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Civic Brake Problem

I’m hoping somebody here knows about cars and can help me since so far no mechanic can.

Background: I have a 2003 Honda Civic LX. It is an automatic transmission with power brakes. I park it outside and it has been a cold winter (between -15 and 40.)

Okay, now for the problem: My brake pedal will randomly not depress. As in, I can stomp on it all I want but it is stuck and I cannot brake. The first time it happened it was -15 degrees outside. It was fine when I put it from park into reverse, but as soon as I let up to back out, I could not depress the pedal. It happened a couple of more times. Then it started happening not after I put into reverse, but after I put it into drive from reverse. Now there is a serious delay. I can drive for a couple of minutes and then it will happen. The last time it happened I was coming to the end of my street which is a downhill grade. I could not stop and if somebody had been coming down the other street they would have hit me. It is happening later and later, and in warmer and warmer temperatures. When it happens I keep pressing hard on the pedal, pumping. It will be completely stuck (even though I’m stomping on it) then will suddenly go down with no warning which of course brings me to a sudden stop.

I took it to one mechanic and they have never heard of it. Went to another mechanic who said there was probably condensation on the lines and give it time to warm up. Took it to the Honda dealer today and they said I might be pressing the pedal down before starting the car which is using up the vacuum power in the cylinder. This made sense until I had an epiphany tonight and realized that there is no way this is possible. On the mornings it has done this I have needed to scrape my car. When that happens I open the passenger side to put my stuff on the seat and grab my scraper. I reach over from the passenger side and turn on the car so I can run the defroster while I scrape. So there is no way I am pushing the brake pedal before turning on the car, and it is running for a couple of minutes before I drive.

So now I am well and truly flummoxed, and am more than a little afraid of driving my car. So far it has only happened first thing in the morning. As stated earlier, it is something that happens mostly in cold weather, but the last time it was close to 50, although there was still frost on my car. Has anybody heard of this or experienced this?

I Have Had This Happen Only 2 Or 3 Times In My Wife’s Car During 10 Years Time.

Each time I have had to attribute it to ice glazed brake rotors/brake pads. The conditions were just right with wet roads, cold temperatures, blowing snow, etcetera. The pedal probably works the first time because the pad is frozen to the rotor. When the rotor turns then ice becomes the braking suface. A couple of brake applications later, the ice melts off. I just can’t figure out why your’s is doing this frequently. How many total times has it done this in how long a period? What are the road conditions or weather conditions prior to the time before it occurs?

It’s done it probably ten times at least. As stated previously, it has all been during cold weather, times when I have had to defrost my car. Sometimes there is ice or snow, sometimes not. The last time it was close to fifty. There was still some frost on my car, but not much.

Has the brake fluid ever been replaced? Brake fluid absorbs water, and if there is even a slight amount of water in the brake lines it can freeze and prevent the brakes from operating. I suggest you ask your mechanic to flush the brake fluid.

The situation you are currently dealing with is dangerous, and should not be ignored.

I don’t remember the last time it was replaced, but two separate mechanics have checked the fluid, lines, and pads as that was the first thought. All checked out fine. I’m aware its dangerous, but I seem to be the only one taking it seriously.

That Mechanic Who Mentioned Moisture In The Brake Lines Might Be On To Something.

Have the brake fluid flushed (and bled at each wheel) and new fluid put in. Has this ever been done? See if they can collect it in a clean clear container and see if any water settles out of it.

Even though the top part of your car begins to melt frost, the parts inside or underneath probably aren’t as warm, yet.

Describe the brake pedal feel (when it is malfunctioning) better. Are you saying that the pedal literally will not move at all, or that it feels really stiff? And when it feels stiff do you have zero braking power? Or just very very weak braking power?

If the pedal is very very stiff with very weak braking power, then this sounds to me like a problem with vacuum in the brake booster - that the proper vacuum is not being created or held by the engine. Of course, this kind of condition is often associated with stalling or near stalling when applying the brakes. But I would still be checking the vacuum line and check valve for the brake booster.

If the brake pedal is not just stiff, but literally doesn’t move at all then you should carefully inspect the area up under the dash and the whole brake pedal mechanism itself for something that might be interfering with it.

