Allen Schwartz makes another stop along his “Long and Whining Road” as he tackles his first brake job…
You may recall my post from last spring when I lamented the fact that I was raised in NYC by a father who was mechanically challenged. I grew up in a tool-less world, no garage, no parts lying around to fiddle with, no one fixing anything, showing me how to use a wrench or telling me what a Philips was. The result was a lifelong challenge as to all things mechanical; when something needed to be fixed, I “paid other men to do that.” It’s not that I didn’t want to do these things (like hang wallpaper, build a table, or change my oil), or that I was unable to when given the chance and a bit of guidance. It was simply that I never developed the skills or confidence to do them. I was envious of guys who could. I always longed to get my hands really dirty.
When I joined our club, I met several men who were the exact opposite of me. (Note to feminists: there are no doubt many mechanically gifted women in the club too; I just haven’t met them yet!) These are men who know how to take things apart and put them back together again without losing anything, or bleeding! They don’t worry when something breaks, or doesn’t work right away, or even fit together. They keep at it, figure out work-arounds, and simply assume they can do it. They are imaginative and confident, and usually succeed. And…they have tools. Lots and lots of tools.
So I was signed up for a DE day at Limerock this past August, and the mechanic who does my tech checks said I was going to need new front brake pads and rotors in order for him to pass me. I mentioned this to two friends in the club, John Pellerin and Matt Rutten, asking them where they go to get a good, inexpensive brake job. To my utter amazement, they both chimed in, “Al, we’ll do it for you. You won’t believe how easy it is! It’ll take an hour!”
I was incredulous and unsure if I should accept the offer. I’m conditioned to pay for work! My lovely wife was skeptical. “Wait, let me get this – you’re going to fix your own brakes, and then expect me to get in the car with you? Yeah, that’ll happen!” But both guys insisted that they actually enjoyed doing brake jobs, and that it would be fun showing me how! Imagine that. Now you see why I don’t do these jobs myself: I would never describe working under a car as fun. Repairs make me nervous. But what did I know? So I accepted with gratitude. I would finally learn the secrets of my Boxster’s front end, and just maybe I’d get my hands really dirty.
John told me the parts to buy. I needed obvious things like German-made brake pads and rotors to fit my exact model Porsche. But I also needed to get weirder things like “rotor retaining screws,” “caliper bolts,” “caliper spring clips,” “spring retaining rods,” and my favorite, “cotter pins for the spring retaining rods.” Whoa! I was actually going to find out what these parts did! During the week, I visited German Auto Parts (GAP). A small bag with tiny screws, springs, rods, clips, and pins cost $78!, but John and Matt reassured me that I probably would not need this bag because some of my existing parts could be reused. This alarmed me. I don’t reuse dental floss, but I’m going to reuse parts that brake my car from 100 mph? Okay fine. The guy at GAP said if I didn’t open the bag, I could return it; so I bought it. But reusing brake parts would take some convincing.
I drove my car up to John’s house in Saratoga on a bright Saturday morning, parts in tow. (Unfortunately, Matt could not make it, but he loaned us a T-55 Torx bit and brake pad spreader which are indispensable for this job.) I took my jacket off and said hello to John’s wife Fran in the kitchen. By the time I got back to the garage, John had already jacked up the left wheel, placed a stand under the frame, and was removing the tire and rim. “Wait,” I said. “I want to see how you did that!” So John patiently lowered the car and showed me what he had done in those five minutes. Given those same five minutes on my own, I would have made two mistakes, cut my finger, and needed to go into the house for a bandage. But John has been working on cars since his mid-teens, and over the years has done all kinds of repairs and modification projects. He was impressively fast and confident. It was soon clear that my role was going to be keeping track of what we were doing, handing John parts and tools, and holding the flashlight. I did this very well. That was fine with me, because soon John was on his back under the front end, looking up at things and poking around. Now, I can definitely lie down on my back under a car. It’s just that lately, getting up is the problem. So I resigned myself to watching, learning, and trying to be helpful.
With the wheel removed, John exposed the brake rotor (or disk) and caliper, revealing how the caliper is secured to the wheel carrier (the thing that the wheel sits on). The rotor is held on with two little retaining screws (Note: tiny replacements are found in my $78 GAP goodie bag). “They don’t really do anything,” John said of these screws. “The wheel and wheel bolts actually hold the rotor, but these screws just keep it in place while you put the wheel back on.”
