Category Archives: Member’s Stories

Trips, restorations or anything else you think might be of interest

Ask The Mechanic – 168 – Replacing the brake master cylinder

For this installment of The mechanic, we welcome a submission from Jonathan Bruton. You may recall his submission for issue TT166 concerning brake overhaul, this is the second chapter of that story.
Not long after I had put my tools away and given
myself a smug pat on the back for having successfully
installed new callipers and discs on the front wheels
of Mortimer Henderson (TT Issue 166), my ’73 Bay, I
happened to see a Facebook post from Nick Gillott
to the effect that the master cylinder also needed
replacing at regular intervals. The master cylinder, as
its name suggests, pushes brake fluid through the
lines to the slave cylinders at the wheels when you
hit the brake pedal, operating the brakes through
hydraulic pressure.
Anyway, I tried to ignore this unwelcome piece of
advice but could no longer do so when it became
obvious that the pedal was getting spongier by the
journey; when I finally got around to checking the
level of the reservoir, it had gone down quite sharply,
and I could see brake fluid dripping out of the hole
in the front pan beneath the pedal assemblies. So,
action was clearly needed.

Once the pan was removed, the first thing to do
was to locate the cylinder, which I had never looked
for or seen. As you would expect, it is bolted to the
frame beneath the brake pedal assembly, and the
brake pedal rod fits into it through a rubber boot,
which itself fits through a hole in the frame and is
designed to keep out dirt and debris. Two brake lines
lead away from it – one to a T-piece which then feeds
the front wheel brake assemblies, and the other to a
pressure equaliser bolted to the offside edge of the
frame, which feeds the rear brakes.
The main fluid reservoir crouches on it piggyback style and is attached via two nozzles that run
through rubber grommets. Finally, the brake light
switch screws in at the back (on my replacement
cylinder, there were two holes for the switch, and
a video I watched for the same job on an early Bay
showed two brake light switches, for reasons I’m not
clear about).

At first glance it was immediately apparent that all
was indeed not well. The boot was in shreds, and the
assembly was clearly leaking, presumably because
dirt had penetrated the seal. But replacing it looked
pretty straight forward, and I naively anticipated that
it’d be done in a single afternoon! It really needed
to be as well, because we only have one parking
space, which has the charger for our main car, a fully
electric Nissan Leaf, which we can’t use if it’s blocked
by a hulking great immobilised van! This has been a
point of friction between me and my long-suffering
partner in the past, but I blithely assured her that
there would be minimal disruption.
In this optimistic spirit, I ordered the replacement
part from JK and offered it up to make sure it was the
same as the one on the van, which it was. So now it
was a matter of whipping off the two 13 mm nuts
holding it on, unplugging the brake light switch and
undoing the two brake pipes, emptying the fluid
reservoir in the process. Yeah, right!
For some reason best known to themselves, VW had
opted for nuts and bolts rather than studs to hold
the cylinder on. Which would inevitably mean that
the whole bolt would just start rotating. Which both
of them did. With one of them, I could get a wrench
on the bolt head and get the nut off no problem.
The other one, however, was conveniently located
in a recess, making it impossible to access with a
wrench, so there was no way to hold the bolt still. In
the end I had to resort to a mechanical nut splitter to
remove the offending nut. With a bit of persuasion
by hammer, I was then able to loosen the cylinder
and start moving it backwards.
The next issue was with the two brake pipes. When
new, of course, the nut rotates freely around the
pipe. After 47 years of exposure to God knows what,
however, muck and corrosion do their worst, and
the nut sticks fast to the pipe. Once I’d been forced
to buy a new 11 mm wrench (inevitably, the only
wrench missing from my set was the one I needed), I
ended up doing what the guy in the early Bay video
had earnestly warned me I really didn’t want to do,
which was to shear both of the nuts right off. After
a few seconds of panic, however, I realised that both
sections of pipe were relatively short and could
easily be unbolted from the other end: at the abovementioned T-junction and the pressure equaliser.

