The History of Vehicle Brakes

Brakes may not be the sexiest part of a car to talk about, but they certainly grab attention if they fail at doing their job. The importance of good working brakes in a vehicle is paramount. As such, we’re spending a few minutes and taking a look at the history of brakes.

Spoon Brakes

Early passenger vehicles, such as steam cars or carriages, were challenging to operate. And, they were just as difficult to stop. One of the first braking systems used in the first passenger vehicles was the humble spoon brake.

Invented over two hundred years ago, spoon brakes initially consisted of a lever with a wooden block attached to the end of it. When the vehicle’s operator, usually a carriage driver, wanted to stop, they would shift the lever, pushing the wooden block against the moving wheel, and hold it in place. This would effectively slow the carriage down until it stopped.

This method worked well in steam-powered vehicles but became obsolete when the Michelin brothers started manufacturing rubber tires to replace steel-rimmed wheels.

The seemingly unsophisticated yet effective spoon brake is still in use today, just not in cars or powered vehicles. Spoon brakes are used on most bicycles. Interestingly enough, older passenger vehicles with non-pneumatic wheels, such as San Francisco’s famous trolleys, also use brakes with some classic spoon brake configuration.

Drum Brakes

With the advent of rubber tires, braking systems needed an adjustment. In 1902, Frenchman Louis Renault was widely credited with developing drum brakes, which are still in use in other applications today. 

A few years earlier, Gottlieb Daimler had developed a crude version of drum brakes, using a cable wrapped around a drum anchored to the vehicle’s chassis. Forward motion tightened the cable, making it easier for the driver to pull the lever to assist wooden block brakes. 

Drum brakes offered several advantages, including keeping water and dust out via internal shoes, and more importantly, requiring less pressure to be applied by the driver on the brakes.

Hydraulic Brakes

Hydraulic power represents the next advancement in braking systems. Invented by Malcolm Loughead in 1918, hydraulic brakes replaced mechanical systems in use at the time. This new system made braking much easier as it was able to multiply the force applied to a brake while simultaneously lowering the amount of pressure required on the brake pedal.

First used in Duesenbergs, the four-wheel hydraulic braking system was standard on most higher-priced cars by 1929. Eventually, this system made its way to lower-priced vehicles.

Disc Brakes

Although technically patented in 1902, disc brakes did not become common in automobiles until the 1950s, when vehicles became heavier and faster and different types of car engines were invented. As the weight and speed of the average vehicle started increasing, so too did the demand on the vehicle’s braking system. The increased demand for stopping power revealed that drum brakes tend to distribute heat inefficiently. A solution for this problem was found with the use of disc brakes.

Using a flat metal rotor that spins with the wheel and caliper, Disc brakes squeeze the brake pads against the disc to slow the vehicle. However, the original disc brake design required more effort on the part of the driver than drum brakes. Therefore, they were slow to catch on. 

That is, until 1964, when the now-defunct automaker Studebaker reintroduced disk brakes in conjunction with power braking systems, making disc brakes much easier to use. Power braking assisted the movement of the piston in the master cylinder, allowing drivers to apply less peddle pressure to get the same braking effectiveness.

Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS)

Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS) were first introduced to passenger vehicles in 1978, with the W116 Mercedes-Benz S-Class being the first vehicle equipped with ABS. ABS significantly improved the braking performance of vehicles by helping to prevent wheel locks that can occur with sudden braking.

With anti-lock braking, the vehicle’s wheel speed is monitored by a sensor. If wheel lock is detected, the sensor sends a signal that initiates automatic intermittent braking, similar to the tactic of “pumping the brakes.” The ABS mechanism enables the application and release of the brake up to 20 times per second.

The Future of Brakes

As vehicle technology continues to evolve, so too will braking technology. Modern braking systems are becoming more intelligent and more responsive with new adaptations to increase driving safety. Examples include electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and brake assist, which are found in many vehicles today. 

However, what we can expect to remain the same is regular care for our vehicle’s braking systems which will help a car last a lifetime. Brakes keep us safe when driving and help prevent serious accidents from occurring. 

Brake Safety At Howie’s Car Corral

If it’s time to get your vehicle’s brakes serviced, and you’re in the Greater Victoria Area, stop in at Howie’s Car Corral. We have an outstanding service department that will be more than happy to help out.