Engines get all the glory, but in terms of driving enjoyment, brakes can make, or break, a car. Having tons of horsepower is useless if the car's braking system is sketchy. This is especially true of older Chevys that still run four-wheel drum brakes; or worse, a system without the aid of a power booster.
It's not that this system is inherently "bad," after all; cars ran this type of brake system just fine for decades. But, given the stopping prowess of modern cars, we've grown accustomed to better. In addition, it doesn't help that all of the cars around you can stop in under than 130 feet while your Chevy needs quite a bit more space. For these reasons one of the best upgrades you can perform on your classic Chevrolet is a drum to disc conversion.
We all know there are big-brake systems on the market. But those kits cost equally big bucks, and they simply don't work for the guy looking to run 15- or 16-inch wheels. Besides, many gearheads don't plan on attacking the track. They just want something that will better keep them from eating the bumper of the car in front of them on the road.
Speedway Motors has a collection of kits that lets those looking to ditch under performing drum brakes, in favor of their more modern disc cousins, and in a wallet friendly bolt-on way. To see what's involved, we ordered up some parts and headed over to Don Lee Auto to knock more than a few feet off of a 1965 Chevelle's stopping distance.
1. Drum brakes get the job done, just not nearly as good as their disc brake counterparts. They are even worse when coupled with the higher horsepower engines found under today’s hoods.
2. To make room for the new stuff, we first had to ditch the old. The drum was pulled and the old shoes and springs were removed. That left us with the backing plate, which was held to the spindle by three bolts at 12-, 4-, and 7-o’clock positions.
3. Our reward was one grungy spindle. Now, this spindle could be reused, if the upper pad was milled down by 0.610-inch. Of course, the other problem is that the upper bolt hole is smaller than the new bolt for the disc brake kit. This can be worked around, but there’s a much easier option.
4. The easier option is this disc brake Speedway spindle (PN 910-34900, $125 per pair). It’s forged steel and retains the stock height. Given the price it was the smarter way to go, unless you own a mill, which we don’t.
5. This was the perfect time to rebuild our Chevelle’s front suspension so we picked up this complete kit from Speedway (PN 917-3220, $200). It included inner and outer tie rods, tie rod sleeves, center link, idler arm, and both upper and lower ball joints. Nothing fancy here, but having all these parts in one convenient kit sure beats hunting them down at the local parts store.
6. With the new ball joints installed we then attached our freshly painted disc-brake spindle.
7. We also went ahead and installed the rest of our new steering components. To keep our alignment in the ballpark, we set the tie rod assembly at the same length as the one we removed from the ’65.
8. The Speedway disc brake kit (PN 910-31958, $240) was very complete and included the calipers, pads, brake lines, bearings, seals, brackets, hardware and backing plates. The first parts to go on were the backing plate and caliper bracket. For the 4- and 7-o’clock bolts, we reused the original bolts, but the for the 12-o’clock bolt we used the new thin-head bolt provided by Speedway.
9. Once the upper bolt was tightened down, we bent over the two tabs that were integrated into the backing plate. These ensure that the upper bolt stays locked in place.
10. The 11-inch diameter, vented brake rotors came with the wheel studs already installed. This kit will fit inside of 15-inch and larger wheel.
11. Before sliding the rotor onto the new spindle, we packed the bearings with grease and installed them along with the new seal.
12. The rotor was then slid onto the spindle and locked in place with a castle nut and cotter pin.
13. The calipers in the kit are the tried and true 1969-77 GM style binders found on many early muscle cars. Remember, there is a right and left, so make sure you grab the correct one.
14. The rest of the install was as simple as it could be. We secured the caliper using the supplied hardware and attached the new rubber brake line.
15. The right side disc conversion was a mirror image of the left.
16. It was now time to address the outdated hydraulic system under the hood. The term, “all of your eggs in one basket” sums up the safety problems with running a single-reservoir master cylinder.
17. For even better braking performance, we decided to move to power brakes. For this Speedway offers a kit (PN 910-31978, $240). The kit included a 1-inch bore Corvette-style master, 9-inch Slimline brake booster, proportioning valve, firewall bracket, pedal rod extension, and clevis.
18. The brake fluid hard lines were the only parts we had to source from our local parts house. We then filled the system with fluid and bled both the front and rear brakes. Total cost, including the new brake lines and suspension parts, was under $840 and after trying out the new brakes it was money well spent.