The early Vanagon brakes up though 1985 had the thin rotors and small pads that started out in the ’71 Bus. Thin rotors and small pads means lots of heat is generated during hard braking. The pads originally came from VW with square heat shields between the pads and the calipers. Many mechanics throw them away during front brake jobs, as the shields commonly get bent on removal. They think the heat shields are just spacers. Actually, these “spacers” really ARE heat shields. Starting in 1986, the front brake rotors are way thicker and the pads are way larger, giving better braking capability.
All Vanagon model years share the same rear drum type brakes. The brake shoes are self adjusting with a star shaped wheel on a threaded shaft. Most mechanics do not use any lubrication on this adjuster assembly, perhaps because they are afraid that grease might end up dripping inside the brake drum. As a result, the adjuster freezes, and the rear brake shoes slowly get further and further from the drums as the shoes and drums wear. Sometimes the brake springs get over stretched during a brake job, which changes the way the brakes apply and retract. Some mechanics believe that when the hand brake lever gets high, the cable just needs adjustment, when actually that is a sign that the rear brake self adjusters are likely to be frozen. Karmakanix technicians use ceramic anti-seize on these adjusters. The melting point is over 3000 degrees F, and it never drips.
All of our other vehicles have what is known as diagonal brakes, each section of the brake master cylinder feeds one front and one rear brake diagonally. This helps the car to stop straighter, even in an emergency situation. On Vanagon brakes only, the master cylinder feeds the front brakes with the front section of the master, and the rear brakes with the rear section. When the rear adjusters freeze and the gap between the brakes shoes and drums gets big, the result is that the front disc brakes apply earlier than the rear drums brakes. When that gap gets really big, like 3 millimeters, then the van is pretty much stopping on the front brakes alone.
Brake fluid is very hygroscopic, meaning it pulls water right out of the air. As it gets “wet”, the boiling point drops. Generally, DOT 4 fluid boils around 450 °F when fresh, and 311 °F when the fluid is at 3.7% water. We regularly find brake fluid at “over 4%”, which is the highest indicator on our electronic testers. If your brake fluid ever boils, then the pedal goes to the floor and you have no stopping power whatsoever. Hydraulics do not work at all with vapor instead of fluid inside the system. This can happen with early model Vanagon brakes, likely only when trying to stay slow or stop on a long and steep down hill grade. Once the brake fluid cools down, the van has brakes again, but the brakes are mushy because the fluid never fully condenses, and still has bubbles in it.
Karmakanix knows of eight instances of this very scary incidence happening to Vanagon and Type 2 drivers, and each incident was before they found us and got the full story. It is conceivable that this has happened to others, but dead men tell no tales. Perhaps this is why the Vanagon brakes radically improved in model year 1986. To recap, old brake fluid, plus frozen rear brake adjusters, plus missing heat shields on the front brakes. Bad combination. When all these factors combine, YOU CAN LOOSE YOUR BRAKES! Let Karmakanix take care of your Vanagon brakes. We use the best lubricants and take the time to clean and lube ALL the proper items. We use Pentosin Synthetic DOT 4 Synthetic brake fluid. It boils at over 509 °F when new, and at over 309 °F when wet. And it has a five year service life instead of the two year life of a non synthetic fluid. We know how to keep you safe.
Big Brake Kits
For those who are interested, we offer Big Brake Kits. One must have 16″ wheels to fit the larger rotors and calipers. And the combination of the wider tires and bigger brakes gets you very close to modern par for braking ability. Most importantly, the ability to steer while hard on the brakes in an emergency is greatly enhanced. Since no Vanagon has ABS brakes, the Big Brake option should be seriously considered. Increasing tire size increases the required braking force by a factor of the difference of the square of the radii. To translate: 16″ tires require almost 10% higher braking force for the same stopping power as a stock 14″ tire. Anyone buying tires taller than those 16″ tires (26.16″ diameter) really needs a Big Brake Kit conversion. Anyone with an early van (up through 1985) with the tiny pads and thin rotors needs the conversion if they want to run the 16″ rims and tires. And those vans require changing the spindles to accept the larger calipers. A bit spendy, but required to be safe.