The last few issues of Super Chevy have followed the build and performance of this Yellow '70 Nova owned by Jim Ries of Classic Performance Parts (CPP). His Nova received new underpinnings from TCI, and part of those underpinnings included a new set of Wilwood brakes. We then tested the Nova in Fontana at the California Speedway.
When it came to the braking aspect of the tests, this little Nova stopped the shortest distance of all the cars we've previously tested. That got us to thinking about brakes and brake systems. Does this Nova have some secret weapon that the rest of us are unaware of? Not likely. The truth is there are several different answers to this question, from the master cylinder, to power assist hydroboost, to fluid, to calipers, to rotors, to tires, to vehicle weight, and even to wheel size.
In a quest to dissect the Nova's braking system and check on its performance, it became necessary to go back to Braking 101 and explore the anatomy of the more common brake systems in use today by most Bow Tie enthusiasts. Brake systems convert kinetic energy or the vehicle's movement into thermal energy or heat. Thermal energy is a direct result of the friction from pad to rotor. The more thermal energy created and dissipated from the braking system, the faster the vehicle slows down.
More on this later--first, let's take a look at the particular hardware installed on this '70 Nova and then dive deeper into brake systems and their technology.
Now that we know what's in the Nova, we can breathe easy for a few minutes and look at the history of braking and all the individual components that make up a vehicle's brake system. Since the first production vehicles in the 1800s, automobiles have always had the need for brakes. Horsepower alone means nothing if one can't stop the horses. Even the earliest vehicles employed one type of braking system or another, and these were all mechanical brakes. It wasn't until 1918 that hydraulic brakes were introduced to the automotive buyer. Those first hydraulic or "juice brakes" were available on the 1918 Duesenberg. After 1918, most of the higher-end production vehicles were equipped with hydraulic braking systems. In the 1930s, juice brakes became commonplace on lower-priced production vehicles, though Ford stuck with mechanical brakes long after others because Henry was afraid of hydraulic systems. Nearly all vehicles at the time were using drums for their braking systems.
It wasn't until the 1950s, when Chrysler introduced disc brakes to its production vehicles, that disc brakes became an option. Interestingly enough, in the early 1960s Studebaker perfected the use of power-boosted disc brakes, and from there it caught on until nearly every automaker offered them as standard or optional equipment. The Corvette broke new ground for an American car company in 1965 when four-wheel-disc brakes became standard equipment (manual, with power assist optional).
With the modern technology available, the average musclecar enthusiast can easily build a streetable 600 (or more) horsepower engine. Just as engine-building technology has progressed, so has brake technology. While the initial designs and theories have remained mostly the same, the materials and their applications have catapulted forward as well. The purpose of this article is to focus mainly on disc brakes from GM OEM styles to performance upgrades such as we see on this Nova. Due to the amount of information we have thus far collected, we will have to break the story in half for lack of space.