Bizarre brake(?) problem, 89 Prelude, REALLY need some help

This is involved but I will try to make it as short as I can. I bought this car used almost two years ago. It’s my 3rd Honda, my 2nd Prelude. It’s needed some things, more than expected, but so be it. But this…what it feels like is happening is that the brake won’t let go. The problem sometimes follows a pattern, sometimes doesn’t. Most of the time, I’ll start the car, and instead of the brake pedal giving once the car is on, it stays hard and doesn’t yield. I can drive it but it stays that way. As I drive, it sometimes yields a bit- when I’m braking, I do have to apply a bit of pressure to get the car to stop, but only a bit. I can sit and the car won’t roll. There was a time when I could start to move and then pull over, shut it off, restart it, and the brake pedal is then fine. Why shutting off and restarting it would do that, I don’t know. Once it goes, it’ll be fine, but then suddenly the pedal will be hard and not go down again. It seemed to be that it was happening in stop and go traffic, then I’d get on the highway and apply the brake and whoa! all of a sudden the brake would be loose again. But then the pattern of it changed. It would start that way but then getting on the highway made no difference. I would pull off and start and restart repeatedly until it ‘let go’ again. Also, while driving on highway, as opposed to locally, it might be ok until I tried to accelerate and than the front of the car would shake. The tires were old and when I got new ones, it reduced the shake, but it was still there. You can feel the car straining, like it’s being held back. At different times I would smell a bit of a burning, nothing big but then suddenly about a month ago, it ‘locked up’ while on the highway. I had to slow, but without applying the brake. Didn’t matter. As soon as traffic cleared and I increased my speed, the pedal was hard and unyielding again. I wasn’t far from where I needed to go so I tried to get there, but it started to burn badly and it produced a bit of smoke from under the right wheel, so I pulled off. AAA was going to take 2 hrs to get to me so I just started driving it very slowly, to get to my mechanic, and I didn’t have a problem on the way.

The first mechanic that worked on it was someone I had been with for years. He did a few things: he relined the front brakes, replaced the left front caliper, checked the rear brakes and bearings, lubricated the parking brake cables (and eventually disconnected it) and bled the brakes ( replaced the master cylinder, which I wasn’t sure involved the brakes or not, I’m copying off receipts). He also replaced at least one brake hose.He felt the brakes doing what they did and said something was sticking. Awhile back a friend said it might be the rotors or the proportion valve. The mechanic said he checked the rotors and that it wasn’t the valve. I finally decided to take it to someone else. When I eventually found the new guy, I did the best I could to explain the problem to him, since it was so frustrating the way it showed up but he found a problem with another part of the car that I had to address immediately (unrelated to the brakes) and I had to wait awhile to get it back to him for this particular problem ( didn’t have the money). When I finally brought it to him, he called me to tell me it was the proportion valve, an incredibly expensive part. I was surprised but I should mention that I didn’t just find this guy in the phone book. He came highly recommended from a few people a member of my family knows, some of whom are in law enforcement so I figured I couldn’t go wrong in trusting him. He had the car for a week, I picked it up, and it did the exact same thing within an hour of me getting it from him. I was in stop and go traffic and it wouldn’t let go. Burning, smoke, pulled over. When I jumped on the highway, it loosened up. I called him immediately just furious, to find out he never drove it to feel what was going on, he ‘assumed’ it was the valve because it ‘couldn’t be anything else’. But he offered to take it back and drive it a few days and check it again. I told him I wasn’t spending anymore on it and he agreed. It took two weeks before I could get it back to him. In that time the problem persisted. then suddenly, at the end of last week, the pattern changed. The pedal was normal when I’d turn the car on and it drove normally. But the locking or whatever it was would still eventually happen while driving. That was the case the day before I brought it to him at the beginning of this week. It was fine during a couple hours of runnings errands, then suddenly the pedal went hard and simply would not let go. I happened to be only a couple blocks from home, so I got it back but it started to burn again.

