This is going to be a long one because I’m going to recount EVERYTHING. A lot has happened in the last 6 days and I’m not sure which minute detail might hold the key to the solution, so here comes every minute detail that I can remember.
TL;DR for those who just ain’t got the time;
3 months after replacing my rear rotors and pads my parking brake seized up in a parking lot. the car was towed to a shop and they said it was due to old, rusty rear calipers. I had the car towed home and installed new(er) calipers myself and accidentally sucked a bunch of air into my Master Cylinder in the process. I spent 4 days bleeding all of the air out of the system, and when I finally test drove the car after everything was done the parking brake seized up AGAIN as soon as I got home. Both times that the parking brake seized, it seems to have spontaneously released itself some number of hours later during the night.
Some Background Information
- 2012 Ford Fusion S w/ 6-speed manual
- 102000 miles
- I always use my parking brake. Level ground, uphill, downhill, sideways or upside down, my parking procedure is always the same; clutch pedal down, brake pedal down, put it in an appropriate gear, crank the parking brake, double check the gear, turn off the car, check the gear again, off the clutch, off the brake. 4 to 6 times a day, every day for the last 8 years.
- My car is kept in the garage. It’s not heated, but it’s not directly exposed to the elements either.
- A fun thing to know about this model of car is that it doesn’t have a dedicated parking brake. It uses the normal rear calipers and pads and the parking brake is simply a secondary, cable-based method of deploying them.
- I replaced my rear pads and rotors about 3.5 months / 5000 miles ago, but didn’t touch the calipers at this time
I started my car in the garage to go to work. It was cold out, maybe a degree or two below freezing, but nothing bad. The car fired right up and I slapped it into gear, disengaged the parking brake, and down the road I went, merry as a lamb. 3 miles and 10 minutes later I pulled up to my daughter’s DayCare and followed the parking procedure described in “Some Background Information” above. I IMMEDIATELY knew something was wrong because when I pulled up on the handbrake lever I was met with a sickening “zipping” sound and the lever went all loose and floppy in my hand. (Remember that) I moved it up and down several times and there was ZERO resistance when raising the lever, and it came back down just by gravity. Well, nothing I can do about it now, so I ran my daughter in to daycare.
When I came back out I removed the stick and the center console and sure enough, the handle and the brake cable were still physically attached, but the cable was stuck in it’s forward, “taut” position, even though it wasn’t actually pulled taut. It was all floppy and limp and flapping around freely as the lever moved back and forth. For some reason, the rear-wheel-end of the cable wasn’t moving.
After 8 years and 100000 miles it’s not surprising that things might be a little rusty back there, so I figured that I’d give it a few knocks and see if I couldn’t free it up. I screwed the stick back on, started it up, put it in gear, and drove it 50 yards across the parking lot doing 2 mph at 6000 rpm. Reverse, still stuck. Forward, still stuck. Reverse, still stuck. Reluctantly, I admitted defeat and left the car in a far corner of the parking lot and had a friend pick me up for work.
I arranged to have the car towed to a shop later that day, and when I got to the shop after work they informed me that the rear calipers had in fact seized shut (not surprising) and that they wanted $1100 to replace them (very surprising). I politely declined their service and had the car towed home. When the tow-truck driver showed up an hour later he had my car on on one of those flatbed trucks where the whole bed tilts up and down. He raised the bed up, played around with the levers on the side of the truck, and to my amazement the car rolled effortlessly backwards, right off the truck and to the ground! I asked him “Oh! So they did manage to free up the brakes!?” He had nothing to do with the actual diagnosis or repair, so he answered “I don’t know what they did, but it drove just fine for me to get it on the truck.” I didn’t take this to mean that the shop had generously fixed my brakes for free, I took it to mean that the calipers must have spontaneously rattled themselves loose during the day and that this was bound to happen again. I backed the car effortlessly up the driveway and parked it in the garage utilizing the procedure detailed in “Some Background Information” above.
Car sat in the garage. I got stuff to do.
I went to the local CarParts-R-Us and bought myself a shiny new (refurbished) pair of rear calipers for a 2012 Fusion, along with a nip of Loctite, a dab of brake grease, and a quart of brake fluid. When I got home I jacked the rear end of my car up and replaced the calipers without incident. All of the bolts loosened up and came out without a fuss, presumably because I’d already hulked them out 3 months earlier when I did the pads and rotors. Everything fit, nothing fought back, and within an hour the new calipers were on the car. Of course I did lose a few dribbles of brake fluid while I swapped the brake hose from caliper old to caliper new, so just to be safe I figured that I’d bleed them out quick.
I pushed a length of 1/4 inch tubing onto the little bleeder nipple of the passenger side wheel, put the loose end of the tube into a can, cracked the valve open, then got in the driver’s seat and gave the brake a few good pumps. I got out to check the tube and obviously it was full of bubbles. Back to the driver seat, pump pump pump. Back to the caliper, still a few bubbles wandering through the tube. Pump pump pump, bubble bubble bubble. Pump pump pump, bubble bubble bubble. I did this a few more times until I was convinced that no more bubbles were exiting the valve. I tightened the valve, removed the tubing, and moved along to the driver’s side wheel.