Perhaps this kind of damage is more consequential
in an early Bay. Whatever, I then relaxed and let the
brake fluid drain out through the fractured pipe ends
into a handy receptacle below. My advice would be
to assume that these pipes are going to be toast and
simply order replacements when you order a new
cylinder; it’s no big deal.
So, having broken both pipes and removed the
retaining bolts, I took the cap off the brake light
switch and pulled the cylinder out, complete with
fluid reservoir. Now, this is attached to the secondary
reservoir in the cab by a length of plastic pipe held
in with two plastic hose clips, themselves secured by
two tiny cross-headed screws. These are a bit pesky
to reach, but I got the lower one out easily enough,
assuming I wouldn’t need to move the uppermost
one, and removed the whole assembly.
The reservoir plugs into the cylinder in two places, as
I said above, and it’s a very tight fit – which it needs
to be – so I had to use a screwdriver to exert some
leverage to get it off. No problem there. It was in
good nick, with no cracks or splits, so I could simply
reuse it. The new cylinder comes with the sealing
grommets, so you just have to use some elbow
grease to push the reservoir on. Just make sure you
get it the right way round! Once it was all in place,
I bolted the cylinder in place, having replaced both
nuts and bolts.
Annoyingly, I missed the delivery driver when he
came with the new brake pipes the following day.
That day being Friday, it meant that the van would
have to sit on the space until at least Monday. I
averted a charging-related roasting by offering to
take the Leaf up to the nearest charging station,
so harmony was restored. Monday came and
the eagerly awaited pipes with it. As they have a
diameter of 3/16 “, they’re very easy to bend without
kinking. The only issue here was that the length of
pipe that went to the pressure equaliser was only
just long enough, meaning that I had to carefully
plan the shortest possible distance.
Having removed the old pipes, it was then something
of an epic task to get the nuts to engage with the
threads at both ends – I would get one in place, only
to find that the other end simply wouldn’t oblige. In
the end, I had to loosen the cylinder body again, and,
after rather a lot of swearing, the nuts were finally in
place, and I could reattach the cylinder to the frame
and reinsert the brake pedal rod into the boot.
Surely it would now just be a simple matter of
reattaching the plastic pipe to the bottom reservoir,
refilling it with fresh fluid, and bleeding the brakes.
Ahem. Not quite.
To start with, there was the second hole for the
missing brake light switch. Not much point putting
fluid in for it simply to run out again through a
great big hole. As automotive bolt threads seem to

be narrower than their DIY counterparts, my local
hardware store was unable to provide a suitable
blank. Happily, they directed me to a garage round
the corner, and the chap there fished around until
he found a bolt with a nipple, which looked like it
came from a carburettor assembly, that had the right
thread and would do the job. Now, it would surely
all work.
With great lightness of heart, I tightened everything
up and started to refill the cab reservoir – only
to discover that the fluid was dripping out at the
bottom almost as fast as it was going in! Yes – it
was the hose. Leaking at both ends. Meaning that,
to investigate, I’d also have to undo the topmost
clamp, which was virtually impossible to reach
from underneath. Filing that away as a problem for
later, I replaced the pathetic little plastic clip at the
bottom end of the hose – where it joined the lower
reservoir – with a proper jubilee clip and tightened
it nice and snug. I then had the blindingly obvious
realisation that it would surely be possible to undo
the reservoir in the cab and lift it out to get access
to the clamp immediately below it. But I couldn’t see
how to release the reservoir. Fortunately, the Samba
came to the rescue, and I was soon undoing the two
little screws that held it in, which enabled me to lift
up the reservoir and shed light on the problem.
Sure enough, the hose at the top end was split, so I
trimmed it and replaced the plastic clip with another
metal pipe clamp. I also realised that the nozzle (I
can’t think of the proper word for the protruding part
the clamp attaches to!) and was supposed to have a
plastic sleeve around it to aid the seal, but this sleeve
was missing from both ends, so all I could do was
make sure the clamps were located on the slight
bulge in the nozzle and done up nice and tight.
And then – glory be! – the leak was finally sorted!
I filled her up and fetched my handy little Draper oneman bleeding kit, which is a bottle with a one-way
plastic hose that fits snugly over the bleed nipple
and doesn’t permit any backflow. When you’re lying
under the van, you can operate the brake pedal from
underneath and watch as the air bubbles shoot out
of the bleed nipple and disappear into the bottle,
to be replaced by a lovely golden bar of brake fluid,
which is a fine sight.
So, there it was. All done. Except that I couldn’t find
the cab fluid reservoir cap. Anywhere. I’m sure many
of you will know what it’s like not to be able to find
the tool you’ve just put down and to have to spend
ten minutes searching for it until you find it in your
pocket or somewhere. Anyway, as my frustration
and incredulity increased, I resorted to rummaging
through the recycling until I found the top of a
squash bottle which could be made to fit. Better
than nothing! Anyway, I could finally triumphantly
drive the bus off the parking space and swap it for
the Leaf, which I plugged in, thereby ensuring that
domestic harmony would continue without a ripple.
And then, there was the reservoir cap. Perched
on top of a wheelie bin, where I’d left it. Laughing
at me.
Jonathan Bruton

