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I have a 1965 full-size Buick with front and rear drum brakes which has been in storage for several years. I never used the parking brake even when I used it as a daily driver so it's been engaged maybe twice since 1991.

I've moved from a non-inspection state (Illinois) to an inspection state (Delaware) and intend to have the car shipped out and re-registered/titled in my new location.

Per the guidelines on the Delaware DMV Website my car is old enough that it is exempt from the emissions and fuel pressure tests but there is mention of a brake test. When I have tested my newer vehicles (2005+) this has been as straightforward as stopping the car when/where the tech tells me to but given how much the testing seems to vary based on vehicle age the requirements in practice may be different. I would hate to be asked to apply the parking brake and have it catch but not release.

Even without implications from the inspection, it would be good to know that the parking brake does, in fact, work.

With that in mind, I have some questions.

  1. What can I look for before I even try applying the parking brake? Are there parts I should lubricate, or indicators that I should pull the drums right away?
  2. Is there a good initial way to test the effectiveness of the parking brake other than putting the car in neutral and giving it a push?
  3. Is it possible for the parking brake to engage and not release? If this happens, what can I do to get it unstuck?

I have some experience wrenching on the car and generally enjoy it (I swapped the single master cylinder with a dual and replaced the brake lines and replaced the heater core) so I'd like to do the work myself if I can.

  • Why not just drive the car at 15-20 mph in front of your house and hit the emergency brake? The normal brakes will still work even if it doesn't, so there's no real risk or danger unless I'm missing something. – JPhi1618 Jun 7 '16 at 16:58
  • I think you are over thinking this. Test the brakes and if they do not work investigate and fix. Worst case scenario is replacing the cable and rebuilding the brake drums. I'd consider rebuilding the drums and replacing the cable anyways -- because even if you test them and the work and you pass the test, that doesn't mean they will work if/when you ever need to use them. – Thomas Carlisle Jun 12 '16 at 13:25
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According to this Delaware DMV page, the parking brake must stop a vehicle in 54 feet from 20 mph. For reference, the foot brake has to stop the car in 20' from the same speed. It doesn't sound like you're registering the car as an antique/collector, but if you do, you only have to pass the inspection once.

As for checking the function of the brake, I think the best way to find out is to get the car situated in a garage, or somewhere you can jack it up if necessary, and apply the brake. To test it without having to move, simply put the car in gear and see if the brake holds it.

If the brake does not hold the car, jack up the rear of the vehicle, remove the wheels, and adjust the parking brake. There should be a small window in the drum through which you can access and tighten the cable. Do so until you cannot spin the drum, then back off slightly until you can. Slight rubbing will go away in time but is not desirable. A quick search for 'parking brake adjustment' should provide a few videos that will give you a general idea of what to look for.

If the brake does not release, you can try pulling and releasing the lever repeatedly, bouncing your weight on the stuck corner of the vehicle, putting the vehicle in drive/reverse, or taking the wheel off and hitting the drum with a rubber mallet. If the brake still will not release, you may have to manually loosen the cable as described earlier, and bust out the anti-seize/rust spray (I prefer PB Blaster) and trace the line from the lever to the drums.

Worst case scenario, you'll need to replace the cable all-together, but it sounds like your combination of rarely using the brake, and generally taking care of this old beast shouldn't have worn the cable beyond the point of no return.

Good luck!

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    I would also recommend first cleaning and putting a little grease on each end of the parking brake cable where it enters the cable sleeve. – Mark Stewart Jun 7 '16 at 18:47
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    Might want to clean/grease BEFORE trying it. should reduce changes of it getting stuck. – rpmerf Jun 8 '16 at 12:06
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    @MarkStewart I didn't recommend greasing the cable first under the doctrine of "if it ain't broke". There is of course the chance that the cable is seized and will break if OP tries to pull it before applying grease, but it's so corroded that it breaks, it will need to be replaced anyways. – MooseLucifer Jun 9 '16 at 14:39

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