This was my big mistake. The astute among you will notice that what I just said right there was, “. . . moved along to the driver’s side wheel”, when what I should have said was, “. . .poked my head back under the hood to check the brake fluid level, then moved along to the driver’s side wheel.” So yeah, I hooked up the driver’s side caliper just like before and went Pump pump pump, bubble bubble bubble. Pump pump BRAKE PEDAL INSTANTLY FALLS STRAIGHT TO THE FLOOR!!
Yours truly just let his brake fluid reservoir run dry, and sucked an air bubble the size of a golf ball straight into his Master Cylinder.
For the rest of the day I flip-flopped between the two rear calipers, pump pump pumping and the bubbles never stopped. Most of the bubbles coming out weren’t really “a bubble,” though. It was more like a foam. When I hopped out of the driver’s seat to check on the tubing I wouldn’t see one or two big bubbles, I’d see several thousand tiny little bubbles, like homemade whipped cream or mattress foam. I pushed my entire quart of brake fluid through the lines before I gave up and called it a day.
I watched a video about how to bleed your master cylinder alone without having to remove it from the car. Hey, it’s worth a shot. I jacked up and removed my front driver side wheel and used 5 or 6 feet of the clear tubing to connect the front caliper’s bleeder valve directly to the brake fluid reservoir. I hooked one end of the tubing to the bleeder, and dropped the other end right down into the reservoir. The idea is that most of the bubbles will come out of the front driver’s side wheel because it’s closest to the Master Cylinder, and that once the tubing is filled with brake fluid it creates a closed loop so there’s nowhere for any more air to enter. You can just sit in the driver’s seat and pump pump pump, watching the bubbles move through the tube on their way to the reservoir. So that’s exactly what I did, and it seemed to work!! With the engine off the brake pedal felt perfectly firm, and after several minutes of dutiful pumping the fluid in the tubing finally ran clear with nary a bubble to be seen!
I took the loose end of the tubing out of the reservoir, disconnected the other end from the bleeder valve and fired the car up. With the engine running the pedal again fell effortlessly to the floor. I’m not even sure I actually stepped on it, I think gravity might have simply pulled it down. “Don’t panic!” I thought to myself. “You only hit that one caliper, surely there’s more air in the other lines.” I grabbed my tubing and my can and went back to my usual method of Pump pump pump, get out and check the tubing, pump pump pump, get out and check the tubing, and again. . . the bubbles just wouldn’t stop. I did 3 or 4 laps of the car, from passenger rear, to driver rear, to passenger front, to driver front, doing 5 or 6 rounds of pump pump pump at each wheel but the 2 rear wheels just bubbled and bubbled and bubbled. I pushed another full quart of brake fluid through the lines when I decided to do the unthinkable and call. . . . him. The Self-Proclaimed Gear Head Guy from work. (SPGHGuy)
SPGHGuy informed me that my bleeding procedure was all wrong and he came over to show me the way of the bleed. To be fair, he may have been onto something. Under SPGHGuy’s tutelage, I learned that bleeding your brakes is virtually impossible alone, because it’s important to keep the fluid moving backwards towards the bleeder valves, and you just can’t do that with the valve left open and the pedal constantly pumping. SPGHGuy and I ran another quart of fluid through the system in record time. I would pump up the brake pedal a few times and then hold it down. While I held it SPGHGuy would crack the bleeder for just a second, then tighten it back up. I would pump pump hold, he would crack it, seal it, pump pump hold, crack it, seal it, pump pump hold. We would do this 5 or 6 times at each wheel, working our way from the furthest wheel from the Master Cylinder (rear passenger) to the closest (front driver).
And the bubbles never stopped.
The whole time we did this I thought that the brake pedal felt fine. It was firm, it offered plenty of resistance, and you’d forgive me for thinking that we were making good progress. However, whenever we would turn the car on the brake pedal would again sink effortlessly to the floor, sometimes even with an audible whoopie-cushion like groan. Turning the engine on revealed that we were making zero progress, the feel of the pedal never improved, no matter how much foam came out of the bleeders.
Speaking of foam, I did think it was interesting that SPGHGuy remarked how odd it was that he didn’t see any big, obvious brake-line clogging bubbles come out. Instead it was long lines of foam. At least I wasn’t seeing things yesterday on Day 3. We brainstormed and hypothesized, and ultimately decided that yes, this MUST be the result of a giant bubble still lodged in the Master Cylinder. The Master Cylinder is the only area in the brake system that’s big enough and has enough mechanical motion going on for the fluid and air to mix so vigorously. A bubble in the Master Cylinder also explains why the pedal never felt any better with the engine running. Ultimately though, we were out of brake fluid, so we were done for the day. I thanked SPGHGuy for his help, for showing me the proper method, and said that now it was just a matter of pump pump hold, pump pump hold, over and over again until that monster bubble in the Master Cylinder finally turned completely to foam and came out of a bleeder somewhere.
