Rear Brake Shoe Replacement
APPLICATION: This procedure is good for all U.S. Vanagons, 1980-1991 (except perhaps Syncros -- I'm not sure if Syncro rear brakes are different). It does not apply directly to Buses. The procedure is similar but the brakes are different enough for two separate procedures to be needed.
TOOLS: Do yourself a huge favor and go right now to Sears and buy a Craftsman brake retaining spring removal tool. It looks like a screwdriver handle with a circular metal doohickey on each end. It costs about $6 and is worth every penny in time and frustration saved. You will also need a couple flat-head screwdrivers; a pair or two of needle-nose pliers (or go buy a brake spring removal tool, that one's on my list.); a ratchet with an 11mm socket; a lug wrench; a jack of some kind and a set of two jackstands; a wheel chock; a can of brake cleaner; a few rags and/or paper towels.
Things you might want to have: a bunch of latex gloves (they keep the brake crap and grease from getting on your hands, you can strip 'em off or put on new ones when you handle the new brake shoes to keep from contaminating them, you see); you may wish to have one of those little mouth and nose masks like surgeons wear. Currently, brake shoes and pads are no longer made of asbestos, but I bet the ones on your car have lots of it. Not nice stuff to breathe, though I will confess that I did it without a mask. Ideally you would also have some type of eye protection for when you are removing and installing brake springs. Sometimes they shoot off in weird directions. You would also do well to have an old toothbrush that you don't mind scrubbing brake parts with.
OK, the start. First you are going to go to the store and get a set of rear brake shoes. Mine were Beck/Arnley remanufactured. I got 'em from the Bus Depot for about $18. Yes, there is a core charge. You will get four shoes in the box, because you have to do both sets of rear brakes at the same time. If you are a stickler for new stuff, you can also get new springs and other hardware. Ask your FLAPS counter guy. While you're there, pick up that brake cleaner. It's worth the money and you'll probably use the whole can on this job anyway.
The first rule about brake work is that it's dirty work. Dirty dirty work. This is why I used gloves when I did it. In fact, I used two gloves on each hand, as brake springs and other sharp things like to poke holes in latex gloves. Make sure you're not allergic to latex before you strap them on, anaphylactic shock is not fun. The second rule is that you have to do everything in pairs. If you replace the brake shoes on one side, you have to replace them on the other side too. If you find a leaky wheel cylinder on one side, you have to replace them on both sides, etc.
OK, first chock one of the front wheels. Then remove the hubcaps from the rear wheels and loosen the lug nuts. Don't take them off, just break them loose. Now use your jack to get the car up on jackstands. Place the jackstands under those rear trailing arms. Get both sides up before you start work.
Remove the wheel of the side you want to start on. Now release the parking brake. Take your 11mm socket and remove the two bolts that hold the drum on. Keep all the lug nuts and those two bolts in the upside-down hubcap. Remove the drum, it should just pull off. If not, bang on it with a hammer a few times, then try again. If it turns freely when you attempt to turn it (make sure transmission in neutral before you try) then it's not stuck to the shoes and it should just be a matter of wiggling to get it off. If it doesn't turn freely, you may have the shoes bound to the drum. Make sure you took the parking brake off. Bang on it some more. Heat? Sure, why not. If all else fails, put the wheels back on, let the van down, and drive it around so the shoes free up. Then repeat.
Anyway, you've now got the drum off. Observe the scene before you. Two worn brake shoes, with the wheel cylinder holding them at the top and little cups holding them at the bottom. They are connected at the top by the self-adjuster mechanism and two springs. The springs, unlike the late Bus, go from each shoe to a hook that is part of the backing plate. On the bottom, you see another spring that hooks the two shoes together directly. You see another spring, this one vertical, from one shoe up to a lever that keeps the self-adjuster from turning backwards. You also see the emergency brake cable hooked on to a lever which is in turn riveted to one of the brake shoes.
OK, let's take it apart. Second rule of brake work: Always take only one side apart at a time. That way, if you forget how it goes together, you can look at the other side. Start with the vertical spring. Put on your eye protection if you've got it. Use your needle nose pliers (or brake spring removal tool) to grasp the spring. Make sure you've got a good grip, then lift it upward so it disengages from the self-adjuster lever, then bring it down slowly until all the tension is out of the spring. Then let go with the pliers and pull it out of there.
