As you can imagine, cars had very simple brakes when they made their debut in the early 1800s. For them to work, the driver pulled a lever that pushed a leather pad against a wheel.
Have you seen old Western movies or TV shows in which the stagecoach driver pulls a lever back and yells “Whoa”? Yea, that’s how car brakes were like back then.
The problem was that automobiles were getting faster and heavier, and while it might have worked well for horse-drawn carriages, a mere lever just could no longer get the job done safely.
The First Brakes
R.E. Olds is attributed with the first major advancement in braking systems. His innovative system consisted of a flexible, stainless-steel band wrapped around a drum on the rear axle. The band would contract and grip the drum when the brake pedal was applied.
While Old’s external brakes worked pretty well, cars still tended to roll backwards when parked on hills. Moreover, the fact that external brakes had no protection from dirt meant that the bands and drums wore out quickly (A brake job every 200 to 300 miles was considered normal). A better design was clearly needed.
Drum brakes addressed the problems of Old’s external brakes system and couldn’t come soon enough. Firstly, the shoes stayed against the drums so long as they were under pressure, keeping the car from rolling. Second, since the brake parts were inside the drums, they were protected from the elements and drivers could go over 1,000 miles between overhauls.
Soon, most cars on the world’s roads had drum brakes.
In 1918, Malcolm Lockheed employed hydraulics in an innovative new braking system, using cylinders and tubes to transmit fluid pressure against brake shoes. This design worked far better than the mechanical brakes that cars used at the time.
Released in 1921, the Model A Duesenberg was the first passenger car to be equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes. It was followed in1923 by cars made by Chalmers, the company Walter Chrysler was working for at the time before leaving it in 1924 to establish Chrysler Motors.
Disc brakes appeared in Great Britain during the 1950s. They setup consisted of a disc that spun with the wheel and had opposing brake pads that clamped together to slow down the car.
You can picture the mechanism working roughly like how bicycle brakes work: when you squeeze the brake handle on a bicycle, rubber pads are pushed against the spinning metal rim.
Disc brakes worked so well that they more or less became standard on European cars during the 1950s. American manufacturers didn’t catch up for almost 20 years.
As cars started to get bigger and faster, it became more difficult to stop them with the power of a foot press. Particularly for those without strong legs, there was a need for an “assisted” brake system that was easy to use.
The first company to make such a system was Pierce-Arrow. After several years of research, in 1928 Pierce-Arrow offered a vacuum-operated power booster similar to those we have today. It used vacuum from the inlet manifold to reduce the physical effort needed to when one “stepped on the brakes.”
Thanks to Kims Toyota of Laurel, a Toyota dealer in Laurel, MS, for their assistance in the dates and facts in this article.