I decided that I didn’t want to spend the next month pumping foam out of my brakes, so I did some YouTube research on how to properly bleed a Master Cylinder without removing it and I came across this interesting tool. It’s basically a giant syringe with a big, fat rubber tip on it. You disconnect the brake lines one at a time from the Master Cylinder, and then inject a load of fluid into the Master Cylinder backwards with the syringe, pushing the air bubble up and out through the reservoir. As luck would have it my local CarParts-R-Us had one, so I bought it along with another quart of brake fluid and went home.
I took an empty soup can and nestled it amongst the wires and hoses under the Master Cylinder hoping to catch most of the inevitable drips. I dipped the syringe into the open reservoir and filled it with brake fluid, then cracked the main brake line free from the Master Cylinder and quick as a flash removed the line, pressed the syringe to the naked fitting, injected the fluid, and watched in horror as I swear to god 300 gallons of brake fluid shot out of my Master Cylinder at twice the speed of sound, splattering violently against the cabin-side manifold and raining down through the engine compartment to my garage floor. Fortunately, my old soup can stayed completely clean throughout the procedure.
I refilled the syringe and again pumped 60ml of brake fluid into the Master Cylinder backwards, and sure enough the reservoir sounded like a witch’s cauldron as great, thick bubbles rose up to the surface. This time I used my free hand to cover the top of the reservoir and force a vacuum before I took the syringe away from the brake line port. I was thrilled to see that this time only a few dribbles of fluid seeped from the fitting, directly into the gaping maw of my soup can below. I held a thumb over the exposed port on the Master Cylinder as I refilled the syringe and shot another load of fluid into the Master Cylinder through the main line, just to be sure. I re-installed the line and repeated this procedure with the secondary line closer to the firewall.
Once I had both lines firmly reconnected to the Master Cylinder (knocking over my soup can in the process, spilling it’s contents onto the floor below of course) I crossed my fingers, started the car, and. . . SUCCESS!! It definitely wasn’t great, but with the engine running my brake pedal was now merely “very spongy,” which was light-years better than the “non-existent” it had been yesterday.
Of course disconnecting the brake lines from the Master Cylinder had introduced a little bit of air into the system, so with the help of my wife I continued the pump-pump-hold-crack-seal procedure that SPGHGuy had taught me yesterday, again working from passenger rear to driver front. There were still plenty of bubbles, but this time they were bubbles, discreet, individual orbs of air. No more of this foam nonsense. Every other lap from back wheels to front wheels we would turn the car on to measure our progress, and sure enough I could feel the brake pedal getting firmer and firmer with every test. We called it a night because we ran out of brake fluid.
I bought my final quart of brake fluid on the way home from work, and again with my wife’s help completed 3 more laps of pump-pump-hold-crack-seal from back wheels to front. There were a few small bubbles during the first cycle, but the 2nd and 3rd go-arounds were 100% bubble free!
We Did It!!
I was thrilled with how the brake pedal felt completely normal with the car turned on, so I thanked my wife for her service and sent her back inside. Now it was time for the long-awaited test drive. I opened the garage door and started the car. I held down the clutch, put it in gear, released the parking brake and set out. Everything went great! Gradual stops, hard stops, slowing down, all went without a hitch, and without a soft, spongy brake pedal.
I drove home and pulled the car halfway up the driveway. I parked according to the procedure detailed in “Some Background Information” above and went inside to complete the best part of any job. . . . . cleanup.
The car sat outside in the cold for maybe 15 or 20 minutes while I put all my tools away and used up every paper towel, dish towel, bath towel, beach towel, rag, old T-Shirt, and fluffy cat in the entire house to mop the brake fluid off the garage floor. I then got into the car and turned it on in preparation to park it back in the garage. . . . AND. . . .
the parking brake handle went limp and floppy in my hand with a sicking “zipping” sound as I dropped it down into the center console.
I drove the car with these new calipers for all of 5 whopping miles, parked on a hill in the cold for no more than 30 minutes, and NOW MY PARKING BRAKE IS SEIZED UP AND THE CAR WON’T MOVE!!!
Needless to say, I was angry.
Needless to say, that if my wife hadn’t been standing in the doorway watching me, I would’ve taken the handle off of my floor jack and broken every window on that G.D. USELESS MACHINE RIGHT THEN AND THERE LIKE A TANTRUM-THROWING 5 YEAR OLD.
So I backed it into the garage doing 2 mph at 6000 rpm and I went inside and I went to bed filled with hate.
Day 7 - Today
I woke up this morning and discussed with my wife how the two of us would handle her single car for the day. When I left the house to go to work I noticed that my car wasn’t where I had left it in the garage. The darn thing had rolled forward, and the front bumper was now gently resting up against the garage door!! Apparently I was so worked up last night that I had failed to park it according to the procedure detailed in “Some Background Information” above! It wasn’t in gear, and the parking brake wasn’t set! Sometime during the night the brake had spontaneously released, just like when the car rolled off of the flatbed tow truck almost a week before.
So there it is. My calipers were old and crappy, so my parking brake seized up. I put on new calipers, sucking a metric butt ton of air into my brake system in the process. 4 days and a GALLON of brake fluid later I took care of that snafu. . . and now my parking brake is seized up.
Any guidance or wisdom is greatly appreciated.