What's the difference between restoring brakes and front end parts, and repairing them? In a repair, we fix what's broken. If a caliper leaks, we reseal it. If it doesn't leak, we clean the body and hardware, and fit new pads.
If we need rotors, we fit them. Otherwise the rotors stay in place. That's a workmanlike repair. Some do a bit more, others a bit less. Either way, it;s clearly repair.
In a restoration, we rebuild everything, no matter how it looks. Every caliper seal gets changed. Every brake hose gets changed. The rotors are renewed, and and the bearings are replaced. The spindle in inspected, and the ball joints behind it are serviced if needed. At some point we consider how far the restoration reaches. Do we do the whole front end? Or do we stop at the hubs?
There is also the question of cosmetics. We always want the brakes to work like new after service. Do we want them to look like new as well? In some cases we're asked to make them look better than new. We can do that too.
Here are some brakes that work like new, but don't look too appealing:
Contrast that with these brakes from a 1993 Bentley, which look better than new. In this case the formerly unfinished cad plate calipers (dabbed with green paint to signify mineral oil) have been finished in high temp high gloss ceramic, which should hold this wet look through seasons of use.
This next photo shows an older front end, from a 1972 Rolls Royce. In this job we retained the original "bare metal" look on the calipers but preserved it with clear ceramic. We refinished the steel pipes in the original chromate, and fitted new hoses.
You'll also see newly replaced hardware (silver cad) and beautiful hard high gloss black powder on the spindle and suspension arms. The ball joints are new as well.
You can't refinish a brake caliper without taking it completely to pieces. But you can't rebuild a caliper without taking it to pieces either, so the labor to that point is the same. Here's the refinished caliper body being assembled with new pistons and seals
Sometimes the calipers need machine work. When they are apart you can see pitting and wear. In most cases the 1970s calipers clean up, but there are some that are so rusty we install sleeves to give a smooth sealing surface. It's common to replace bleeders and hardware, and pistons may be upgraded to stainless, especially if we have to make them. That's happening more and more, as the quality of repair parts for old cars continues to drop.
This is the finished caliper:
And here it is in place on the spindle:
The red grease is modern synthetic stuff - a step up in performance from what the car had originally, and invisible once the dust cap is in place. Many of these fasteners will be tagged with yellow paint - just as the factory did - once they have their final torque set.
All too often, when people talk about restoring a car, their thoughts do not reach beneath the hood, or below the car. Yet that is where all the important stuff lives. The engine that moves you. The brakes that bring you to a stop. The suspension that carries you over bumps and around corners.
A restoration isn't a restoration unless those things are accounted for too. That's how I see it and the auction markets are beginning to come around to that view as well. 1960s cars that are truly restored - inside and out - are beginning to bring real premiums over their more superficially fixed-up brothers. It's just a matter of time before this extends to newer vehicles as well.
A few months ago Hemming's reported a stunningly restored Jaguar XKE fetched $467,000 at auction. We wish every job we do could be to that standard.
As the cars of the 1970s and 1980s get older we have to start thinking about more than just basic repair. At some point, you either let the thing go, or make the decision to bring it back. For those of us in our 50s and 60s today, a restoration like this - carefully preserved - should last the rest of our driving lives.
It's beautiful and functional. For me, the best parts of these jobs are the details no one can see. We see so many shoddy superficial "restorations" that we take pride in doing work like this, whether others notice or not.
In these next images you see us putting new bearings and races into a hub that's been cleaned and finished in semi-gloss ceramic. Then a new rotor is fitted up. Only Rolls Royce would do this with a dozen fine thread bolts! The ball joints are fitted into the spindle, and because it's a Rolls, they are set up by hand with .004 spacer washers.
There's no magic to this work. Anyone with good mechanical skills should be able to do it. Why then is it so rare? I think it's rare because it's time consuming, and requires many different resources. There's one guy for the basic mechanics. Another for the cleaning. One for the painting and another for the plating. Bringing it all together - even for a little assembly like this - can be a challenge.
Yet a single focused guy could do it all, given the determination, some basic tools, and the time. Or he could hire us.
No one will ever see this work, but we know where it is, and what. And we do it for owners who know it too. We are very fortunate, to have built a reputation that allows us to create pieces of drivable automotive art for clients who will use that art, and love it. I used to read about patrons of the arts in the middle ages, and how they supported the sculptors who made so many of the great works we admire today. Now I understand their place in the great scheme of things. Artists can't create their greatest work alone. It's all made for someone. Nothing is done in a vacuum.
When we do work like this we cease to be repairmen. We become artists. Somewhere in the process above we moved from fixing to creating, and that is where I like most to be. It's why I write books, and why I do this. It's why we have a school at our car shop, to teach this trade to young people like us.
I would not presume to call myself the equal of those great artists, but we too are supported by patrons of the automotive arts in the creation of works like this. It's a really cool thing, and what I love best about working at Robison Service.
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent Rolls Royce and Land Rover restoration and repair specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts. John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Rolls Royce Owner's Clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles. Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665