It was time to remove the rotor retaining screws. The first screw came off the rotor easily. But the second screw resisted. John twisted the screw driver harder, and then suddenly the screw driver broke free; the Philips head had been stripped! “I stripped the screw head! Whoever put this on never applied anti-seize! But no problem, we’ll just extract it.” John looked through his hundreds of tools, neatly arranged in his five-foot-high tool chest. But no extractor!
Off to Home Depot for our first trip (can you see where this is headed?). I offered to buy the extractor, but no, John said he needed one, so he paid for it. We were home in 20 minutes. The extractor did not work. After some thought, John grabbed his Dremel tool and cut a slot in the screw head, converting the stripped Philips head into a conventional slotted screw head. Brilliant solution! A large screwdriver and penetrating oil ultimately took care of that second screw.
However, before removing the rotor, we had to move the caliper brake assembly off the rotor and swing it out of the way, because you can’t slide the rotor off while the brake pads are holding it. John used a large wrench (the one we got from Matt) to un-torque the caliper bolts that hold the brake assembly to the wheel carrier. These are 3½ inch long heavy black bolts that seemed just right for my brakes – heavy, dark, and strong! And these bolts, we were told, are never to be re-used, which seemed smart. They only torque properly once. I had bought four of these bolts for $3 a piece as replacements (the Porsche dealer wanted $7.50). John removed the bolts and handed them to me, reminding me to keep them separate from the new bolts, which looked identical. Having freed up the caliper brake, John slipped it off the rotor, and artfully hung it from a twisted wire shirt hanger off to the side (yes, a wire hanger, like duct tape, can do so much!).
One last maneuver was necessary. A flexible brake line for the left front caliper runs down to the wheel (this hydraulic tube activates the brake pistons when you want to stop, thereby squeezing the pads hard on the rotor). That brake line is held in place by a bracket that screws into the wheel carrier, to keep the line from getting twisted, crimped, or otherwise interfering with the nearby wheel spinning at high revolutions. John carefully loosened the screw that holds the brake line bracket in place, and moved the brake line out of the way.
Before getting to work on the brake, with the caliper off of the rotor and out of the way, we put on the shiny new rotor on and attached it with two new rotor retaining screws, given that the original ones were well mangled in their removal. Now, we could finally put our effort on the caliper itself – the guts of this job!
I’d heard about caliper brakes, seen them through the rim, but never naked and out in the open like this! It was like watching an operation once the surgeon has moved the intestines away, revealing a liver for the first time! The worn pads and other parts of the disk brake were easy to see. The pads were the size of small kitchen sponges and had sensors on wires that detect when they were worn out. A very clever mechanism, part mechanical and part electronic, but easy to understand. In order to take out the worn pads, you have to remove all those little parts that come in my $78 bag – a cotter pin, then the rod it holds in place that presses down on the “pad springs” that hold the pads in, then the wear sensor, and finally the worn pads. When all these little parts were removed, the pads slid out easily. I could not believe it was actually happening just like it was supposed too!
Things were going quickly now. John showed me that those old little rods, springs, and pins were fine to reuse, and he cleaned them to the point where they looked exactly like the new ones in the bag. That was $78 back in my pocket! He quickly slid the new pads in place, inserted the sensors, put back the spring assembly, retaining rod, and cotter pin. He swung the caliper assembly into place on the new rotor, with the brand new brake pads straddling it. He then took two of the new black caliper bolts and torqued them into place at precisely the recommended pounds of tension to secure the caliper assembly. He was about to put the wheel back on when suddenly, he took a deep breath and muttered a mild expletive. To our dismay, he had forgotten to put the brake line back in place and reattach the bracket screw! He tried to do that without removing the caliper assembly, which was blocking his hands and his vision, but in the end he had to remove the caliper we had just installed, meaning that those new caliper bolts, the ones we were never supposed to ever re-torque, would have to be purchased and reinstalled again. (By the way, no one else thought that was really necessary, since the bolts were never driven on, but John would not let me drive at Limerock with caliper bolts that had been torqued twice!)
