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My Brakes or My Mind?

I have a 98 Ford Contour that’s served me well. I had a full brake job about 4 years ago, but now it seems my brakes need to “warm up” before they work properly. When I first start the car and back out of my driveway and go down the alley the brakes don’t seem to bite as well as they should. However, it seems to take only a couple of firm presses and they seem normal again. I normally brake very gently and I’m having trouble deciding if there is really anything wrong of if it’s all in my head.

The pedal seems slightly stiff, but if I pump it while the car is off, I can feel the vacuum kick in when the engine starts. In fact, if I do this, the brakes seem fine. Normally, what I do is press the brakes a few times before moving and I don’t notice the problem.

I live in a quiet residential area and before I can get to a place that I can test them, they are always working properly. They bite properly and can bring me to a fast stop (squeal the tires.)

Is this normal or is there some other tests that I can do to see if anything is beginning to fail?

The valves in the master cylinder may be failing. Get the unit checked.

I agree that this has all the earmarks of a failing master cylinder.
Get this checked before you lose all braking power.

It’s not normal. Brakes don’t need any warm-up. They should work the same all the time.

I’d have someone check the master cylinder and the brake booster. There may also be a hydraulic leak somewhere.

…and of course, it should go without saying that this car could also need new brake pads after 4 years. If we knew how many miles were driven since that “full brake job”, we would be much more knowledgeable, but in the absence of that information, the brake system could need work in more than one area.

It sounds like you may have a problem with the hydralic system of your brakes.

After sitting a light coating of rust collects on the rotors of disks brakes. Sometimes after a period of wet weather and sitting for a few days there is more rust and you’ll hear a grinding sound on the first couple of stops. This goes away and rotors get a polished smooth look quickly. During this period the brakes are slightly less effective.

Also, brakes do warm up. Racers on the warm up lap specifically apply the brakes to make sure they are warmed up, and the tires too, to get maximum performance when the start flag drops. Most people in regular cars are not aware of their brakes warming up.

It is not in your mind, something may need checking out. With 4 years since your last brake job getting them checked out makes sense.

I wholeheartedly agree that it should be looked at.

However I don’t agree that there’s necessarily anything wrong.

Your car I believe has drum brakes in the rear. Drum brakes are designed such that the friction from braking when going forward helps press the pads against the drum, assisting in the braking force. Some are “single leading edge” designs, some are “dual leading edge” designs. But it’s a one-way design. They don’t work as effectively going in reverse.

The pedal will always seem stiff without the engine on. The change to “fine” when the engine is started and the vacuum booster becomes active indicates that the booster is working properly.

Without actually feeling the brakes it’s a tough guess from here, but I don’t see anything abnormal in the post. However, my philosophy with brakes is “if you have a doubt, check it out”.

Do you remember any paticular feature of the brake pads you selected?

There is a school of thought that brake pads get harder as they wear,perhaps this is what is going on.

Whenever I experience anything out of the ordinary with the brake system I pull the wheels and take a look and see if I can get a clue by visual inspection.