Stopping Short: How Your Vehicles’ Brakes Have Changed Over Time

How Brakes Have Changed

When it comes to the safety of both you and your family, you no doubt have to put an emphasis on your vehicle. In fact, if you had small children at the time you bought your vehicle, you probably did a bunch of research and factored safety ratings into your final purchasing decision. A major contributor to any vehicle’s safety regardless of accident durability, airbag placement, and whatever else is the braking system. If you’ve been to a mechanic lately for an automobile repair, there’s a good chance your brakes were addressed at some point whether the reason you came in had to do with your brakes or not. That’s because we often don’t pay as much attention to our brakes as we should unless a light goes on on the dashboard or you can hear grinding sounds. If you can hear grinding sounds when you stop your vehicle, by the way, you should bring it in for service immediately. That is not good.


For most of us, all that we need to know is that if you press on the brake during an emergency, the car will stop quickly enough and at a safe distance. Anything beyond that and it becomes technical knowledge that isn’t necessarily of much interest. That’s understandable, but perhaps the wrong approach. It’s in your best interest to have a grasp on the major systems of your car. There are two main reasons for this. The first is it’ll help you have a better understanding of when something is amiss and if you should take your vehicle in for service. This may help you avoid even more serious repairs and can prolong the life of your vehicle. Secondly, understanding your vehicle’s components may help you save money in the long run because you know what’s going on with your vehicle.


Things Have Changed


If you’ve been driving for a long time, you’ve lived through many of the major changes that automobiles have gone through. Nearly everything down to the keys has changed within the last couple of decades. If you think the car key part is an exaggeration, remember that the transponder in your car key that helps prevent theft has only been in major use since about 1995. Braking systems are no different. The vehicle you’re driving today could very easily have a completely different braking system from your first car you owned in high school. While, functionally, you may not notice much of a difference, there are some pretty significant differences when it comes to replacing or repairing the parts that make up the brake system.


While you’re probably not going to be changing your brakes or components yourself unless you are a very dedicated enthusiast with a full garage, it’s important to at least have an understanding of how brake systems have changed and how modern brake systems differ from old ones. And, of course, it’s good to know when it’s time to bring your vehicle in for brake maintenance.


Difference in Construction


Brakes have changed over the decades. This has caused some changes in what many consider “common wisdom.” You know what common wisdom often is. Things like strict rules regarding when to get an oil change have more or less relaxed with the improvements in technology. While it used to be that you should change your oil every 3,000 miles, now many feel that is unnecessary and wasteful and recommend waiting for another couple thousand miles. So, too, have brakes changed.


For example, many older cars had four drum brakes. All modern vehicles now have disc brakes on the front and most have them also on the rear. High-performance vehicles always have four disc brakes for maximum control and stopping power. Vehicles with four drum brakes had a particularly scary habit of not being able to stop on steep hills or with a sudden stopping of traffic a quarter of a mile away.


Drums brakes used to be serviced by machining the drums on a brake lathe and replacing the shoes. Disc brakes used to be serviced mostly by replacing the worn pads and only machining the rotors if they showed signs of wear. Keep in mind when you bring your vehicle in for maintenance is how rotors have changed. Most likely, if you’re bringing your vehicle in for brake maintenance, the pads are being replaced. They are typically what have been worn down. The question then becomes, “what about the rotors?” It used to be a debate about whether or not you should opt to get them machined or if it would be more cost effective to just replace the things. In many modern vehicles, there is no debate. You actually have to replace the rotors because machining isn’t an option. So, depending on how old of a vehicle you have, you may have the added expense of replacing the rotors in addition to the pads. 


Drums vs discs, machining rotors vs replacing. There are things to keep in mind. But, the most important thing to know is when you should bring your vehicle into your mechanic to get your brakes checked.

Mercedes C300 3417

Toyota Tundra 4725

The Toyota Tundra’s front rotors (below) measure 11.5″ while the Mercedes C300 (above) measure 13″ and are 50% thicker! It’s no wonder why we get many complaints about “brake pulsation” on Toyota trucks.


When to Bring Your Vehicle in for Service


Relying on warning lamps on your dash is always good form, but that shouldn’t be the only indicator you go by. Sounds and feel are important as well. Is your vehicle not stopping like it used to? Do you need more distance to stop? This is what is known as brake fade.  Pay attention to the sounds in particular because there are a couple to be on the lookout for.


If you hear a rattling sound, it’s not an immediate cause for concern. Brake pads can rattle if they experience expansion due to heat. However, if it rattles consistently and especially when you actually depress the brake pedal, then you should give your mechanic a call.


Then there is the classic brake grinding sound. This is always a sign of a problem and you shouldn’t drive any longer than absolutely necessary if your brakes are grinding. It is often a sign of extreme wear on your brake pads and/or rotors. There is friction with the caliper. Another reason for a grinding noise is a foreign object getting stuck in the caliper. Again, you don’t want to drive for long like this because of the serious damage that can be caused. If the grinding noise is a result of severely worn pads, you’re already looking at more intensive repairs. That’s why regular preventative maintenance is so important and can save you money.




Understanding how your brake system works and is constructed is an important part of maintaining your vehicle. It’s also about driving safely. It’s in your best interest to bring in your vehicle for regular brake maintenance for both your personal well-being and, believe it or not, your wallet. Serious auto repairs are often the result of skipping out on the simpler and cheaper regular tune-ups. At Independent Motors, we value doing a good job and doing it with honesty. We’ll always tell you the truth when it comes to what your vehicle needs regarding service. Call us today and schedule an appointment. We’ll help you keep your vehicle on the road for years to come.