I gotta choose my words carefully here, but the numbers don't lie, which means I'm in for a rough ride. Simply put, four out of five hot rods have crappy brakes. (If you feel like flaming me, my email address is email@example.com. Subject line: I Brake For Nothing.) By crappy, I mean the typical classic car stops only half as well as a Ford F-350 headed to the scrap yard with a load of smashed Toyotas.
Next time you're at a car show walking the aisles admiring beautiful paint and polished blowers, take a peek between the wheel spokes and keep a running tally of stock brakes versus upgraded brakes. Even when you set the bar really low and count junkyard swaps that use secondhand OE parts with a questionable history, the numbers are underwhelming. At a typical car show (one that doesn't have an autocross to skew the results), the take rate is around 15 percent, maybe 20 on a good day.
Nevertheless, I believe the PHR reader is smarter than your average bear. You've already got religion and believe that a car that stops will keep its driver safe and its sheetmetal straight for many years to come. So if we say PHR readers are twice as smart as the general hot rodding population, then the muscle cars of two out of every five readers—or 40 percent—have the stopping power equal to or better than a modern Toyota Prius. Trust me, it pains me just as much to say this as it does for you to read it and own it.
Look at it this way: much of the stuff in the aftermarket is driven by sensory appeal. Big motors, eye-popping paint, and crazy wheels are the big players in the visual area. Other parts, like camshafts, geardrives, turbos, blowers, stereos, and mufflers are the auditory candy. That's the sight and sound part of it. But connected to the auditory system—as part of the inner ear—is another sensory system called the vestibular system. This is where your sense of balance and motion comes from, and it is where g-forces are perceived. Whether you're launching at Englishtown with a set of gooey Mickey Thompson slicks, cornering hard on Road Atlanta's Turn 1, or tagging the brakes in a panic to avoid hitting the semitruck stopped on the interstate, it's your vestibular system that is giving you that sensation. It is your brain, however, that interprets whether that rush of adrenalin is the result of elation and joy, or fear and danger.
Here's the thing I can't understand—and maybe somebody can enlighten me. Why is it that virtually every hot rodder on the planet has, or wants, an engine that will launch him like an F-18 off the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan, but only one in five think the opposite sensation of stopping quickly is worth a tenth the money of said nice engine? The rush is the same to your vestibular system, and as far as aftermarket parts go, brakes are some of the sexiest-looking pieces on a car. It's not like brakes are hidden from sight like a fuel tank or a transmission. Most of these are eye-popping tools with pizzazz, and long after your wheels are a high-speed blur on the highway, nice brakes still look nice.
I think most people want to have good brakes on their classics because their daily drivers have good stoppers, but they toss in the towel for some reason. Just look at the companies that make fake disc brake covers for all those widow-maker drum brakes. These wouldn't even be on the market if people didn't at least aspire to have nice binders. Imagine being this 40-watt guy: He's looking through the JC Whitney catalog and comes to the page with the fake-out chrome wannabe-disc-brake covers. Hmm. My drum brakes look like junk, and these'll look tight inside my chrome-plated Chinese IROC wheels. But maybe I should just upgrade the brakes. Nah. Oh snap, Judge Judy is on …
If your parts purchasing is determined by how much of a difference it will make in the performance and appearance of your hot rod versus how much it costs, then good brakes should be at the top of your list on every project—it is for us. Maybe we just haven't done a good enough job of spreading the news and explaining the benefits. I'm certainly guilty of idolizing the power of an engine and the beauty of great paint. To right that inequality, we present to you the July '14 issue, which contains "Pick Perfect Brakes!," our take on the best brake systems for muscle cars in various roles, and a pair of brake stories—one on Wilwood's bitchin SL6 disc brake conversion for Mustangs, and one covering Baer's SS4 rear disc conversion. Finally, we've got a tire guide with the 21 stickiest DOT-legal tires for muscle cars. As you know, getting the most out of your brakes is a function of how much grip your tires produce, which makes them an integral part of any braking operation.
That said, I probably stand a better chance of getting my kid to take out the garbage than convincing some folks that good brakes are fun, relatively inexpensive, attractive, and a great way to stay alive. If you still don't get it, maybe you should have a talk with your vestibular system to find out why stopping seems like such a bad idea. Ask it why it loves the sensation of matting the gas to the floor, but fears the same sensation of laying into the brakes. I just want to know why anybody would want to leave half their fun chips on the table.