Street Stoppers

Improve the looks and performance of your street-driven F-body with a Tri-Power Force 10 brake kit from Stainless Steel Brakes Corporation

John Hunkins Jan 5, 2005 0 Comment(s)

When the fourth-generation Camaro and Firebird were introduced in 1993, it was heralded as the best F-body yet. With 27 hp on tap, a 6-speed manual transmission, fighter-jet styling, razor-sharp rack and pinion steering, true double A-arm suspension up front and standard 16-inch alloy wheels wrapped with Goodyear's best Gatorbacks, you could really haul the mail. It didn't cost a lot either, with the base price for an LT1-equipped Z28 or Firebird Formula going out the door for well under $18K in the early years.

But there was trouble in paradise. V8-powered F-bodies had marginal 10.9-inch diameter rotors up front, and they were clamped by over-worked single-piston calipers made of cast iron. It wasn't until the LS1-powered cars were introduced in 1998 that GM wised up and increased the front brake rotor diameter to 12 inches. On those earlier LT1 cars, however, you could find yourself in trouble really quick if you had to slow down in a hurry from a buck twenty!

Triple-digit speeds are certainly nothing new to our 1994 Camaro Z28 test car. We've made numerous trips to the track over the years and always lamented at how poorly it stopped. The gripping power of the brakes (or lack thereof) was only overshadowed by the nonexistent grip of the rock-hard no-name tires we were using. We quickly solved that problem with a change over to Nitto NT555 RII Road Race Extreme tires (275/40ZR17). Our stopping distance from 60 mph plunged from 144 feet to just 111 feet with nothing more than a rim/tire change! We've gotta give those Nitto R-compounds some serious praise here, because the best brakes in the world won't work without great tires to grab the pavement.

The down side to our newfound stopping prowess was that we could only do it once before the fade set in. The second, third and fourth tries resulted in successively longer stopping distances, boiling the brake fluid and making some really funky clouds of brake smoke which wafted from the stock calipers. Not good.

Meanwhile, we had been watching the folks from Stainless Steel Brakes Corporation with interest. They had just released their new line of Tri-Power Force 10 calipers for the C5 Corvette, and we knew from experience that C5 brake parts adapted very well to fourth-gen F-bodies. Sure enough, a few months later, we got a press release from SSBC introducing their Tri-Power kit for F-bodies.In fourth-gen F-body trim, the Tri-Power system (part No. A123-15, $1,995) lays the smack down on the stock brakes big time. Large 12.75-inch diameter vented rotors offer enough leverage and surface area to slow these heavy cars down without breaking a sweat. Braided stainless steel brake lines also reduce sponginess in the pedal because they don't expand under pressure like the stock rubber hoses. New spindles make the installation easier with no pieces needing to be cut with a Sawzall like other kits on the market.

But the best part of the system is the new three-piston Tri-Power caliper. Three pistons do a much better job than one piston for one simple reason: clamping force is evenly distributed across the pad surface, and that makes a given pad area more effective. The caliper itself is made of aircraft-quality billet aluminum for weight reduction and strength, but each of the three 38mm pistons is made of corrosion-resistant stainless steel. This minimizes heat transfer from the pad to the fluid resulting in zero brake fade. And since this is a system designed for street cars, the Tri-Power caliper incorporates dust seals to keep trash out of the clean bits. Coupled to the larger 12.75-inch vented rotor, this beefy three-piston floating caliper makes short work out of stopping and looks good while doing it. Speaking of looking good, for a small additional cost, SSBC can powdercoat your Tri-Power calipers red, black or yellow.

Rounding out the kit are some trick steel mounting brackets. These solid pieces are the bridge from the Tri-Power caliper to the new spindle. Bolts, washers, banjo fittings, brake lines, calipers, rotors, spindles, brackets, pads--it's all there. Just supply the tools and some high-quality brake fluid. (We suggest Ford DOT 3 fluid, which is one of the few that still comes sealed in a steel can.)

We performed the Tri-Power installation in the Primedia Tech Center with technician Jason Scudellari turning the wrenches. (Yes, those are his flamboyant tattoos in the photos!) Even with the occasional snafu, the entire swap was over in less than five hours.

