The day the brakes died

I crashed my car last Saturday. A lot of people have been asking me about it on Twitter and Facebook, so here is the story… fortunately it all ends pretty well considering how bad this could have been.

In May me and Angie bought ourselves a new car. New to us at least, but it was actually a fifty-year-old VW Beetle – or ‘Fusca’ as the Beetle is known in Brazil. Considering it was a 1961 model, it was in astounding condition with a new engine having done fewer than 500km and all new interior and seats… it looked great and we wanted a car just for weekends anyway. This is a big city of 20m people, believe me, the bus and metro are better options during the week.

1961 VW Fusca

We used the car a few times around town and a couple of weeks ago put it in for some maintenance work. All the normal servicing work like brakes, sparks, filters, oil… plus our local garage told us the suspension was a bit dodgy and the carburettor was shot, so we had everything done.

I collected the car from the garage last Saturday and was pleased to find it running so nicely. The gear changes were noticeably better and it just felt that way cars do after a big service and tune-up – improved.

Unfortunately, on the way back from the garage I was running along a long downhill stretch of Rua Diana and the lights turned red. There was no rush, so I slowly applied the brakes. Then suddenly the pedal felt like it snapped. It went to the floor. I pushed it up and down a couple of times only to find it was completely loose and we had no brakes!

A taxi had stopped at the red light and we ran straight into the back of it.

I hurt my hand as it was still on the steering wheel and my thumb was torn backwards… it’s still sore now. Angie had it worse than me as her seatbelt broke so she was thrown into the windscreen, banging her head on the glass and bashing her knee into the dashboard.

Thankfully though, we were both OK and able to walk out of the car to talk to the taxi driver and figure out how to get our car off the road.

I was angry with myself for not yanking the handbrake, but then the time between the brakes failing and us rolling into the car may have been a couple of seconds at most – I was focused on the brake failure and just never had time to take alternative action…

It was particularly annoying to have just spent a lot of money at the garage, and to have all the brake pads changed, only to find the brakes failing on the car. I was initially pretty angry about the situation. We could have been going faster, there could have been a person instead of a taxi, or a child could have stepped in front of us… the situation could have been a hundred times worse and yet we had supposedly just had the brakes fixed up.

The short story of the aftermath is that the taxi driver was very philosophical about it all. He lost a day of work, but was actually OK about it – enjoying his day off. He asked us for about £200 to repair his bumper, which he has still not come around to claim so he is in no hurry. He has chatted on the phone and talked of his sorrow at seeing a nice classic car all broken up. He was sorry for us and we had crashed into him!

Our car has a damaged bumper, bonnet, and wheel arch, but remarkably the axle and steering are all OK so it’s superficial damage that looks worse than it is. We are waiting for a couple of repair estimates still, but it shouldn’t be too much.

The garage where we had the work done rescued us with a tow-truck and they have kept the car all week. They are sorting out the brakes. It was a hydraulic failure – so all the pressure was lost suddenly. Though we were pretty angry with the garage, they had not done any work on the hydraulic system itself so it was just one of those things – it could have happened anytime. And in any case they are now fixing it up for us without any labour charges.

So, it has all turned out OK in the end. The damage won’t cost too much to repair, the guy with the taxi was more upset about our car than his, and our injuries were only minor and already healing.

On the evening of the crash itself though I did find it hard to sleep, just thinking about all those possibilities. For a total brake failure, we had just about the best possible conditions, fairly slow, running up to a red light, with a car in front to take the impact rather than sailing out into a main road. It could all have been so much worse, and with Angie’s seatbelt breaking with only a minor crash the thought of what might have happened if we had been going faster was quite disturbing.

Angie now doesn’t trust the car. It’s romantic to have a beautiful fifty-year-old car rather than some boring grey motor from GM, but this episode with the brakes has shaken her. We may well be selling it as soon as it looks perfect again… and getting the typical city-dwellers 4×4.

I never thought I would say that, but I’m also thankful to still be here after that experience.

VW Fusca in garage


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