Most people who own classic automobiles will tell you that part of the charm of owning older vehicles is the constant tinkering they require in order to keep them serviceable. I am not one of those people. That being said, I did, with help from William Duncan at Carquest Auto Parts of Ashland, solve the overheating issue that’s been plaguing my 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air since I bought it. Who knew that something as simple as a radiator cap could make all the difference in the world in how an engine runs? Apparently, a lot of people.
A common phrase emblazoned upon the t-shirts of classic car aficionados who don’t mind getting their hands dirty is “Built, not Bought.” It is a badge of honor for such car owners to work on their own vehicles rather than pay someone else to do so. I will admit that on the few occasions when I have managed to successfully repair or replace broken parts on the many old jalopies I’ve owned, I have felt a great sense of satisfaction. That satisfied feeling, however, pales in comparison to the frustration, pain, and fits of uncontrollable rage I usually feel while working on my vehicles.
I’m not completely helpless under the hood of a car. I’ve replaced fuel pumps, thermostats, alternators, spark plugs, valve covers, gaskets, filters, headlights, belts, hoses, fuses, and more than a few batteries. I can change a tire, change the oil, and even swap out a fuel sending unit. But if you ask me to do anything more complicated than routine maintenance, I’ll gladly hold the flashlight and watch you do the work for me.
My ’57 Chevy needs some upgrades to make it safer and easier to drive. The Bel Air was born with manual drum brakes, including a single-reservoir master cylinder. This is problematic for several reasons. Drum brakes overheat and fade easily, diminishing stopping power. Without a power booster, they offer only limited braking ability even when operating perfectly. And if the system were to develop a single leak, all of the fluid could escape causing the brakes to fail completely. Problematic indeed.
The best way to prevent such a catastrophic failure would be to replace the entire system with modern-style disc brakes, a dual reservoir master cylinder with a power booster, separate brake lines for the front and back wheels, and a proportioning valve to balance the braking power from front to rear. Such kits are available online and include mounting brackets, bolts, brake pads, calipers, rotors, and everything else one would need to complete the job. If all of this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. If it sounds complicated and expensive, then you’re like me and are thinking, “How much am I going to have to pay someone else to do all that work for me?”
I have a good friend who has generously offered to help me upgrade my brakes, should I decide to do the work myself. Obviously, he is unfamiliar with my utter distain for hard work, my complete lack of patience, and my propensity to fly into fits of uncontrollable rage. (So much rage!) No, Jake, for the sake of our friendship, I must politely decline your offer.
It is my opinion that classic cars are works of art, just like classic paintings. A person skilled in their craft created those works for others to enjoy. And just because a person enjoys collecting beautiful works of art doesn’t mean that he is an artist himself. If an original Picasso needed restoration, would you want the art collector who owns the painting to do the work himself or should he hire a professional?
I’ll be hiring a professional to upgrade my brakes in the near future. April is National Car Care Month, so what better time is there to attend to such an important safety matter? I encourage you to keep your loved ones safe and make sure your car or truck is in good repair, too.
In the meantime, if you see an old Bel Air (with brakes that may have been assembled during the Eisenhower administration) barreling in your direction, you may want to yield the right-of-way.