Brakes have been very much on my mind of late. Too much, to be honest.

It all happened at the tail end of our V8 Buick run to Mudgee in November.  On the Sunday, we joined the crew for a 60km run to nearby Rhylstone.  A very pleasant morning. But, just after farewelling the last car for Sydney, disaster struck.    We were staying on an extra day, and needed to return to Mudgee, but alas, the brake pedal went nearly to the floor.  On opening the bonnet and checking the brake fluid, it was perilously low!  No brakes on the Skylark! What the heck?

It took two service stations to procure some brake fluid, topped it up, and drove gingerly back into town.   This gave us good experience at minimizing brake usage on a windy and hilly drive!

So, the next morning, topped up with fluid, and some pedal feel, we thought, we can manage this, so off we headed for home over 300 kms away.

Soon we were caught up with the miners brigade, eager to get to work on time. Weary of constantly pulling over to allow them to pass, we decided to re-route, through the Goulburn River Valley and Bylong Way across to the Upper Hunter.  The road had only recently been sealed with the opening of new mines in the area, and by memory the route was very scenic. What I had not counted on was the extremely mountainous terrain. Somehow when I had traversed this route years ago we just seemed to enjoy the breathtaking scenery, but it is another thing when your brakes are compromised.

To my consternation on the very first descent  the brake pedal went straight to the floor, and despite dropping gears the car still was building momentum.   The challenge on an unfamiliar road is that you don’t know how long the descent is, nor how windy the road. Fortunately, at this point, there were no switchbacks, but the descent was long and tortuous, and at one point I was prepared to ram into the cutting to slow the car down. So, with my heart in my stomach, we continued to barrel down the road, Maggie saying, breathe John, breathe, concerned I would hyperventilate with my panic. Somehow, we survived the descent, and stopped in the gully below.

After catching my breath and easing out of the car, I checked the brake fluid and discovered once again it was severely diminished. So, I topped it up, and we determined to gingerly press on. One needs to realise this is a very isolated section of road, with very few settlements, only Wollar and Bylong, en-route, with over 100kms to the next major settlement, Denman.

So, a new strategy was decided. Stop at the top of the descent, descend at 5  mph hardly touching the brakes, keeping it in second gear, and pray like fury.   Somehow we managed, but I aged by the minute!   What I need to explain is that my Skylark has a turbo 400 3-speed box, but they were built with a Powerglide 2-speed.   Being a column-shift, there was only ever room to manually change two forward gears, first was impossible to engage. So, that is a bother.  A big bother. Further, we had eleven more long descents, with two of them with switchbacks.

So, when we finally pulled into Denman for a late brekkie and large coffee, it was with a sense of great relief.  Although we weren’t totally out of the woods, the road was familiar from this point, and there was only one more challenging descent.

We would arrive home (a further 150 kms)  in one piece, with the Skylark intact, even succeeding in negotiating our steep drive to manoeuvre it into the garage.

Yes, we were thankful to God that we had survived such a traumatic journey.

Not the first time I had faced one. At the very beginning of my driving career, my 9-week old (for me) 1960 Hillman Minx Series IIIA lost its brakes, also in the Blue Mountains, this time near Jenolan Caves. However the outcome was not as good. The car was totalled, and all four passengers and myself would sustain minor injuries. Why?  The car failed to negotiate the last hairpin bend from Kanangra Walls into Caves House and we sailed over a cliff, bodies flying, and doors being flung open. Miraculously, a small tree caught the rear bumper, and a large boulder brought the tumbling  car to  a halt. Yes, we all survived, but the car was sold as is to a wrecker in Bathurst for $25, and the DMR gave me a bill for $48 for the safety fence.

So, maybe one of the words on my mouth was “oh shoot!”

  1. Despite lots of nervous apprehension, the brake leak proved ultimately to be an easy fix despite being singularly elusive to find. Simply a fractured copper brake line, hidden from sight.


Part 2.   “Shooting Brakes”

For years I have wondered, why wagons in England are often termed “shooting brakes”?   It just seemed totally weird. But now I get it. It actually makes sense.   A term popular in the UK in the 1920’s and 1930’s to describe a crossover vehicle similar to our station wagon but generally with bespoke bodies and two doors, the origin of the term predates the automobile.   Their origin goes back to the C18 with wealthy aristocracy requiring a vehicle (originally horse-drawn) to carry a shooting party complete with guns.

With the advent of the automobile, a new variance would develop, a wagon called the shooting brake. “Shooting” for shooters, brake evolving from the original “brake” carriage.

In the early days of coachbuilding a “brake” (‘break’ in French) was a specific type of carriage used in training (or ‘breaking’) horses. Whilst a ‘shooting brake’ more specifically referenced a wagon used for more aristocratic things like transporting hunting parties, their guns and game to and from hunting excursions.

These “brakes” were a large, four-wheeled carriage-frame with no body, used for breaking in young horses, either singly or in teams of two or four. It has no body parts except for a high seat upon which the driver sits and a small platform for a helper immediately behind.   If the passenger seats were made permanent, the vehicle might be described as a ‘waggonette.’

When automobiles were first developed, the term “brake” was also applied to those with bodies similar to a horse-drawn ‘brake’.

Currently the word is sometimes used for an estate car station wagon.

In France, the term break is synonymous with a station wagon, having been called a “break de chasse”, literally translated: ‘hunting break’.

The first automotive shooting brakes were manufactured in the early 1900’s in the UK. The vehicle style became popular in England during the 1920’s and 1930’s. They were produced by vehicle manufacturers or as conversions by coachbuilders.

The term has evolved to describe cars combining elements of both station wagon and coupe body styles with or without reference to the historical usage for shooting parties.

Today there is no uniform definition of a ‘shooting break’ though Mercedes Benz have blurred the lines further with their 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class Shooting Brake, a 4-door coupe wagon.

More commonly a ‘shooting brake” is a sleek wagon with two doors and sports car panache, so that variants for Aston Martin, Lagonda, Ferrari, and Sunbeam can be found. But I have also seen pictures of a Rolls Royce ‘Shooting Brake’ and a Jaguar ‘Shooting Brake’. My all time favourite is the Volvo P1800 ES 1972-73 ‘Shooting Brake’.

In the American scene, the term has never been used to my knowledge, though some pundits say the 55-57 Chevrolet Nomad is an early modern-day shooting-brake.

So, is there a Buick Shooting-Brake in existence? Not to my knowledge, though one never knows. Certainly the closest rendition would be the coach-built bodies of Buick ambulances and hearses in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I hope to do a feature on these soon, having ridden in a superb 1925 Buick Hearse at Cessnock for my sister’s funeral.

In Buick parlance there are also Woodies and Sport Wagons, and Station Wagons and Delivery Vans. Of course, now with the SUV craze, all lines of distinction have been blurred.

An interesting development in the classic car scene is the renewed interest in station wagons. Originally a dedicated work vehicle, leading to the early demise of most, they were the family mover in the sixties with up to 8-9 seats. Buick would continue their versions well into the nineties, but today they are no more.   That’s progress for you.

                                    Penned by Saddo