Renewing the front brakes on my ’73 Bay, Mortimer Henderson

By Jonathan Bruton

CAVEAT: brakes are obviously safety-critical components, so only attempt this job if you are confident that you can do so safely! This is a personal account of a process and not an exhaustive set of instructions; the author cannot be held liable for any injury arising from accidents caused by a failure to carry out safety-relevant tasks properly.

Some while ago, in that pre-Covid world in which we could drive places (remember that?), I started to become aware of a tell-tale grinding noise coming from Mortimer’s nearside front wheel. There still seemed to be adequate braking power, nor was the van pulling particularly in either direction when I applied the brakes, so I wasn’t unduly concerned. But I thought I’d take advantage of the lockdown to jack him up, whip off the wheels and take a look at the callipers and brake discs.

The old caliper

You can imagine my horror when I saw that, in the first assembly I looked at on the nearside, the calliper pistons were frozen in such a way that the brake pads must have been forced up against the disc surface. The pistons normally only protrude slightly from the inner surfaces of the calliper, allowing enough space to snugly fit the two pads with a tiny bit of clearance. But as  you can see on the picture, the dirt seals – concertina boots that should move in and out with the piston and protect it from contamination – had long since perished and the pistons had accordingly seized up in extended position. On closer inspection, it also became apparent that there was zero friction material left on either pad(!) – what I was hearing was metal on metal. Whatever braking performance there may once have been was obviously a thing of the distant past! The disc surface was as scored and uneven as you would expect under those circumstances, and the disc was obviously beyond redemption. Things were a little better on the other side, with some wear left on the pads – although the fact that van wasn’t pulling to the right suggests that that brake wasn’t functional either. I toyed with the idea of trying a rebuild but, when it became evident that there was no way I was going to get the bleed valves free, I thought I might as well save myself a lot of bother by buying new callipers for both wheels along with two new discs.

The worn brake pad

The first job, of course, was to get the old callipers off so I could remove the discs. This was relatively straightforward. I first had to undo the two 17mm retaining bolts on the inside of the assembly. I then used a pin punch to knock out the two pins that hold the retaining spring in place before tugging out the old pads. It was then a question of pulling out the clip that holds the hose in place and removing the whole assembly from the disc, being careful not to place undue strain on the metal brake pipe that attaches to the calliper. I also needed to bear in mind that the topmost bolt has an unthreaded section on the shank closest to the screw head. The nuts were pretty tight, however, and I needed a torque wrench to get them off. According to the BUSARU guy, the torque is about 110 lbs.

The top bolt

The tricky part in getting the discs off was removing the two button head Allen bolts. Stopping the drum from rotating was an issue until I had the brainwave of clamping the disc to the backing plate. I managed to free up one bolt on each side by conventional means but soon found myself in danger (of course!) of irredeemably rounding off the holes in the other two in my desperate attempts to get them to budge. I even resorted to cutting a groove into one of them (and the surrounding metal) with a grinder to create a slot for a screwdriver. But nothing could persuade it to move! A quick appeal to the Samba revealed a range of opinions on the subject, from just drilling the heads off (the logic being that the thing was securely held in place by the wheel anyway and wasn’t going to go anywhere) to using an impact driver. I like to do things properly if I possibly can, so it was off to eBay to get myself an impact driver (can’t believe I’ve never owned one!). And, hey presto, a couple of whacks on each side got the troublesome little critters out. I took a quick look at the condition of the bearings, which seemed fine and well-greased, so I left them alone. I then fitted the shiny new discs to both sides.

The shiny new disc

The next job was to disconnect the old callipers from the brake lines. Now, as the brakes are safety-critical parts, I’d always shied away from doing anything that would involve having to refill and bleed the fluid. But, having watched a number of YouTube videos on the subject, I concluded that I had nothing to fear but fear itself and went ahead. It would have been a good idea to apply some WD40 to the nuts first, though: on one side, the pipe started to twist with the nut (which should normally spin freely around it), which promptly sheared off. So it was back to Just Kampers for a new 24-cm brake pipe (I swear I’m keeping that company afloat single-handed at the moment!).