It seems like, if the pedal does not move at all, there has to be a mechanical explanation. The linkage from the pedal to the master cylinder is very simple, and you can look at it under the dash to see if something is loose or blocking the movement. Make sure you look at the switch for the brake lights and the switch for the electric circuit that releases the transmission shifter. They should be easily seen under the dash, being operated by the brake pedal lever.

If that’s not the problem, then it really seems like it just has to be the master cylinder and/or the associated vacuum powered brake assist. To me it is just not possible that all 4 brake calipers are simultaneously jammed, and like you say, the vacuum explanation from the dealer is just nonsense. I don’t know enough to tell you how to trouble shoot the vacuum system, but the master cylinder is separate and they are not usually terribly expensive to replace.

If I took this post to a mechanic would they be able to do what you are talking about? I’m going to be honest, I know next to nothing about cars. A friend from another forum directed me here with this question.

Now you’re on your own. Who knows if the person you show it to is literate, or wise enough to know that other people’s ideas are often useful.

And don’t underestimate yourself. These things are not always so very mysterious. The idea of bending down and sticking your head under the dash, and watching what happens while you press the brake pedal with your hand, requires no special skills except some agility and reasonable close vision, as well as a flashlight. The brake master cylinder is under the hood, bolted on the steel wall that separates your feet from the engine, and has a container on top that holds a liquid (brake fluid). The container is usually white plastic. You can look at it and see if things are falling off or broken looking or cracked.

Good luck. Clearly, this has to be fixed. An independent mechanic is a far better resource than a chain like Midas or even a dealer.

I just got back from Sears. They told me that they believe there is a hole in the diaphram of the Booster which is causing it to lose its vacuum power overnight. This is then draining the master cylinder and is wearing out both parts. They said I need to have both replaced. Does this sound plausible?

While it is plausible, you have to realize that Sears has a REALLY bad reputation for “overselling” services and for employing mechanics who are…how can I put this diplomatically…not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

As wentwest suggested, you need to have this car looked at by a competent independent (NOT a chain) shop. You have a serious, potentially fatal problem in your brake’s hydraulic system or in the power booster and you need to have this taken care of right away.

I still think that you need to have your brake hydraulic system flushed and new fluid installed, and you may also need to have work done on either the master cylinder and/or the brake booster. Rather than just accepting the somewhat suspect diagnosis from Sears, go to a competent independent mechanic a.s.a.p.

I am not intimately familiar with the braking system in the Civics, but no - it doesn’t sound plausible to me. I’m actually still looking for a better description of the pedal feel and braking power when this problem occurs (see above). Even if the booster lost its vacuum over night a properly working booster will immediately come back to life when the car is started. It will not “randomly” act up as you are driving. Having the booster lose vacuum also does not drain the master cylinder.

Pending a better description of the brake pedal feel I am still going to bet on a faulty check valve - this is easy to replace and costs next to nothing. The “fault” I have in mind is that the valve is occasionally not allowing the engine to create vacuum inside of the booster. If that happens, you still have brakes, but they are not “power” brakes. The pedal will feel really stiff and your braking power will be terrible.

Sorry. I kept trying to respond to your post but it never posted my reply.

When it happens the pedal cannot be depressed at all and there is no braking power. After several hard stomps it will finally go down very suddenly causing the car to come to a sudden stop. But when it happens the pedal cannot depressed at all. It is stuck hard.

Then I would not suspect a booster problem (and thus not follow the advice from Sears, and see the warnings about places like that above). If it is stuck hard with zero brakes I would still suspect a mechanical problem - and it might involve the master cylinder. (Having the brake lines flushed is just a good idea no matter what, but any problems there are unlikely to completely freeze the pedal travel). I would reiterate the advice of wentwest above - at the very least grab a flashlight and cram your head down there to look around.

Mostly you need to get a mechanic to take it seriously - of the ones you mentioned in your original post, how many of them actually looked at the car & its braking system? And what did they do / look at / etc.?

Either way, you obviously need to fix it before driving it anymore.

Check out this link to arm yourself with a bit of knowledge:

If you can’t remember when it was replaced last, it’s time to do it now

I don’t think it is the booster either. Do you have spoked alloy wheels that the calipers and rotors are visible through? You could be getting ice build up in the calipers.

No, I don’t think I do. I just have normal tires which were recently replaced. Nothing fancy.