in upstate NY on a Hydro power project.

I was driving a 2wd C20 3/4 ton suburban.

I went to dinner one night. Headed down a 2 lane state highway 50 mph speed limit.

About 5 miles into the trip I reached over to change the radio. I accidentally hit the column shift into neutral at 50mph.

The engine revved loudly and I heard a bang. Back into gear, and oil press looked fine, so I continued on.

About 10 miles further I went to pull off into a Diner parking lot. As I applied the brakes to slow down the pedal went to the floor! I swearved through the lot (it was gravel) at probably 45+ mph. At the end of the lot was nothing but a diner full of customers. I hit the ebrake with little effect, last ditch effort was to throw it into park. A loud clicking sound erupted, but about five feet from the front window the truck finally stopped.

The look of the two guys sitting at the table in front of me was classic. Mouths half open with food hanging out.

They watched as I screamed through the lot right towards them!

I got out, straightened my self out when a crowd of people came out to see what the heck happened.

Turns out the loud bang was a blade on the flex fan flying off and literally cut both brake lines from the master!

Amazingly for me and others I had green lights for 2 or 3 intersections because I would have T boned someone at 50+ mph!

Something I will never forget!


At the risk of sounding like a wiseguy, why didn’t you just stay in the RV overnight? Isn’t that what they are designed for?


Excellent advice, sir!

I’ve only had total brake failure one time, and it was the master cylinder in my '67 Mustang. By hitting the pedal hard and fast, I got enough pressure to make it the last few blocks home from where it happened.

Borrowed my Dad’s car, got a replacement master cylinder, and was back on the road in a few hours.


I had mine on Friday. I have had brakes gently go out on other cars but this one was a total loss of braking on I-26 in NC while pulling my camper with a 2011 Silverado 1500. I came over a hill at 55-60 (under the limit) and saw traffic slowing. The pedal went to the floor and wouldn’t pump. I bounced the first car I hit out of the lane and blew his brakes - the rear of his car was mostly crumple. He went about a half mile. The second one I rear ended pretty much stopped me. Luckily nobody was hurt. Score was 2 probably totalled, one definitely. The body of my camper came loose from the frame and slid forward 6" so that will be a total too. We were very lucky that nobody was hurt.


I am surprised that you mentioned steel lines but no word of rubber hoses. That is the first thing I order when I get another vintage car. Remember, you never know the brakes are failing until you are in a Panic Stop and then it’s Good Bye Time, Another thing to mention would have been " Remember The Emergency Brake !!! It does help.
One of my experiences was about three life times ago when I was a teenager. I had caught a rear wheel line on a something and broke it while in the mountains. One step down on the pedal and I knew I had a problem. I got stopped using the emergency brake and found the broken line. I Beat The Hell out of the line upstream from the break with my jack handle and drove to town on three wheel brakes.

I enjoy your articles.


One of my favorite stories from my claims adjusting days: a 60’s era Pontiac Tempest being driven by a little old lady stopped running on the street in front of a Firestone dealer (who was our insured). The nice guys at Firestone pushed the car into the shop so they could have a look at it for her. One of them jumped inside the car and stepped on the brakes to stop it rolling, and the pedal immediately went straight to the floor. Upon inspection, nearly every rubber brake line on the car was either blown out or leaking badly. Turns out the car owner was a small and rather frail woman who was incapable of applying much force to the brakes; once someone applied a normal amount of pedal pressure the nearly 30 year old brake lines all gave out simultaneously. How the woman had been stopping the car everyday is a mystery, but I don’t think she ever went over 25 mph.


Ya,why didn’t you stay overnight in the RV? Start camping a day earlier… And it not an EMERGENCY BRAKE…it’s a parking brake ,but it seemed to help you,your lucky :slight_smile:


My 03 Silverado blew both front & rear lines at the same time. Luckily I was in a 25 mph zone and stopping at a traffic light. Looking on line Silverados are known for brake lines rusting out. Both lines were on the top of the frame rail about 3 feet from the master cylinder. I limped home using the parking brake and back roads and put Stainless Steel on it.


The photo of the rusty brake line and junction just blew my mind. Shame on you Rob! That should have been addressed a long time ago. My first car was a little Austin Healy with brakes you had to pump to stop. But I was too young and inexperienced so several fender benders later it still didn’t sink in. Spent what little money I had for a wood steering wheel, Pirelli tires, etc. Since then I’ve been a brake evangelist. Stop first, run second, polish down the list. It amazes me how infrequently people change the brake fluid on their vehicles. If done regularly no more rusty or frozen calipers, brake jobs last much longer.