Home > Design, Geeky > Brakes failed

Brakes failed

August 27, 2005

Last week as I approached a red light, the brakes failed catastrophically.  The pedal went “squisssssh” down to the floor but the van slowed only a little.

This is where being a conservative driver pays off handsomely.  My last ticket was in 1975 – I don’t speed or tailgate.  So I had enough room to assess all the traffic in the intersection, change lanes, hit the gas, thread the needle, and go through without hitting anything. 

Someone mentioned “emergency brake” but like a lot of old cars, the emergency brake was more of a “keep your car from rolling down the hill” brake.  Not much good in a moving emergency.

Alas, the repair bill for the brakes, and some front-end work needed (this vehicle seemed to eat up front-end parts) were, shall we say… substantial.  If it were a classic vehicle, or if it didn’t have twenty other things wrong with it, I’d go ahead and fix it.  But it’s been falling apart for the last fifty thousand miles – and it only has 102,000 miles on it.  So I’m not going to fix it.

I am sorry to let it go for reasons that are sentimental, if irrational…  I inherited it from my father when he died almost 15 years ago.  It was something of his, and I liked the connection.

See the article on cfo.com with the hilarious title; GM, Ford downgraded to junk.  Well heck, cfo.com, they’ve been doing that on the assembly line for years!  Could there be a connection?

In a dispassionate frame, living with the machine for so long gave me some insight into its design.  Just in case any GM executives are reading, here’s what was right and wrong about the van:

  • Cargo space is excellent.  Don’t try to ‘style’ a cargo space.  “Big ‘n square” is the way to go here.
  • The Astro looks for all the world like some executive’s kid drew it with a crayon.  Hire that kid, and fire some stylists.
  • That van had the shortest turning radius of any vehicle I ever owned – considerably smaller than my VW Beetle.  A very useful feature.
  • Seats were comfortable
  • Excellent rust resistance!  The old joke about “on a quiet day, you can hear a Chevvy rust” can be retired, I think.
  • It got pretty good mileage for a v-6 powered shoebox – around 21 in town, 26 highway.

Failures of things before 70,000 miles that really ought to last the life of the car:

  • door handles
  • The sliding-door track
  • window tracks
  • turn-signal control stalk
  • interior headliner
  • exterior turn-signal mount
  • grille
  • instrument lights (all)
  • cup holders
  • headlight switch mount
  • horn
  • tilt-wheel steering
  • radio speakers

Recurring themes:

  • Two starter motors
  • two alternators
  • two front-end repairs
  • two tailpipes
  • three distributor caps (HEI eats caps.  Use better caps.)


  • Do not hire any engineers or designers who have not worked in auto-repair for at least two years!!!  Find top mechanics and send them to school if you have to. 
  • Window tracks should be riveted to the door, not spot-welded.  Think about the force at the doorjamb when a door is closed.
  • Put the steel brake lines where a mechanic can reach them.  Between the body and frame is just idiotic.
  • Why are fuel pumps inside the gas tank? (all manufacturers) This is idiotic.  Put the stage 1 electric pump somewhere where it can be easily replaced.
  • I’d rather have a sun roof than air conditioning, but that’s just me
  • Ditto for wind-wings.  I don’t care what your justifications were, wind wings were awesome.
  • How about a screen at the fuel-tank filler neck, eh?  To keep rust and crud from the filling station from entering the tank.
  • If you’re going to use crap-for-speakers, at least make them easier to replace
  • The interior was just plain shoddy – use better stuff
  • Do not use that line “If we used better quality, you couldn’t afford the car” on me.  Other manufacturers manage it. 

No need to thank me, GM – it’s a public service.  No, wait… if you really want to thank me, send me a Pontiac Vibe.  They’re made by Toyota at your California joint-venture plant.

Categories: Design, Geeky
  1. August 27, 2005 at 15:07 | #1

    This happened to me, fortunately in my own driveway. As my old Impala started forward at about 5 mph, I stepped on the brake and the car kept moving. That’s a creepy feeling. As I pushed harder on the pedal, the rear brakes took hold and I came to a stop. After I turned it off, put it in park, set the parking brake, and chocked the wheels (I was kind of spooked), I found a pool of brake fluid under the car. A pin-hole had opened in one brake line.

    Good point about hiring great mechanics and training them. I’m tired of hearing corporations demand that the state provide them with trained workers, by whatever definition of ‘trained’ is popular today.

    A suggestion I’ll add is: Don’t fill the doors up with controls. When they break they’re hard to fix, and the door never goes back together right. I don’t want power windows anyway. I do want windows that roll all the way down.

  2. August 30, 2005 at 15:15 | #2

    Er… do you want to hear my failing brakes story? Oh lucky you – I shan’t wait for your answer and will give it anyway!!

    We had a fairly new car and quite an impressive one for us. I had stayed at a friend’s for a few days and waved goodbye with my two kids onboard and off we set. Somehow, the handbrake was engaged and I did about 10 minutes or so on the main road doing 70mph and thinking about our wonderful visit…. came to a roundabout (traffic circle) and there were no brakes.

    Crikey. Nothing on the pedal brakes at all but somehow a miracle occured and enough brake power came back to bring me to a slow-down and then there was a turn off where I could pull over. Outside the car I could see black smoke coming from the rear wheel arches and amazingly those kids of mine co-operated for once and got out the car really fast. I thought it was going to burst into flames!

    It didn’t and after an engineer looked at it, by which time it had cooled, it was safe to dry. That was one of the most terrifying journeys to complete!

    Well, that didn’t add anything to the content of your post but I wanted to share it ;)

  3. August 30, 2005 at 22:11 | #3

    I’m delighted you shared the story, and that you are alive TO share it!

    Anyone else have “brakes failed” stories?

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