How To Adjust A Handbrake On A Classic Car

How To Adjust A Handbrake On A Classic Car

This guide captures ‘bygone’ advice on how to Adjust A Handbrake on a Classic Car

To see all my ‘bygone’ advice guides please visit Classic Car Maintenance DIY Guides.

This particular post forms part of the Classic Car Basic Service.

Remember folks these are ‘bygone guides’ … useful but the safety and personal protective equipment measures are reflective of bygone awareness. Stay safe.


All cars are required by law to have an efficient hand­ brake system, both to hold the car when parked and to provide emergency braking if the hydraulic brake system fails

The handbrake does not operate through the hydraulic system but usually through a series of either cables or rods, or a combination of both. Most handbrakes utilize the same brake linings or disc pads that are operated by the footbrake.

In this case when the footbrake is adjusted at regular inter­vals it will automatically adjust the handbrake. However after about 16,000 km (10,000 miles) the handbrake linkage will have stretched slightly and the travel of the handbrake lever in the car could be excessive, impairing the efficiency of the handbrake.

Some cars fitted with disc brakes have separate hand­brake pads which have to be adjusted independently. Other cars, notably Volvos, are fitted with disc brakes all round, and have handbrakes which operate a small drum brake located inside the front or rear disc. Although there are a wide variety of handbrake layouts, designed to suit various footbrake installations, the general principles of checking and adjustment are very similar.

Operation Principles Of The Handbrake

The operation of the handbrake is initiated by the driver pulling on the interior handbrake lever.

The lever may be mounted on the floor or on the dashboard but the function is still the same and that is to act as a lever through which the pulling force from the driver is first amplified by the design of the lever and then transmitted to the road wheels via cables or rods.

At the road wheels the cables or rods activate a lever mounted on the brake drum or disc caliper which, as the handbrake is pulled on, will thrust out the brake linings or disc pads onto the brake drum or disc and stop the car from moving.


Preparing To Adjust Handbrake

Before attempting to tackle the adjustment of the cable or rod system, check that the rest of the inter-related brake system is working properly and efficiently.

Where rear drum brakes are fitted, check that the brake linings have sufficient lining material remaining and that they arc correctly adjusted. If your car has disc brakes all round, check the condition of the rear disc pads.

On any braking system where the handbrake uses the same brake linings or pads as the footbrake, the normal brake adjuster will take up any wear in the linings or pads, and will improve the operation of the foorbrake and handbrake. Once you have determined that the footbrake is correctly adjusted, check the handbrake.

If you find that the shoes are gripping the drum the adjuster will have to be located and slackened off.

The Two MAIN WAYS Of Checking A Handbrake

There are two main ways of checking the efficiency of the handbrake.

The first is by road test. The car is driven along a flat straight road at 20 m.p.h. Making sure the road is clear both in front and behind, pull the handbrake on.

The legal requirement (at the time this guide was written) is that the car should be brought to a halt within 16 m (54ft.).

The other method is when the car is stationary. Jack up the end of the car on which the hand­brake operates and support the car on axle stands, making sure the vehicle is firmly chocked on the wheels which are still on the ground. With the handbrake off the wheels should turn freely, but when the handbrake is applied both wheels should be locked.

If the handbrake is not working efficiently, the fault will probably be in the mechanical linkage. This linkage could have become rusted and stiff or cables could be stretched and frayed, in which case adjustment or replacement will be necessary.

Different TYPES of Handbrake

The design of the handbrake linkage varies with nearly every make and model of car.

However certain design features enable the layouts to be categorised.

Some models use twin cables to transmit the force from the handbrake lever to the wheels, while other models may use a combination of rods and cables. In some designs there are equalizing mechanisms to ensure that the force applied to each wheel is the same. A brief description of the main designs are listed below.

Different Types Of Handbrake Adjuster
The BLUE CAR has a dashboard brake with a primary cable running to an equalizer bracket. which is attached to a threaded rod for cable adjustment with thesecondary cable running to the operating levers on the rear disc calipers. The YELLOW CAR has a handbrake that operates through an equalizer and cables to the rear brakes. The RED CAR has a handbrake handbrake with twin cables that run to the rear brakes through channels and swivel sector pivots,
Single Cable Handbrake
The handbrake on this car has a single cable that operates one rear brake with a connecting rod operating the opposite brake simultaneously.

Twin Cable System Handbrake

This is one of the simpler methods whereby the handbrake lever is attached to two cables, one for each wheel. There is no automatic balancing between the two cables, and this is achieved only by careful adjustment.