I got it back today, it’s still not right. He didn’t work on it as he said he would and is claiming it was fine when he drove it. Dealing with him is one matter, my most immediate thing is I’m at a complete loss. What’s going on here?? I really appreciate any help I can get on this because I’m really in a bind. Thank you.

anyone? thank you. (ps sorry for the length of the original post, couldn’t find a way to preview/edit it before posting).

does this car have anti-lock brakes? If so, check the sensors and the control unit… might be the electronics, not the mechanics. A good indicator for that would if the check engine or ABS light were on.

Thank you for replying!! I began to wonder about antilock brakes myself when I was looking around online a bit. A friend said he doubted it, that they wouldn’t be in a car that old; also neither mechanic has mentioned it, I would have thought it would have come up. As for any indicator lights, there’s been nothing.

Back in 1978, a friend of mine had me hold onto his car for him while he traveled. It had a weird brake problem too. I binded on random occasions but would work (mostly). The solution was not in the major system components but in the linkage. In this case the brake pedal was connected to a wire cable in a cable guide. The wire cable was binding because the fraying wire cable would randomly catch in the cable guide. At one point, I’d have to pull the pedal back up to make it work. Hotter days would have the cable work a bit better. I expect the heat expanded the guide. So my suggestion is to check the brake linkage.

Thanks for the info Anonymous! Something like that makes sense, since there seem to be no major components in the system left.

The hard brake pedal and bad engine performance sounds like a brake booster problem to me.

Just curious; if the right front caliper was smoking then why did they replace the left front?

Nice job CarTalk; I’ve been deloggalated (is that a word :wink: off yet again.

Actually, to clarify, the engine performance is fine-as long as the brake isn’t holding the car back. When it isn’t, the car flys- part of why I fell in love with my last Prelude :). What I meant is you can feel the car trying to go, but it’s working against the brake so it’s straining.

I think earlier, as far as the left one goes, the prior mechanic thought that the source of the problem partly because the hose didn’t look right. As for the right caliper, your guess is as good as mine. It never happened while I was still with the other guy. As for now, well, this is the same guy who just charged me over 300 for something I didn’t need, and is claiming the car is now ‘fine’, because when he happened to drive it this week, the brake didn’t happen to lock. Or so he says. I must have hallucinated the burning smell, hard pedal and smoke that occured less than an hour after I picked it up from him. And occured again. And again. And again the day before I got it back to him…

I will be following this topic as well. My 91 Accord is having some random hard brakes too! This is after the garage replaced the master cylinder and proportioning belt (or valve?) for the spongy problem. Must be a Honda thing?

I’m sorry but your post was hard to follow but I will give it a shot.

I think the key thing here is the pedal being hard and you have to press the pedal harder to get the car to stop.

Am I on the right track so far?

This would indicate a lack of brake power assist. Meaning it could be a vacuum supply problem to the booster or the booster itself is failing.

That’s my take on it anyway.

Believe it or not I have the same problem that I have been trying to figure out now for some time but it is on my 1964 Ford Thunderbird. It sounds almost exact to your problem but no one can give me a solution. VERY FRUSTRATING!!!

I can just wonder about these “mechanics”. When the brake pedal is pressed, brake fluid is pushed through the lines and hoses to the brake calipers. The caliper piston(s) press the brake pads against the brake rotors to slow/stop the car. When the brake pedal is released, the brake fluid pressure goes to zero and the brake pistons stop pressing the brake pads against the brake rotors; UNLESS, the brake hoses have deteriorated internally and DON’T allow the brake fluid to go to zero. The result is, the brake pad(s) keeps a squeeze on the brake rotor. The fix is to replace the brake hose. Sometimes brake calipers will bind and cause the brakes to drag, also. I would replace the brake hose.

If it were ME, I’d put the car up on a rack and hand spin the wheels whenever this problem occurred. This would point to which part of the brake system is “binding”. My bet is on the parking brake . . . this happens to my old Dodge p/u, and is easily fixed by simply jiggling the cable when it binds. I’d isolate the part of the system first, then come back and post.

