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July 22, 2011

Failure Breeds Failure

by drivingfarce

It happened again. I left my driveway and started down the ¾ mile long gradual hill that leads down my road to the highway. (I use those terms loosely, since I allow others to use my road and the highway is just two lanes’ worth of crumbled concrete.) For whatever reason, I’ve gotten into the habit of giving my brakes a gentle squeeze test when I reach the slight flat before the final downhill grade that ends with a stop sign and heavy traffic. I feel better knowing that my brakes are slightly warm before asking them to pull hard duty. Either that or I’m just super paranoid about losing my life. I’m glad I became addicted to this behavior, since I had the wonder of complete brake failure during this test.

The first time this happened was in my BMW. When my foot went to the floor I was going slow enough that I could easily slow the car with the handbrake. (I always baby my vehicles when they are cold. I’m a softie.) The crisis was averted, and I could return home unscathed to switch into a “safer” vehicle: the Rabbi (1981 VW Rabbit Turbo-diesel). While many will argue that they’d rather die in a BMW than drive a Rabbit, I was in a bind and, frankly, I have low standards. The Rabbi has been a faithful (if not trying) partner over the years, and it responded to the call of duty and got me to my dinner date that evening.

Upon further inspection of the BMW’s braking system, I discovered that a steel “hard line” had corroded over the years to the point where the metal was thin enough to blow out under the hydraulic pressure it was supposed to be passing along to the read calipers. This was a bit confusing to me. The car is a Southern car, nearly completely free from the rust and rot that plagues the rolling masses north of the Mason-Dixon. Somehow this particular steel line had its protective coating worn through, peppered with stones and road grit in 175,000 miles of travels, which allowed normally innocent rain to start the corrosion process. I began to question the engineers from Munich. How can such a crucially important system be compromised to the point of failure when the rest of the chassis surrounding it is so sound, even after nearly 25 years of life? Would it have killed them to use stainless steel, since it nearly killed me that they hadn’t? I’m sure there is a very sound reason that stainless was not chosen, but I’d still like to hear it.

Imagine my surprise last week, when I headed down the road and had Nigel’s brake pedal drop to the floor during the same test. “Huh. This again?” I pulled the parking brake with a hefty tug (it actuates on all four wheels on a Rover) and got the beast to roll to a stop. I managed to limp back home and immediately search for a cause. This cause turned out to be the very same one as on the BMW: the hard line had blown through where it makes the bend from firewall to floorboard. I was not surprised that it had rusted at this point, based partially on my prior experience with the BMW, but mainly on the fact that everything else had rusted through from this point-back on the truck. Why the good people of Solihull would build a vehicle with aluminum body panels everywhere but the floor and roof, I’ll never know. I’m sure there is a very sound reason that aluminum was not chosen, but I’d still like to hear it.

While it bothers me a bit that I’ve had two brake system failures within the same year, I’ve come to expect small failures on older cars. (Although I always thought failures like these were for pieces of old junk like Dodge Aries. Or a TC by Maserati.) These particular jobs only require some time and the right tools, and the materials are very, very inexpensive. Besides, it gave me an excuse to finally purchase that Motive Brake Bleeder that I’ve always had a slight tool-crush on.

No, what bothers me is the fact that every time I step on the brake of any car I drive I have that slight hesitation of distrust. Small, important questions bounce around my head. Are the brakes actually going to stop the car? Will the steering wheel actually move the wheels in the direction I’m requesting? Is the seat belt going to keep me safe? (Or is the airbag going to blow up in my face while I’m at the ATM, as one did to my brother?) Is the car going to do the job that I trust it to do?

Having my brake pedal go down to the floor isn’t a very inspiring sensation. Granted, it could be argued that it inspires new commitments to loved ones and changes toward a cleaner lifestyle (as well as language that borders on vibrant), but it does not give me much confidence. An expected response has produced the unexpected and unwelcomed. It creates a sense of panic as danger approaches and quick thinking must be employed to avoid disaster. The entrenched relationship of trust between mind and road has become uprooted. It can be a long road to regain that faith.

Thankfully, I trust my BMW’s brakes again. Freshly bled & given a thorough undercarriage inspection just last week, I feel confident that they will function when asked to. The pads look great and the discs are in good shape. The master cylinder was replaced within the past year, and all indications are that the system is sound. The pedal feels progressive and firm in its response and my confidence has grown. The questions of doubt about my own car that once lingered in the back of my mind seem to have faded. I finally trust again. Yet, with every passing car,there is a new question whispered in my ear by some unseen passenger. I wonder how their brakes are?

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