We also took the liberty of weighing the stock pieces against the new SSBC pieces. To make things fair, we weighed the stock caliper, pads, rotor and spindle against the Tri-Power's caliper, pads, rotor, spindle and mounting bracket. Leaving out the ABS sensor (which is reused), we found the Tri-Power kit to weigh 47 pounds (one side only) versus the stock brake's 46.5 lbs. While SSBC claims the Tri-Power brakes are lighter than stock, we interpret this to mean the caliper only, which is correct. We also want to note that stopping ability is also a function of the brakes' ability to absorb heat--and more mass in the right place makes that easier. From an engineering standpoint, the weight savings of the Tri-Power caliper is offset by the extra beefcake in the rotor, which is a smart trade-off. Remember, the stock rotor is only 10.9 inches and the stock caliper is a cast-iron single-piston boat anchor! We don't mind the Tri-Power's extra pound of unsprung weight because it's in an area that really pays off.

After the initial pad break-in period, we were pleased with the Tri-Power's stopping ability in regular driving. Even panic stops provided excellent performance. However, we noticed that under extremely hard braking we weren't able to invoke the ABS at all and braking distance was noticeably longer. At first suspecting the coating on the rotors and the green pads, we waited a month until these could be ruled out as suspects. Our master cylinder was also cleared of any wrongdoing because pedal travel was the same as before and the pedal never bottomed out (an indication of a worn master cylinder or one which has too little volume).

Finally, it dawned on us that we had in the intervening period installed our Edelbrock Performer LT1 heads and cam. (See "The Equalizer," December 2004.) Our engine vacuum had taken a nosedive from 18 inches to 11 inches, and that isn't enough to get the job done on any kind of vacuum-assisted brake system! The solution is for us to install a milder cam, such as the ACCEL 74211, or to use SSBC's vacuum pump kit (part No. 28146, $265). Due to the smog laws in California and our upcoming date with governor Schwarzenegger's dreaded dyno, we'll probably yank the cam to get back our engine vacuum.

We put in a call to SSBC's tech department and they verified our problem was indeed due to low engine vacuum. They also added that engine vacuum needs to be at least 18 inches for their Tri-Power system to work at its maximum potential. Problem solved.

This is a great lesson for those of you considering any kind of brake upgrade--especially on cars with bigger cams. Good brake performance relies on a strong vacuum signal. If you don't want to live with an auxiliary electrical vacuum pump, there is the other option of converting to a mechanical, non-boosted system. This requires a higher pedal ratio (the rod on the brake lever needs to be moved up toward the pivot) and a new mechanical master cylinder such as that made by Tilton. Another alternative is a hydro-boost system which uses pressure from the power steering pump to multiply brake pedal input. These are most commonly employed on turbocharged cars that see little or no vacuum on decel. For more info on that, check out No Limit Engineering at www.nolimit.net (888-297-6032). A hydro-boost system typically generates 20 percent more line pressure than an 8-inch vacuum booster and is unaffected by low vacuum conditions.

With more vacuum, we know the braking performance on our Tri-Power system would be earth-shaking. We found no fault whatsoever in the SSBC kit and have no problem making the Tri-Power a strong recommendation for those cars needing the ultimate in fourth-generation F-body brakes. We will have to wait, however, to fully realize that performance ourselves. As we go to press, we've also learned that SSBC plans on offering the Tri-Power kit for mid- and full-sized GM cars, trucks, and late-model Mustangs. Now everybody will be able to get in on the Tri-Power stopping action.

14

The Stainless Steel Brakes Corporation Tri-Power Force 10 system for fourth-generation F-bodies (part No. A123-15) is a big step up from the stock brakes. For $1,995, you get aluminum Tri-Power calipers, 12.75-inch vented rotors, mounting brackets, spindles, braided steel brake lines and a complete set of hardware to effect installation on your car.

The 12.75-inch Tri-Power rotor is on the left, the stock 10.9-inch F-body rotor is on the right. The SSBC rotor features slots (instead of cross-drilled holes) to whisk away pad media and out-gassing. The slots on the SSBC rotors are preferable to cross-drilling which inevitably leads to cracking under really hard usage.

The stock caliper on the left can't hold a candle to the Tri-Power caliper, which has larger pads (more surface area), three pistons (more even clamping load) and better stability under braking. The Tri-Power caliper features a billet aluminum housing with three 38mm stainless steel pistons and weather-proof seals. Anti-rattle clips hold the pads while keeping the mechanism quiet.

Each side of the SSBC Tri-Power system weighs 47 pounds, a scant 8 ounces over the weight of the stock parts. Given the superior performance, that's a trade-off we can live with.

For the installation, we brought our '94 Z28 to the Primedia Tech Center where technician Jason Scudellari spun the wrenches.

After we got the car up on the lift and pulled off the front tires, Jason started by cutting the cotter pin holding the nut for the upper ball joint.

