1949-1953 Ford Drum to Disc Brake Swap

Despite the insistence from some diehard traditionalists that there’s no reason to upgrade a vintage hot rod to disc brakes, sticking with four-wheel drums is literally and figuratively a drag.

The simple truth is that in an era of distracted drivers all plowing along in lumbering SUVs, all of them with sophisticated safety features and huge disc brakes, sharing the road with them in an old car with four-wheel drums is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. The nostalgia goes right out the window when you have to panic-brake around modern vehicles with much greater stopping capability.

That’s exactly what drove Tim Quiggle to finally upgrade the front drum brakes on his 1949 Ford coupe to discs. “I’ve been driving the car for more than 30 years and the drums just didn’t feel safe to me any longer,” he says. “It’s not an overly heavy car, but the stopping distances were really long and they tended to fade when they got hot in traffic. It was a safety issue for me that affected how much I was enjoying the car.”

Disc brake upgrade kits have been around for decades, but they’re increasing in popularity for the very logical reasons Quiggle described. And with cars such as his running steel wheels, there’s no external clue, and no loss of a traditional appearance, for the contemporary braking technology.

Conversion kits are a little tougher to find for 1949-1953 Ford models than some other makes, but Shoebox Central has one for the classic 1949-1953 models. It uses basic components, including 10-inch-diameter, five-lug rotors for the original Ford Ranger (and Aerostar and Bronco II), produced from the mid ’80s to mid ’90s. That means replacement rotors, calipers, and pads are plentiful—and cheap. Together, the combined cost for the kits is about $755. By the way: It’s not a power-assisted system.

The kit lists for around $450, but it doesn’t include a master cylinder. The kit for that adds another $305, or so, to the tally, which all adds up to a comparable price for other kits we’ve seen. What that doesn’t include, however, are the necessary custom hard lines that must be fabricated.

Quiggle turned to Brothers Custom Automotive, in suburban Detroit, for the installation, where we followed the project for this story. The project is attainable for those with moderate mechanical experience, but there are a couple of tools required that might not be in many enthusiasts’ toolboxes, including a flaring tool and brake line bender for the brakes lines.

And while the project was fairly straightforward, we will admit that the instructions from Shoebox Central could have been better. They were a little short on details, particularly when it came to the orientation of the backing plates. That said, we were pleased with the overall completeness and quality of the brake and master cylinder kits; the welds on the backing plates were first class.

More than simply bolting on the parts is the attention to detail required to ensure proper bleeding of the system, including bench-bleeding the master cylinder prior to installation and the entire brake system once the new parts are installed. In addition to the all-important safety factor, it ensures a firm, confident pedal feel; and with a system change such as this, it can require multiple testdrives and adjustments.

Brothers’ owner Bill Jagenow invested about 10 hours on the project. Along with the ancillary components such as the fabricated brake lines, new brake fluid, and a few other items, the brake conversion’s bottom line came to approximately $2,000. It’s difficult, however, to put a price on the Ford’s driving experience since the project was completed. The braking performance took a leap four decades into the future, with a vastly more-confident feel and shorter, straighter stopping distances.

“It has made a world of difference and I couldn’t be happier with the way the car drives now,” Quiggle says. “It stops as well as a modern car, making it much more enjoyable, and safer, in traffic.”

Yes, it cost a few bucks, but in regards to value, it’s one of the best bang-for-the-buck projects we’ve been involved with lately. SRM

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