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Too much play in the e-brake

(I think) I messed up the ebrake on my wife’s car and I need to fix it. The car is a 1999 Chevrolet Prizm.
My car has a manual transmission, so I have the habit of pulling the e-brake when I park. One time, by habit, did the same on my wife’s car (which has an automatic transmission). I wasn’t pulling it hard, but high enough to engage it. Immediately I felt a lot of play on the e-brake. I figured that the cable adjustment must have become loose. I removed the center console and tightened the brake lever adjustment. I thought I took care of the problem. But, now the e-brake is too hard to pull and still doesn’t fully engage the e-brake. If I pull it really high (6-7 clicks), ebrake sort-of engages (drags slowly on an incline), but I know something is not right.

I don’t want to throw money at random guesses and waste hours of my time “fixing” things that are not broken. I read about others in the same situation who stretched their brake cable. To get an idea of what is going on, I got under the car, removed the heat shields to inspect the point where the cables are attached to the part that comes to the ebrake lever. I noticed 2 things:

  1. the cable that goes to the passenger side rear wheel is not at the same level as the driver side cable. It appears to be pushed towards the front (i think) of the car (as if it is engaged)
  2. the passenger side rear wheel is kind of stuck (not so much now after i removed it once, cleaned out the rust, greased it and readjusted the brakes) but the driver side wheel spins freely.

What I did so far…
I removed the passenger side brake drum, checked if the cable is stretched. It was a pain (literally) to put that cable back. I lost a lot of skin on my fingers trying to reinstall it. Surprisingly it was easy to remove it. After removing the cable from the brake shoes, I tried pulling at the cable to see if would move (in case it is stuck). It didn’t move a bit. I sprayed some pb blaster on the cable. No luck.

What I am assuming is that, somehow the passenger side brake cable is faulty. But I cannot visually see any frayed wires (if it is stretched).

Before I throw time and money at changing this cable (which I am not completely sure is the culprit) I want to run it by the experts on this forum, to see what they think the problem could be. I am a newbie at diy. I want to make sure that I haven’t overlooked something obvious.

What could have caused the sudden play on the ebrake lever?
Did I overtighten the adjustment on the lever?
How can I know for sure that (if) the cable is faulty?

Any insight or suggestions will be much appreciated. Thanks

[side story of this brake job:
After I reinstalled the brake pads, I thought I should be extra thorough and I wanted to make sure the brakes are moving as they are supposed to (& that i didn’t screw up anything while I was putting it back). So, I went inside and pumped the brake few times. I immediately felt the brake pedal go all the way to the floor. I cursed myself and went back to check the wheel. I saw brake fluid sprayed all over the place and the wheel cylinder pistons pushed out. I managed to remove the wheel cylinder and I was able to bleed the wheel cylinder and put back its pistons back. I made the same blunder twice before I figured that I was supposed to put the brake drum before pumping the brake pedal. With that drum off, there was nothing from stopping the wheel cylinder pistons from pushing out and all the brake fluid squirted out. Anyways, the car was very forgiving, so I didn’t mess up too much, but I ended by wasting some brake fluid and a lot of clean up in the process. It was a good lesson learned & I sort of ended up flushing the brake system (at least part of it). The work was only supposed to be to remove 4-5 bolts on the heat shield and visually inspect the brake cables. Hopefully, someone else could use this lesson and not make the same moronic blunder that I made.


You aren’t the first person to see what happens when you step on the brake pedal w/the drum removed … I can vouch for that personally …lol

It sounds like your passenger side cable is rusted and frozen inside it’s sheath. Your choice is to free up the cable or replacing it . It is easier to free op by removing it and holding the sheath vertically, running penetrating oil down inside it and flexing it with both hands.

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Excessive play in the parking brake is usually caused by play in the brake shoes.

Adjust the parking brake cable back to its original position, then adjust the brake shoe clearance to the proper setting. After adjusting the brake shoe clearance, adjust the parking brake cables. These cables don’t normally “stretch” unless you have a terrible corrosion problem.


I agree with Nevada_545 that you should not try to adjust the cable at the console. My 99 Corolla (same as Prism) has a sealed cable and those do not stretch or rust with age.To adjust the E-brake: Press the brakes a few times to center the pads around the drum. Go behind the drum and remove the rubber plug. With a long screwdriver,turn the star wheel adjuster until you feel a slight drag when turning the drum.Voila! test the e-brake on a small incline to see if its holding the car.

On my early 90’s Corolla (same car as a Prizm) that’s easier said than done. Unless OP has access to a lift or is quite experienced at driveway diy auto repair, suggest to leave that job to a pro. On my Ford truck it is an easy job, but not on my rear drum brake Corolla.