Rod And Roller System Handbrake

In this layout a short rod with a roller at one end is attached to the bottom of the handbrake lever. Two cables pass around the roller, one for each wheel, in a loop arrangement having its fixing point at the brake drum or disc lever.

The cable then passes around the roller and back to the brake backplate or caliper where it is attached by its adjusting mechanism.

The Equaliser System Handbrake

With this design a single cable runs from the handbrake lever to the equalizer mechanism. This mechanism is a pivoting arrangement which turns as the handbrake cable is pulled on. The pivot has two other fixing points from which rods run to each brake lever. Some cars may feature cables instead of rods.

How To ADJUST The Handbrake Linkages

Below are some pictorial guides but first some words.

With all systems, jack up the wheels on which the handbrake works and support the car on axle stands. Before starting adjustment do a visual check of the linkage to determine the condition of the system and whether any replace­ment is necessary.

You will need a helper to operate the handbrake lever while you watch that all the relevant mechanisms are moving freely.

Cables should be cleaned of dirt and lubricated, and the wire and the outer casing should be in good condition.

Most cables have a grease nipple in their outer casing and grease should be pumped until it is seen coming out of the end of the sheath. If no nipple is found it is possible to run thin oil down the cable from the highest end. This is done by dripping oil onto the inner cable and letting this run down into the outer sheath.The drum can either be separate from the wheel hub or combined with it.

With other mechanisms check that rollers run freely and if a grease nipple is visible use a grease gun to lubricate the shaft. With an equalizer mechanism also check rhat the pivot turns freely and lubricate any moving parts.

Adjusting TWIN CABLE Handbrakes

In this system each cable has to be adjusted separately by means of threaded adjusters, usually fitted at the base of the handbrake lever inside the car (SEE BELOW).

Adjusting Twin Cable Handbrakes
Twin cable adjusters are found either side of the hand brake lever. Each cable is adjusted separately.
  1. Make sure that the handbrake is in the off position and then gradually tighten the adjusting nuts,.
  2. First adjusting one a few turns and then the other.
  3. Each time you have tightened the adjusting nuts get out of the car and spin the wheel you are adjusting.
  4. When you hear the brake lining touching the drum as you spin the wheel, back the adjuster off slightly.
  5. The wheel should be still able to spin freely with the handbrake in the off position but when pulled on the wheels should now be locked.

Adjusting SINGLE CABLE Handbrakes

The adjuster for single cables is usually under the car and positioned at the point where the cable meets the equalizer or roller mechanisms (SEE BELOW).

Adjusting Single Cable Handbrakes
The equalizer system adjuster will be found where the front cable joins the equalizer.
  1. To adjust the main cable identify the adjusting nut and lock nut.
  2. Then loosen the locking nut and tighten the adjusting nut until all the slack has been taken up.
  3. Again check that the wheels still spin freely when the handbrake is in the off position and are locked when the handbrake is pulled on.

Adjusting ROD OPERATED Handbrakes

If there is a combination of rods and cables then it is the cables which normally carry the adjuster. On some older cars the rods carry adjusters but the method of tightening is the same.

Adjusting Rod Operated Handbrakes
Rod and cable adjusters are situated by one rear brake drum a connecting rod adjusts the other brake simultaneously.

If the cable or cables have been stretched to the point where adjustment is no longer possible, new ones should be fitted. To do this, you will need a cable or cables made specifically for your car which can be bought from most dealers or good accessory shops. Under no circumstances fit incorrect cables to the braking system of your car.

  1. Below are some pictures but the principles are.
  2. With rear of the car jacked up and on axle stands, release the handbrake lever.
  3. Start removing the cable by working from the wheels forward to the handbrake lever.
  4. Discard any split-pins or bolts; these must be replaced on re-assembly.
  5. Make sure all parts are moving freely and make sure you grease the cable before assembly.
  6. Fit the new cable from the wheel end, adjust as described above.

The interior handbrake lever works on a spring loaded ratchet system. This method allows the handbrake to be
locked on in a variety of positions.

The main faults to be encountered are spring failure or a worn ratchet.

In either case the only solution is replacement of the worn part which can be obtained from your dealer. Always check the condi­tion of the ratchet because if this is worn it could cause the handbrake to disengage when the car is parked.

Careful application of the handbrake in practice can do much to reduce ratchet and pawl wear.

How To REPLACE A Handbrake Cable On A SINGLE CABLE System

Click Here for a Pictorial Example on a Morris Minor (COMING SOON)

How To REPLACE a Handbrake Cable On An EQUALISER System

Click Here for a Pictorial Example on Renault 12 (COMING SOON)

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