Are you following me so far, because I’m beginning to impress myself! It turns out you can understand how a car works when the curtain is pulled away and what you’re seeing is explained to you by someone who knows what he’s doing. And I was doing a spectacular job of holding the flashlight.
So the caliper was removed a second time and John found the hanging brake line with the bracket and tried to screw it into the wheel carrier. It was at a very awkward angle, and the screw kept dropping to the floor. Finally, John seemed to get it aligned with the screw hole and it began to go in. He turned it and turned it and then suddenly…oh no!…the screw head twisted off. Broke right off! Unfortunately, that screw had gone in at a slightly bad angle, so that it cross-threaded and as John pressured it, the head twisted right off. More gentlemanly expletives followed.
John was annoyed with himself. He had done this job 20 times and wanted to show me how easy it was. Never had things quite like this happened on his 911 brake jobs. Instead he seemed to be confirming that even experienced engineers have problems fixing things. At this point I would have given up, towed the car to the dealer, and let him fix it for $600. But John was totally unfazed — just pissed off. The problems we encountered were mostly because whoever had done my last brake job hadn’t used the right fluids to lock screws in place in a way that allows them to be removed when the time comes. You see, in order to do mechanical work on cars correctly, aside from tools you need fluids! John had six different spray cans that allowed him to lubricate parts, clean parts, release screws, hold them in place when you tightened them, and so forth. Blue sprays, red sprays, clear sprays, even sprays (I showed him) that were banned for sale in the United States because they cause infertility in mice. But those were European mice. I digress. So it turns out to work on a car you need dozens of tools, liquids, nuts, bolts, screws, lights, stands, sleds, lifts, vise grips, rags and so many other things. Too late for me.
John tried in vain to extract the headless screw shaft that was left in the thread hole (yes, using the very same extractor from our first Home Depot trip!), but nothing gripped. So, off to Home Depot for the second time where he would now buy a “tap and die,” a tool that allows you to create a screw thread precisely the diameter you need, or in this case ream out the existing screw thread and make it usable again. (Honestly, have you ever made just one trip to Home Depot to finish any job?) John really knows what he’s doing, having done this type of tool work in physics labs during his training as a material science engineer. By the time he consulted with the tool guy at Home Depot, found the right tap and die set, and we returned home, we were three hours into the job and still on the first wheel. John was falling short on his one hour time estimate, but I felt quite the opposite. I got the chance to see a skilled mechanic deal with adversity. Despite my anxiety, he was always certain he could fix it. He kept going, step by step, and in the end he succeeded. That’s a very good life lesson.
The rest of the repair is easy to describe. It went perfectly. John created a new thread for the bracket retaining screw with the tap and die, secured the brake line bracket, re-installed the caliper assembly (properly lubricated for the next guy doing the job, probably not me!), and put the wheel and tire back on. He torqued the lug nuts to the proper tension. Twice! Left side done!
The identical job – replacing the right front brakes and rotors — took 30 minutes, just as he had expected it would. Not a single snag. John is not a man who makes the same mistakes twice. We were done with the whole job in four hours — three for the left side, one for the right side. Then John took me out for a ride and showed me how to “bed” the pads by braking hard from increasingly higher speeds. Later on in the week, at John’s insistence, I brought him two new caliper bolts and he replaced the ones on the left side that he had torqued twice. He could now breathe easy. If I killed myself at Limerock, it wouldn’t be because of his front brake job!
I’ve been driving on those front pads and rotors for five months now, on the track, at Autocross, and in my normal driving. They perform perfectly. Every so often, I am awestruck by the fact that we did this ourselves (“we” may be somewhat generous, but I was there!). If I could roll back the clock, I’d have liked to tear down an engine in my life, and see how all those pieces fit together. Or a transmission or a clutch. It’s all fascinating to a guy like me from the Bronx, that you can actually trust your own work if you do things right.
I want to thank John (and Matt) again for taking the time to demystify my Porsche by showing me how these things are done. As a fitting coda to the story, I took my car back to my mechanic to get that tech check before Limerock, and he asked me who had done my brakes? I told him that a couple of guys from the club showed me how to do it. Rather than seem impressed, he just shrugged. “Yeah, It’s pretty easy, isn’t it?”
If you’re not from the Bronx, it is.