Thanks for the suggestion regarding the cable adjustment at the drum. I didn’t know there was one there. Although I always wondered why they don’t have one in cars, even though the ebrake mechanism is similar to a bicycle’s.

As far as the tools that I have, I have a pair of jack stands and a floor jack, and a basic assortment of metric and standard wrenches and screwdrivers and my trusty all-in-one vice grip pliers. As for my mechanical skills; I think I’ve screwed up on more jobs than the ones that I’ve successfully fixed anything. I think I got lucky when I took apart the starter and the ecu of the prism, washed it with soap and water and put it back after the car got flooded by Harvey. Everything still works (hope I didn’t jinx it by saying this). I also screwed up on a lot of jobs. On this job, I got brake fluid all over the driveway when i tested the brakes without putting the drum first. Another, when I yellowed up my headlights back in a couple of seconds by spraying a clear coat on it after I spent a lot of effort meticulously buffing and polishing out the yellow oxidation. A recent addition is when I destroyed a perfectly working floor jack’s release valve by accidentally pumping the jack while the lever was still connected to the release valve (i intent to fix it too…i might come back to you guys for advice. But that is for a different post). Point is, I am not that good with fixing stuff, but I like to think that I learn fast too.

I am actually going to attempt two things suggested in the replies.

  1. After resetting the brake lever, I want to remove the passenger side cable and spray it down with penetrating fluid.
  2. I am also going to find this cable adjustment behind the drum and see how I can adjust it.
    I might even change the brake shoes since everything is out anyways.

Anything that I need to look out for during these jobs?
George mentioned that the cable adjustment job needs more expertise. Can you give me an idea of why this job is difficult? Is it something I can try with the car on the jack stands? I appreciate all your comments and suggestions. It prevents me from learning the hard way. Thanks.

I was able to do it w/the Corolla on jackstands, but it was quite a chore. The problem is the access hole is located high up on the backing plate (as opposed to my truck where it is at the bottom). This makes it difficult when laying on the ground under the car to get your head into the correct position at the proper angle to see the adjusting wheel. Also you can’t turn that adjusting wheel with a screwdriver until you release its spring loaded stop first. Best done with a separate wire holding the spring clip off the wheel. Use good lighting and the help of a mirror.

On some Corollas it is a much easier job b/c they put a hole in the drum so you can access the adjusting wheel from the front. But that sadly didn’t apply to mine. But it may to yours. Be optimistic. If it has the hole there in the drum just manually turn the drum until the hole lines up with the adjusting wheel.

If you got no hole in the drum and can’t figure out how to adjust the wheel from behind after giving it a shot, an alternative is to remove the drum first, then you can adjust the wheel no problem. It’s a bit of a hit or miss thing, but eventually after a few trials of refitting the drum you can get it. Many Corolla drums have small tapped holes which you can use (with an appropriate bolt) to push the drum off the shoes btw. Much easier than trying to pull the drum off by hand.

I should also mention that the Corolla drum brakes are self adjusting. So you need to figure out why that isn’t working. The self adjustment happens whenever you pull on the e-brake, or (not sure about this part) when you brake when backing up.

Ok. I think I misunderstood the suggestion about cable adjustment. There is an adjustment inside the drum of my car below the wheel cylinder and I was able to adjust it. It is a gear-like wheel, which rotates only in one direction unless a spring-loaded lever is pushed up. It pushes the brake pads out. I believe this is what you guys mentioned in the replies. I assumed that there is another adjustment just for the cable, just like in a bicycle.

Actually realizing that there isn’t another cable adjustment kind of makes me worried because that would point to a stuck cable inside the sheath or another issue that I haven’t explored yet.

You are correct, there is only a brake adjustment inside the drum that move the shoes out to compensate for wear of the linings,

If the brakes needed adjustment, doing so might tighten the emergency brake some.

If you live in an area where cars rust out from salt, a shielded cable can stick from rust. Once you get it free, the way to keep it free is to use it every time you park.

The brake shoe adjustment is probable 90% of the problem. Don’t try to adjust the brake shoes through the access hole without first removing the drums, inspecting the brake shoes and hardware and cleaning the dust/dirt from the brakes.

Next free the adjuster star wheel, it may have seized. If the drums don’t have a ridge I usually adjust the shoes out to the point that I can slip the drum on and off with ease, I only adjust the brake shoes through the access hole for customers that are particular about the brake adjustment.

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Found this video for your car…its in 2 parts.