I agree with Hellokit about spinning the wheels, and someone else about the brake hoses. Additionally, the only time I can imagine “hard pedal” is ageeing with the posters regarding the booster. Note that when master cylinders leak, they leak fluid out the back into the booster, which damages it. Check the vacuum hose, check valve & booster, but also spin the wheels with the car up while it is raised.
p.s. maybe if the diaphragm in the booster is messed up, it is holding pressure into the back of the master cylinder (like you were still braking, yeah!)

I spent that whole agonizingly long second paragraph, as well as all the replies, just DYING to find some mention of the brake booster. I had to wait until almost the LAST reply.

The following things cause FRONT brakes to stick:
Improperly lubricated (and so sticking) caliper guide pins.
Improperly adjusted booster-to-master or pedal-to-booster pushrod.
Sticking or improperly adjusted parking brake.
Sticking/seizing caliper pistons.
Sticking/seizing master cylinder pistons (which will cause binding in either two or four brakes, depending on whether the primary, secondary, or both pistons are sticking.)
And finally, a faulty power booster that is not venting atmosphere (vacuum balanced) or reposessing atmosphere (astmospherically balanced), causing an imbalance on the pedal side of the chamber, resulting in application of the brakes.

(There were listed in what I think most will find to be the correct order of likelyhood, when nothing much is known of the problem)

My guess? Faulty booster. Why? Well you say that when you drive the highway, the pedal generally softens and allows easier application of the brakes. When you’re on the highway, the throttle is generally held at a steady position that is not too wide, allowing an almost full engine vacuum to build up. The booster is vacuum powered (no matter how it’s balanced) and needs a solid supply of vacuum to operate. When you’re driving around in the city, you’re frequently getting onto the throttle. Under acceleration there’s generally very little available vacuum available to the vacuum system. Most cars utilize a vacuum tank (an oxymoron if you ask me) somewhere in the system and check valves between the system hoses and the intake, so that constant vacuum is maintained. But a leak between the booster and the intake manifold, or a faulty check valve on the booster, will prevent full engine vacuum from being pulled on the booster and ready at all times. So when you’re in the city, accelerating and stopping, there’s no time for your leaking vacuum to build up within the booster, giving you brake assist. But when you’re on the highway, the engine has plenty of vacuum supply and manages to pull down vacuum in the booster.

The reason I think it’s the booster and not the vacuum system is because you say the brakes seem to bind in the applied position. A failure of the booster internal diaphragm may at first make the brakes only hard, and not manifest a sticking brake condition. But as the leak spreads, it can affect the booster’s internal chambers in a way that allows the booster to go off balance; one side of the diaphram has a pressure higher than the other, causing a difference (imbalance) which ultimately applies force to the diaphram, which pushes on the master cylinder and applies the brakes.

There’s no way to be sure. I’ve seen boosters do all sorts of whacky things. I had one leave me with a spongy brake pedal, and I chased an air bubble through my brakes system for two months before realizing that no air bubble actually existed, and that it was really the booster at fault. This is probably where your problem lies.

You’re looking at a $200 shot in the dark repair. But you can make it $100ish if you’re willing to lie on your back for a few hours to get it out and put it back in. The proceedure is all bolts. The master cylinder can ususally stay attached to the brake lines, meaning no opening the hydraulics and no bleeding. Just a long time under the dashboard with a flashlight and a socket wrench.

Good luck!


(PS: I tried to rival your post with a reply of simmilar length. I don’t think I quite met the scale.) =D

i know this is a very old post but for a just in case, i had the exact problem with my 89 prelude and after changing everything, "master cylinder, calipers, brake hoses, and the peice that all the brake lines go into to send fluid to front and back(idk what its called) but n e ways i replaced the hose coming from the booster box to the intake manny because the hose had a filter in it, i replaced it and boom all my problems was fixed. just thought i would share this.