Facel Vega: a brake saga

I am painfully aware that nothing has been posted on this site for some time. That’s not because I have lost interest in Facel Vegas, it is because by the time I get home in late November, I will have been in England just one week in the previous six.

While I was at home, I paid a visit to Shelsley Walsh hillclimb, whose commercial activities are managed by my nephew Mark. He knows of a Facel Vega Excellence being restored nearby and he promised it would be there for me to inspect.

It wasn’t. Apparently the brakes were being troublesome, binding on, and a few days later I remembered I had had a similar problem which had run and run and run. Eventually I solved the problem but here’s what I wrote at the time.

A Binding Invitation Broken

The date of the invitation reads March 8th, 2011. That should have been plenty early enough to prepare for an event on September 4th, you might have thought.

But I am ashamed to say that I still didn’t make Chelsea Auto Legends. I had a pride of place; the organisers were featuring four British patrons of motor sport: Rob Walker (who used to own my Facel 11), John Coombs, Tommy Sopwith and Ronnie Hoare. Rob Walker’s son Robbie would be there – would I be able to persuade him to let me have the correct registration number, ROB 2, for a pittance? – and so would Tommy Sopwith who not only married former English skiing golden girl and old friend Gina Hathorn, but inexplicably cancelled an order for an Excellence. I could ask him why.

But even as early as March I didn’t know if I and the Facel 11 would make it. The simple reason is that I don’t work on my cars myself. I may know a little about them, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A couple of years ago, Simon, who was looking after my cars, silently signalled his desire not to work on my cars any longer. So I managed to get David to agree to work on them instead.

David’s a lovely, enthusiastic, talented and knowledgeable chap – but so much of all those four attributes that he is endlessly busy. He had broken one rule to work for me anyway: he usually only works on cars older than himself – and he has to admit that he’s older than 51. The big problem was getting hold of him. Every day of the week is devoted to one car owner or another; I got to pick up any vacant days, which meant about once a month.

David did some great work on the cars, including fabricating an excellent new header tank on the Facel 11, doubling the capacity of the previous one, and he fitted electronic ignition, even though the first kit was faulty. Everything, however, seemed to take a very long time.

I seem to have had a brake problem for years and years. The brakes bind on and won’t release without a blip of the throttle to up the servo power. I’d tried everything. I have invoices for a pair of new front brake wheel cylinders (£147 each) and a particularly steep one (£260.85) for a reconditioned brake servo cylinder from 2008.

Someone had mentioned that we didn’t need two brake servos, one would suffice, so we discarded one and got the other rebuilt for this ridiculous amount of money. Even so, it was after paying this much that even Simon’s terminal frustration set in, particularly when the stopping coincided with a lack of ‘go’ due to a split fuel line a mile from his workshop.

Fast forward to March this year and we have the invitation to Chelsea Auto Legends; the event and the brake problem are on collision course. I’m not about to drive fifty miles to London with dicky brakes. So David and I – mainly David – start to tackle the problem. First of all, we need to be certain that the master cylinder is OK; we get a 22 euro rebuild kit from Hans Ruhe in Holland, and after a slight misunderstanding regarding the spec, the master cylinder is rebuilt and fitted. Result? No change, brakes still sticking on.

Then we make a fatal mistake; David is a big fan of silicone brake fluid (SBF), why not use this in the brake system? It isn’t hygroscopic and therefore doesn’t need to be replaced every year or so like Dot 4, which can also do so much damage to paintwork. You can put in SBF (which is considerably more expensive than Dot 4) and leave it there for ever.

After this experiment, however, there was still no difference in the efficiency of the brakes. And not much sign of David either. We were getting close to August and only a month to go. A friend recommended another chap in Haslemere called James; James initially did some good work on the Facellia, so I coerced him into working on the Facel 11 in the absence of David.

He didn’t know much about silicone brake fluid, so we both had a good look at what was being said on the web. And then Hans Ruhe told us that SBF shouldn’t be used with his rebuild kits. It makes the seals swell, which is why it was so tough to push the piston in and out of the master cylinder. So that was a waste of time and money. We would have to revert to regular Dot 4 which meant flushing through the whole system; either rebuilding or renewing the master cylinder, stripping all the brake  cylinders and fitting new seals, and ultimately checking the servo as well, even though it had been rebuilt only three years before.

We could have got another master cylinder rebuild kit from Hans Ruhe, but ultimately went for a new master cylinder of about the same bore as the original – which I believe comes from the Peugeot 403. Price of this, plus a plastic reservoir and various other bits was £110 or thereabouts from Rally Design Ltd, which is more than Hans’s 22 euros, I agree. But this is new and of a new design; indeed, it is meant for competition use but is adapted for road use.

A good look at all eight Dunlop wheel cylinders produced some interesting facts. The rears, for instance, should have been 1 ¾ inches, but the interior ones were of a different dimension to the outers which were correct. However they were all badly corroded, so we went for new ones and a new design from BG Developments, who do a competition version of the same ones which we should have got from CooperCraft at roughly the same price.