Offering the caliper to the disk

With the old units out of the way, it was just a matter of fixing the new ones in place, torqueing up the bolts, and sliding in the new brake pads and backing plates, having first applied some anti-squeal gunk to both sides of the plates. Once they were both in, it was the turn of the retaining spring and the two pins (here I reused the old ones because the new pins supplied with the kits resisted my efforts to tap them into the holes). I used a pin punch and hammer to tap them home.

The new caliper in place

Then it was just a question of bleeding the brakes, replacing the wheels and venturing out for a short road test (keeping an eye out for the police – strange times!). Job done!

Kit acquired for the job:

From JK:

Front brake kit (discs, pads, fixings) £94.75
Calliper (nearside) £99.75
Calliper (offside) £99.75
Brake disc screws: £21.00
Morris brake fluid (1 litre) £11.00
Front brake pipe £15.00

From Amazon:
Impact driver £23.94
Holts brake cleaner £5.25
Ceratec anti-squeal paste £3.30
Starrett pin punch £4.39

Total for job: £378.13

Road trip gone bad: Not quite making it to Baja in my Westy

My Wesy takes a trip


Mexico’s Baja California peninsula is an incredibly beautiful place. My 1987 Volkswagen camper van can be an amazing way to travel there. As anyone who has been around one knows, however, calamity is part of every Westy adventure.

Two years and 10 thousand miles ago I completely rebuilt my VW Vanagon GL Westfalia. A day before a large holiday party, while running to pick up ALL THE FOOD, my Vanagon threw the alternator belt, overheated and in a disastrous chain of events ended up needing an engine, transmission, cooling system and brakes. I threw in a new tent and bigger, low profile wheels just for fun. I used GoWesty’s fantastic 2.3L upgraded power plant and made a slew of minor improvements. I had been having such a great two years with the bus, I started to think it was bulletproof.

“She’s like a new car!” I told my girlfriend, who had agreed to come with me on a trip to Canyon de Guadalupe, Mexico, before I described the long, long list of things I’d replaced or had done. We booked a campsite for a few days in late December and planned to marathon drive down from San Francisco on Christmas day.

I worried over every small detail. Swapping out an old p-trap under the kitchen sink in the van took 3 days. This should have been the first clue things were going to go wrong. I started out thinking I needed a better wrench to free it. I ended up drilling holes in the old trap to weaken it, and needing a saw to cut it out. Welcome to the world of the VW bus.

Then the fridge, after starting easily the first time I tried, refused to relight after I’d filled up the propane tank. “Oh well!” I thought, “I’ll run off of electric and start it on gas when I get to Mexico.” It gave me something to worry about, which I felt was normal, so I didn’t let it get in the way.

I’d labored over a decision: whether to take Highway 5 up and over the Grapevine, or the 101. As we were trying for speed, and I trusted my GoWesty engine, we chose the 5. Where to cross the international border was also a major consideration. I wanted to cross at Tecate and drive the famous, scenic MEX2 highway 150 or so miles through La Rumerosa to Laguna Salada and Canyon De Guadalupe. I was worried that Pemex, the state-owned and only gas stations in Mexico, might be closed on Christmas in more rural areas and thought we might run out of gas on our way North. To ensure that didn’t happen, we planned to cross at Mexicali.

I left Muir Beach, CA at 3:30AM, picked up my co-pilot in Oakland around 4 and we were off. She drove the first shift and I slept. Waking up once or twice at gas stops, I wasn’t really cogent or thinking as she headed up the Grapevine, California’s famous VW bus killer.

Many an air-cooled VW van has died on this monstrous incline. Named after the grapes that grow wild around the remnants of the earlier HWY99 that was long ago replaced by the 5, this section of road was once to be feared in the Summer. Nowadays cars have far more efficient cooling systems, as it helps regulate fuel efficiency (an important point later,) but my woefully underpowered 1987 van would have been in danger. Luckily, I thought, it has run super cool since the rebuild and December was freezing cold. I didn’t anticipate any trouble. I didn’t realize my co-pilot was unfamiliar with the Vanagon’s quirky, near useless, gas gauge.

