Monday, November 5, 2012

Fancy Brakes?

Slotted and drilled rotors are sold as an "upgrade" to kids who want to tinker with their cars.  But my experience has been these really make little or no difference on a street car.  And real racing brakes are actually a downgrade for street usage.

Upgrades.   With a used car, the temptation is to "upgrade" the replacement part so "it will never break again!"   But usually this just means spending more money.  And yea, I have fallen into that trap in the past.   A part on your car breaks, usually because it is just old, and you decide to "fix it for good!" buy spending three times as much on replacement parts as necessary, and end up just wasting money.

For example, on many modern cars with aluminum radiators with plastic end caps, the radiator may end up disintegrating after 70,000 to 100,000 miles, particularly if the coolant wasn't regularly flushed.  So the car owner says, "Gee, these cheap plastic radiators don't last very long!  I'm going with a $300 all-aluminum job!"

But what the car owner fails to realize is that (a) the old brass radiators rotted out by 50,000 miles back in the day when "cars were really cars" and (b) at 100,000 miles, whatever radiator he puts in will likely be the last one the car sees.  Putting in a 300,000 mile radiator into a car that might go another 100,000 miles, tops, is kind of foolish.

With brakes, the temptation is to "upgrade" for "performance" reasons, although in most cases, these "upgrades" are mostly cosmetic.   Cross-drilled and slotted rotors are supposed to provide better cooling, control warpage, eliminate brake squeal, and whatever else the marketers have come up with this week.   But in reality, the whole point is to have fancy rotors that show through the wide-spoke wheels, so everyone will know that you are a "serious racer dude!".   The cold hard reality is that this is just cosmetics.

Many young dudes want to paint the brake calipers as well, usually in red, like the "BREMBO" brakes on a Ferrari.   However, spray-painting your brake calipers doesn't make them work better, and doesn't turn them into Ferrari brakes.   And by the way, "BREMBO" is just the name of a company that makes brakes - like any other.  There is no special panache about the brand - they appear on some very plebian cars, as well as high-end exotics.

One catalog company takes the paint out of painting your brake calipers by offering clip-on plastic covers.  Another offers powder-coated calipers.  Neither really does anything, in terms of longevity, performance, or, well, anything but cosmetic.

Stainless-steel brake lines are another "shiny shiny" upgrade that people think is a performance improvement.  But in most cases, it is just shiny cosmetic crap.  Some folks argue that the stainless steel sheathing prevents the brake lines from "bulging" and thus provides better braking.  But most stainless steel brake lines are just regular brake lines covered with a stainless steel sheath for abrasion resistance.  The external stainless steel does not prevent the brake hoses from swelling or whatever.

In fact, some stainless steel lines use teflon centers.  These work well, but can crack if bent.  In other words, like most esoteric racer crap, it is more fragile than the stuff you buy of-the-shelf for your car. When I worked as as a hydraulic technician at an Aeroquip distributor, we made a lot of these hoses for Harley dudes and racer wanna-bes.  They paid a lot of money for the shiny, but it really was just a cosmetic upgrade, not a performance one.

So why do people (mostly young men aged 16-35) buy this crap?  They are sold it, through catalogs, online chat groups, and through peer pressure.

Are these really "upgrades" to your car?  Well, no.  They look a lot like the fancy racing brakes, such as the set shown above.   But a standard cast-iron brake disc, with holes drilled in it, isn't going to change your stopping distances much, or lighten the car.  It will just lighten your wallet.   Similarly, painting your brake caliper bright red (or buying a painted one) might make it look like a racing caliper but that is all it is - looks.

So, why not buy real racing brakes and other real racing gear for your street car?  Because these are horrifically expensive and often work less well in a street environment.   Coil-over suspensions may be great for the track, but provide a bone-jarring ride on the street.   Racing brakes may work better, but not last very long.  Racing tires can be treacherous in the rain and last maybe 15,000 miles.  Race car parts should be left to race cars.

In short, putting racing parts on a street car is just a foolish waste of money.  You are better off building a real race car and taking it to the track, if you want to race.  It would be a better use of the money, and safer for the rest of us.

Putting pretend racing parts on your car is even more idiotic.  You are spending extra for stock parts that have been gussied up and sold for twice the price.

By the time most of these parts are ready for replacement on your car, chances are they will be the last parts you put on your car.   I just did a brake job on my X5, and the rotors and pads had lasted an astounding 85,000 miles.  At 136,000 miles, the new set of stock rotors and pads ($199 on eBay) will likely outlast the car - or outlast my interest in it.   Spending $1000 on painted calipers and cross-drilled rotors would not enhance the experience, one iota - and the cost involved would exceed 10% of the value of the car.

Stick with stock parts.  Leave the shiny-shiny to the boy-racer wanna-bes.