I thought I will update the thread and report back the result. I am glad to say that everything worked out well in the end.
I took some of the suggestions posted on this thread and decided to fix the cable. I removed the ebrake cable on the rear passenger side, soaked it in PB blaster. The removal process wasn’t tough. It is just a matter of removing few nuts from the underside of the car. The cable was frozen near the wheel’s end, but there was no damage to it. I added some low viscosity lubricant to that end of the cable after it was freed. I know that oil attracts dirt. But, since that part of the cable stays inside the wheel drum, hopefully it won’t attract too much outside dirt (except, whatever is produced inside the drum).
The hardest part of the job is to get the front end of the cable freed. It wouldn’t be that hard if the front section of the heat shield had come off easily. The heat shield was too stubborn to come off and finally, fearing that I might accidentally break the exhaust pipe, I abandoned the removal of the heat shield, making it a tight squeeze for my fingers to get access to the brake cable. Also, putting back the long spring on the cable was tough. I even pinched by finger with the pliers while trying to put it back. I finally figured out a technique that worked for me. I use the cutter part of the pliers to hold the spring back and kept the pliers behind something strong. This prevents the pliers from slipping. I can compress the spring long enough to slide the cable end through the slot on the brake shoes

This was a job that I was procrastinating for a long time. I was finally forced to complete it for the state inspection.
Overall, it was a good learning experience and I even changed the brakes shoes too while the wheels were off. That wasn’t too difficult of a job to do. Now the brakes work pretty good too. However, the brakes feel hard (but they do work well). I think it might be because of a possible vacuum leak that results in the absence of vacuum assist for the brake. This is not a new issue due to this brake job. This issue existed for some time now, where the brakes felt hard when you apply them.

Finding the vacuum leak is my next project. I need to find an idea for a smoke machine. I am thinking of heating some motor oil in a glass bottled with an immersed nichrome wire attached to a battery to heat it up and blowing the smoke with a low pressure pump in to the vacuum tubes. What do you think? Will the smoke damage anything?

Thanks for all your input on this brake cable job.

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Google will turn up some links on diy’er smoke machines. Most of them work on the idea you are proposing, heating up oil to the smoke point in a container, then blowing it to wherever you want it to go. I don’t think they use engine oil though, something with a lower temperature smoke point. I’m not sure if they use nichrome wire or just some form of heat applied to the bottom of the container. You need a way to prevent emitting any flames or hot particles along with the smoke for safety reasons of course.

Normally you wouldn’t go to the trouble of a smoke machine until you’d done all the standard tests for vacuum leaks and came up empty.

Good for you for getting your parking brake problem fixed :slight_smile:

I have changed most of the rubber hoses that could have developed cracks due to age and the fuel cap. I have bad long term fuel trim (around -20) and no vacuum assist for brakes. I used to get an error code (forgot the number) for small vacuum leak. Somehow the code is gone now (maybe the engine is overcompensating; not sure). Finding the source using smoke seemed more logical than attempting the brake cleaner method.

A -20% long term fuel trim means the computer is injecting 20% less fuel based on the O2 sensor compared to how much fuel it thinks it should need otherwise, based on the throttle position, MAP or MAF, and coolant temperature. If you had a vacuum leak it would have to inject more fuel to compensate for the extra air, not less. A vacuum leak results in a positive fuel trim. fyi, from the link below …

Running too rich – High negative fuel trim corrections can be caused by MAF sensor problems, high fuel pressure, leaking fuel pressure regulator diaphragm, faulty evaporative emissions components, leaking injectors, defective O2 sensors, exhaust leaks/pinholes before the O2 sensor, coolant temp sensor problems, and base engine issues such as low compression and incorrect camshaft timing.

Running too lean – High positive fuel corrections can be traced to MAF and O2 sensor faults, vacuum leaks from intake gaskets/hoses, unmetered air (intake snorkel leak), clogged or dirty fuel injectors, fuel delivery issues, and exhaust restrictions such as a clogged catalytic converter.

In any event, to address the power brake problem, you need to verify the booster holds vacuum to 20 inches. You’ll need a relatively inexpensive hand-held vacuum pump to do that.

? What spring is that? Where is it located? Do you mean the spring you have to retract a bit to fit the cable to the shoe?

Ya, the spring connected to the brake shoe. Perhaps it is a simple job, but, it took me a bit to put it back on :slight_smile:

Perhaps I misquoted the reading. I know for a fact that I have poor gas mileage, which could only mean that the car is using more fuel that what it is supposed to.

I watched the vdo CorollaGuy1 posted above, and that task does look to be a bit awkard. In the vdo they used a pair of needle-nose vice-grip pliers to hold that spring back in order to get the cable attached to the shoe it appeared. I presume you already know there are a set of two or three tools – fairly inexpensive – you pretty much have to have to safely remove and replace brake shoes.