A messy job

A son’s struggle to free himself from a father’s influence can be a messy job.  He has to push against the father’s authority to come into his own.  The father’s struggle is no less difficult, but his is an internal one.  He has to be willing to let the son separate and become his own man.  Trying to hold on only stifles the relationship.  It doesn’t give it a chance to grow.  But the son doesn’t love or respect his father less for letting go of him.  He winds up loving and respecting him more.”
Emilio Estavez, Along the Way

At the time, I failed to recognize it for what it was.  Too young and unsophisticated to understand the father / son separation dynamic, I thought it was an argument about disc brakes.

I had bought the $75 English Ford Anglia not to drive but to tear down.   I’d found it in the darkest corner of the dealership’s back lot, parked alone.  It was a mess, a cheap mess, cheaply made, a bottom-rung model, and offered cheap.  Barely ten years old, it was already worn out.  I should have passed it by, but my purpose was to throw away a good deal of its parts, to be replaced with performance bits from a newer model.  In the garage, I already had the 1500cc replacement engine, complete with twin-choke Weber carburetor and tuned exhaust, short-throw four-speed transmission, brakes and front suspension, all salvaged from a wrecked Cortina GT.  My intent was to install the GT parts in the old Anglia.   A British hot rod or, as the term was used in the UK, a conversion.

It was my first solo car project, undertaken without seeking my fathers counsel or permission, without his lead.  All I’d asked was the use of the garage for a while.

It’s important to note that the garage and the workbench in the basement were Dad’s domain.  Unquestionably. But there was more to it than territoriality.  Tools were more than useful objects and mechanics more than a skill.  They were his identity, how he saw himself.  Before he died, he made a gratitude list. At the top was his ability to fix things.  It was also the most important thing he had to give to his son.

This was my project, my concept, but the mechanic in him couldn’t stay away.  So when an extra set of hands was needed, they were his.  When fitting the GT bits into the Anglia shell called for a bit of improvisation, he was there to logic out solutions with me.

I had already accomplished much of the disassembly myself when it came time to adapt the GT front suspension to the old Anglia shell.  Dad took one look at the disc brakes attached to the suspension units and reacted with alarm.

“You can’t do that.”  “It won’t work.”  “You won’t be able to stop.”

It turned out some guy he knew raced a dirt track car.  The guy had told Dad how he’d replaced drum brakes with disc brakes, and how the resulting brake pedal force was greater that he could apply with his right foot.

“It won’t work.  Disc brakes need too much pressure.”

It will work, I maintained, without truly knowing that it would.  I insisted I was right, refused to capitulate, refused to share his fear.  But the seed of doubt had been planted.  Truth told, I hadn’t done my homework, and now I needed to.

Quietly, I started my research.  I knew that the British engineers in Dagenham designed parts to be used by as many models as possible, to save expense.  This knowledge alone had been my reason for insisting it would work.  I had also acquired the rear drum brakes from the GT, and so knew the discs and drums were designed to work together.  The only variable was the master cylinder, attached to the brake pedal.  With the pedal depressed, the master cylinder pressurizes the hydraulic fluid in the reservoir, acting upon the slave cylinders at each wheel.

But by matching the EnFo parts number on the master brake cylinder in the Anglia with the part number in the donor GT, I was finally certain.  As I suspected, the EnFo engineers had specified the same master cylinder in both models.  The displacement of the hydraulic piston was designed to exert the same force on the slave cylinders of the Anglia as the calipers of the GT.  It would be as though the entire brake system had been transplanted intact from one car to the other.

Dad’s reaction was based on the only information he had, an anecdotal story.  This he accepted as truth and enlarged it to apply to all disc brake designs and applications.  In his world, disc brakes were something with which he had no experience.  Add the story from the race car guy, and disc brakes were something to be to be mistrusted, avoided.

I was never sure if it was my safety that concerned him most or whether it was his need to be right, the word of the older, wiser man, the authority in the household on all matters regarding cars and mechanics.

Before we fabricated the adapters for the suspension and brakes, I told him one more time I’d done my research, that the disc brakes would operate in the Anglia exactly as they had in the GT.

I don’t recall being conscious of it at the time, but I suppose I was asserting myself against my father, testing my independence, trying my wings.  My information was backed up with data and logic.  His was hearsay, incomplete, perhaps inaccurate.  Dad had no idea what make or kind of brakes they guy had used, or what kind of master cylinder he’d installed in this race car.  My opinion was that the failure came about as the result of mismatched components, not designed to work in concert with each other.  

The day came when the conversion was complete, the engine started for the first time.  After the usual cycle of carburetor and timing adjustments, I put the car in gear, eased off the clutch and rolled it out of the garage under its own power.  Before heading down the long grade of the driveway to the street below, I touched the brake pedal, gently at first.  The disc brake calipers applied pressure to the rotors and the car stopped evenly.  I let it move further forward, touched the brakes again.  Again the car stopped.  No drama.  Gently riding the brakes, I steered the car down the long driveway and stopped neatly at the edge of the street.

There were many more adjustments I needed to make before the car felt and drove as though it were all of a piece, but the disc brakes were not among them.  The brakes provided balanced stopping power from the first.  As I had hoped, they were equal to the horsepower and performance provided by the hot-rodded engine.  It all worked as a whole, or at least as much as a teenage kid’s backyard garage project could.

He has to push against the father’s authority to come into his own.”

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