You can get by without removing the swaybar, but we did anyway to make the job easier. To do this, use a 9/16-inch wrench and socket.

To take off the steering tie-rod, use an 18mm wrench. Note the split boot on the tie rod end which needs replacement!

Here's where things get tricky. You'll need a 15mm box wrench to loosen the upper ball joint. Take it slow as this baby's under pressure! You might need to rap the ball joint with a hammer to get it loose, just don't take the nut all the way off before you do as the spring pressure will launch everything downward.

Now let's turn our attention to the brake lines. Crack open the stock brake line from the chassis with a 12mm line (tubing) wrench. Have a rubber plug handy to keep all the brake fluid from dripping out while you're completing the installation.

Remove the lower ball joint nut with a 15/16-inch wrench and take the entire spindle/brake assembly off the car.

Considering that SSBC provides all new spindles, calipers, rotors and brackets, you might be wondering why we haven't thrown this into the dumpster by now. It's because we need to salvage the hub which incorporates the ABS sensor! You may not need to remove the caliper to do this, but it looked easier to do it this way. If you do, it takes a 3/8-inch Allen wrench.

Take off the rotor after you get the old caliper off, then tackle the four 1/2-inch bolts holding the ABS hub in place. Don't forget to save the L-shaped clip. This holds the ABS sensor harness away from spinning parts.

Transfer the ABS hub and the four bolts over to the new SSBC spindle. Now's a good time to check your bearings for slop. If you can feel clearance, then replace the ABS hub now (they are not rebuildable). They're only about $160.

As we moved to bolt the brackets to the spindles, we discovered that SSBC had provided hardened Allen fasteners that were too short, so we jumped in the truck and made a run to NAPA. You'll need four longer ones, and they need to be 12x40mm, 1.75 pitch.

The calipers come assembled with pads so all you need to do is bolt the Tri-Power calipers to the brackets using the Allen bolts provided. This takes a 10mm Allen wrench.

Remember those longer bolts we got? Now it's time to use 'em. Bolt the caliper assembly to the spindle using a 10mm Allen wrench. Snug all your bolts up good and get ready to rock and roll...

Take the entire spindle assembly and put it back on the car. Start with the castleated 15/16-inch lower ball joint nut. Did we mention, this is a good time to replace ball joints?

Do the top ball joint nut using a 15mm wrench. Don't forget to use new cotter pins to lock in both castleated nuts top and bottom.

Now get the swaybar end link back on the lower control arm using two 9/16-inch wrenches. If we were smarter, we'd have left this on to start with!

Use an 18mm wrench to reattach the steering tie rod end. Oops! We forgot to replace the split boot over that rod end. Better do that soon...

Take a breather before this operation, because if you screw this up, you'll be waiting a long time for a new banjo bolt or a copper crush washer! (They don't carry these at the NAPA store.) Use a 7/16-inch wrench to tighten the banjo bolt over the copper crush washer. As you turn it into the caliper, just remember that the bolt is hollow and can't take a ton of force like a regular bolt. Did we mention you only have one try to crush the washer? It's not reusable and will leak fluid if you do. When you're done, snap in the ABS sensor harness and stick it back into the spindle clip.

To attach the new braided line to the K-member, use an 11/16-inch box wrench on top and a 12mm tubing wrench on the bottom.

Bleed the brakes using an 8mm wrench. If you're not upgrading the rear brakes, start with the passenger side, then finish with the driver's side. We don't recommend speed bleeders; this isn't a speed contest! Take your time and run a lot of fresh fluid through the system. Have a friend pump the brake pedal slowly and refill the reservoir frequently. Then go out and have fun!

We love how the SSBC Tri-Power system really fills up our Bullet wheels. The calipers clear the face of the wheel with about 1/8 inch to spare. The Tri-Power system fits all 17-inch wheels no problem. If you've got a stock 16-inch wheel, these won't work. Besides, if you're upgrading your brakes, you'll want more rubber (like these Nitto Extremes) to use the extra braking force.

Stuff You'll Need

vehicle lift or jack and jackstands
cutting dykes
hammer
ball joint & tie rod cotter pins (6)
12x40mm, 1.75 pitch hardened Allen bolts (4)
9/16, 7/16 & 15/16-inch box wrenches
1/2 & 9/16-inch sockets
8mm, 15mm & 18mm box wrenches
12mm tubing wrench
3/8-inch Allen wrench
10mm Allen wrench
Fresh can of high-performance brake fluid

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