We actually made it over the top of the Grapevine just fine! The van did well and held 55 most of the way. Once we came over the top, with her nose pointed down, we ran out of gas. Initially, I didn’t notice anything. My co-pilot complained she was losing power and I asked her to let off the gas. I took the car out of gear and immediately the engine stopped. Luckily, without the engine braking we sped up. We threw on the hazards and decided to try and roll to the next gas station in Gorman. We came up about 15 feet short and needed a slight push, but as far as Grapevine calamities go this was pretty mild. We filled up the tank, primed the fuel pump and she started right up.

It took about another hundred miles for things to go wrong. My best guess is that we sucked up a ton of sludge from the bottom of my new gas tank (did I mention that had been replaced 2 years ago as well?). It is possible we also got bad gas in Gorman, but they have so much traffic I find that less likely. Whatever the cause, the Vanagon gradually lost power until it wouldn’t rev over 3500rpm. That limited us to about 50-55mph on flat ground and 35mph or so uphill. We were trying to take the 210 freeway around Los Angeles to bypass traffic and didn’t anticipate the San Gabriel mountains being such a problem. Clearly something was wrong with the car.

We ran a little bit of fuel injector cleaner through the Westy. Things got better. We ran a lot more fuel injector cleaner through her and things got a lot better. I decided to swap the fuel filter, after I proudly told my traveling companion I had the foresight to carry one for just this type of problem. We would head from San Dimas, about 70 or 80 miles, with the car gaining and losing power, to Santa Monica and spend the night at my parents. In the AM I’d swap the filter and we’d head to Mexico.

Visiting Santa Monica let us have dinner at my favorite deli in West Los Angeles, Izzy’s. I am not a Fromin’s fan. Had we been closer to the San Fernando Valley, I’d have gone to Brent’s. It was wonderful to eat at a deli on Christmas.

The next morning I swung under the van, asking my friend to time me, because this was going to take less than 5 minutes. Then I saw that the bolt holding the fuel filter to the frame was stripped. It looked like someone had used a power tool on it while up on a lift and chewed the center out. I tried my fathers special “remove stripped bolts and screws” screwdriver to no avail. I tried vise grips but couldn’t get any purchase. Then I found a local mechanic who was open and for $20 he removed the bolt and swapped in the spare filter. It took him less than 5 minutes.

We were on our way! The car was running great again, we could hold 75mph no problem and O’Reilly Auto Parts had another spare fuel filter for us. We headed towards Mexico.

Around 40-50 miles later I noticed that the car felt like it was losing power when I floored it, a frequent occurrence in a vintage VW bus. I had no clue what was going on, so we stopped at a gas station. Idling the van for a few moments, I was surprised to see the temperature gauge never came up above minimum operating temps. I thought the thermostat might be stuck open. Luckily, my incredible mechanic Paul from San Rafael’s Valley Wagonworks chose that very moment to call me. We discussed the issues I’d been seeing and he suggested finding a Vanagon expert to swap the thermostat. He wondered if maybe a fuel injector was still clogged. He told me I wouldn’t hurt the van driving it like this, but it’d be slow.

I took a look at the thermostat housing and decided it was under too much junk to try and swap on the road. I wanted to go to Baja but I also just wanted to go home. The idea of finding myself stuck on the side of the road in Palm Springs, CA with the fluids pouring out of a cooling system I was unable to properly bolt down was only slightly more appealing than the idea of being in a similar position on the southern side of the US/Mexico border. It was around 11am and 70ºF out. The car was running fine. We agreed it’d be safer to just go home.

Thus began a long, slow trip home. I did not anticipate the outside temperatures changing. As it got colder the car lost power. As we went up in elevation, we lost power. The car ran less and less efficiently, sometimes down to 6 or 7mpg. We were stopping every 60-80 miles. When outside temperatures dropped below 50F the car started to blow clouds of smoke when you’d accelerate.

This was not how I’d hoped to introduce a new friend to the joys of Vanagon camping.

We got home. During the several days we spent pretending my house was a campsite, I found a spare thermostat. I swapped it in, in about one hour, and didn’t lose much coolant. The car runs perfectly fine now. I’ll take it to my mechanic to change the oil and check my work soon.

One friend suggested I find a newer van to go camping in. He doesn’t get it.

While I never got to Baja, this was kind of a perfect Westy adventure. We solved the issues and got home safe. My friend says she’d love to find a closer hot springs and try the VW again. I still want to go to Baja.