The front brake cylinders are 2 ½ inches; two of these were recently (2008) bought from SC Parts at £145 each (now £159) and I wasn’t about to chuck those. They had replaced a pair which I had left in the boot, so we looked at the other four and picked the best two, and rebuilt the lot with seals from Past Parts, £36 for four ex VAT and P&P.

Pads for all four corners came from SNG Barratt, Jaguar specialists. They proudly announce on their website that they have around 101,500 parts lines available; but when you look at the smaller print, you realise that only some 9,300 are actually in stock. Unfortunately, the pads (£33.15 for Jaguar fronts, £11 for aftermarket rears) were among the 92,200 that they had to wait for and so did we. However, they arrived the Thursday before Chelsea Auto Legends.

Result? The brakes were still sticking on! I could hear James’s 12 bore safety catch coming off as he contemplated suicide. I now understood, slightly, Simon’s frustration. There was only one thing left: bypass the servo and see what happens. Abracadabra, no problem, brakes not sticking on. And this servo was rebuilt three years ago.

Now began a crash course in servos. The internet has played a big part in helping us understand what we are doing, where to buy and what we should be doing. Now a Dutch Triumph Spitfire site detailed all the various Lockheed servos available, how much boost they would give, part numbers, rebuild kit numbers etc. Only problem is that the part number isn’t actually stamped on the servo. CooperCraft recommended a chap called Scott at JL Spares of Rochdale who could not only rebuild the servo (£140, taking one to two weeks) but could also help identify it.

This is all down to the dimensions quoted on the Dutch Triumph Spitfire site and basically revealed that the diameter of the canister (the big round bit) determines the size, whether seven inches or eight inches. Ours was seven inches, which meant that the boost was between 1.65 and 2.3. Then you measure the slave cylinder bore which in our case was 11/16ths which meant that it was a 1.9 boost. Eight inch canisters have 2.0, 3.0 and 4.25 boost.

The question was, why wasn’t the servo working? Was it still gunged up with SBF or Dot 4 or a mix of both? James took it apart; there’s not much to it really, and it was all detailed in pictures on the excellent Dutch Triumph site. The first thing James noticed was fluid on both sides of the piston in the servo. Thanks to the website he could also see what parts he had and what he should have. And missing was the smallest part of all: a circlip. Surely that was the source of all my woes. I’d had a rebuild for £250, three years of hassle and completely renewed the entire braking system all because of a missing bloody circlip. It could have been the master cylinder, it could have been the SBF, it could have been gunge in the servo, it could have been the same in any of the brake cylinders. But in the end it came down to a circlip.

What to do next? There were several pointers suggesting that 1.9 boost isn’t really enough, in spite of whoever saying that it was. After all, we had originally had two 1.9 boost servos, one for the fronts, we think, and one for the rears, until it was suggested that we only needed one. On a French Facel forum, a participant talks of using a 4.25 servo; Hans Ruhe talks of a ‘standard’ servo and slightly stronger one.’ A Rover P6 site also suggests something pretty robust. And best of all, SNG Barratt market a 4.25 servo for £125. It was, as they say, a no-brainer. And they had it in stock.

It arrived the day after Chelsea Auto Legends, duly fitted and has worked perfectly on the six days that I’ve driven the car since then. Some have suggested that 4.25:1 is rather too much, that it might cause brakes to lock up or boil the fluid. Might it be a sledgehammer to crack a nut, too much for the job? It’s what is used on the big Rovers and surely a Facel 11 is as heavy.

Mark Walker justifiably recommended Power Brakes Ltd of Windsor but they were on holiday during most of this saga so I never got to talk to them at the time, but I found out that they advised Justin Banks with his brakes for his newly restored Facel 11. He was supplied with a single 3.0 Lockheed which they considered sufficient for a single braking system with Coopercraft front calipers. Power Brakes do have 1.9s at £135 each, so I could have two of those if I wished to revert to a dual braking system. There’s no point in getting my 1.9 rebuilt apparently; the labour costs too much in our consumer-orientated society.

So there we are, hopefully that saga is over. But I never did get to ask Tommy Sopwith why he cancelled his order for the Excellence, or see Gina again or ask Robbie if he’d let me have ROB2. The Facel was even mentioned in the programme, compounding my guilty absence. And I still haven’t found out a) which so-and-so suggested we only need one servo and b) who rebuilt the one we did have. But I have my suspicions…

As I mentioned, the internet helped a lot; here are some of the sites visited:







Finally, remember the above was written five years ago but I’m sure the same rules apply today. Hope this helps with any brakes that might be sticking on. And finally, Facel Vega Car Club president Mark Walker does recommend a dual braking system, so a brace of 1.9s might be the best course of action. But meanwhile, my 4.25:1 has been excellent.


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