Next take out the bottom horizontal spring. You will see that one end has a small hook and the other end has a large hook. Start with the small hook end. Get some pliers on the outside of it and lift up and push it through the hole in the shoe so it comes out the backside of the shoe. Hard to describe but you'll see what to do. It will usually go most of the way out, then stick there, almost out of the hole. This is when you release your grip with the pliers, then grab it on the shaft and pop it out that way. Again, hard to describe, but you'll see how to get it out. You may have to play with it for a while if you're a first-timer. Once you've got one end free, just pull the other one free with your fingers.
Lay these parts on the ground in the correct orientation so you remember how to put them back together.
Now you want to remove the brake shoe retaining springs. This is where your special Craftsman tool comes in handy. You will see it has a large end and a small end. For the Vanagon retaining springs, you need the large end. Notice that the assembly holds the brake shoe to the backing plate. There is one assembly per shoe. Notice that there are three parts: a pin, a spring, and a washer. Feel around the back of the backing plate and find where the pin is. Hold it there with your finger while you grab the tool with your other hand and put the big end over the washer and spring. Push in hard while you turn the tool through 90 degrees. At this point the spring will want to pop out and you will feel it. If that doesn't seem to work for you, study the washer more closely. You will see that there is an elongated slot in the washer that the pin fits through. Then when you turn the washer 90 degrees, the pin sits in a little depression that keeps it from turning and coming apart. OK, you now know you need to get the washer rotated so that the pin will fit through it. Hold the pin again from the back and do the push and turn thing until you get it. And let me tell you right now, this is MUCH harder to do with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver.
Once you get that one off, repeat with the other one.
OK, now the only things holding those brake shoes on are the two springs and the self-adjuster mechanism. Let's play with the self-adjuster. You will notice that there is a threaded rod and a wheel with teeth on it. You want to now turn the toothed wheel so that the wheel begins to move up the threaded rod, away from the self-adjuster lever that is riveted to the brake shoe. You will have to play with it, but you can see quickly which way you need to turn it for it to go the right way. You will probably have to use a flat-head screwdriver to turn it, as with all that brake dust on the threads, it probably won't turn by hand. Once you get this to where the threads end on the threaded rod, you will see that this mechanism is really three pieces: the threaded rod, the toothed wheel, and a little weird thing :-) .
Now comes the tricky part. You need to get the self-adjuster mechanism out of there. Pop the shoes out of their holders (wheel cylinder and cups on the bottom), and then attempt to pull them apart. You should be able to get enough clearance to get part of the self-adjuster mechanism out (probably the small no-name thing). The rest will follow. Before you try too hard, look at the hub (the part with the studs sticking out at you). Notice that somewhere on this hub is a little indentation. This is for you to get that toothed wheel out. Hooray! Turn the hub so that indentation is where the toothed wheel is, and you can wiggle it out.
Once you have the self-adjuster out, the last thing to do is remove those two pesky springs. The only way I was able to do it is to take the shoes and rotate them about 90 degrees so you are slackening the springs. You can get it just slack enough through fiddling so that you can get the springs out of the hooks on the backing plate. Then once they are free of the backing plate, you can remove the springs from the shoes. The only thing left is to disconnect the emergency brake cable, which is really easy once the shoes are free. It's obvious how it comes off.
OK, so now you have everything off the backing plate and everything on the ground before you in the same orientation it came off. ESPECIALLY the self-adjuster mechanism. OK, get out that brake cleaner and a toothbrush and go at it. Scrub down that backing plate and all the hardware you'll be re-using. Especially the self-adjuster. Use this opportunity to check out the wheel cylinder there. Is it leaking? Any wet stuff on it (usually indicated by mounds of brake dust where the brake fluid attracted it)? Peel back the seals a little -- can you see brake fluid? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you must replace the wheel cylinder. And don't forget to buy two because you have to do the other one too. If the wheel cylinder is leaking, don't bother replacing the brake shoes unless you plan to replace the wheel cylinder. If you fail to replace the wheel cylinder and brake fluid gets on the new shoes, you will have to replace them as they will be ruined.
OK, so the backing plate and all the hardware is clean and shiny. Take this opportunity to strip off your old gloves and put some new ones on or wash your hands really well. You want to be clean when dealing with new brake shoes. Try very very hard not to get anything like grease or oil on the new shoes.
You may have to do some assembly of your brake parts, I did not. The Beck/Arnley shoes came fully assembled, with the emergency brake lever already riveted to the shoe and likewise with the self-adjuster lever.
Find the four contact points on the backing plate, where the shoes rub. There are four little raised spots, two on each side. Put a little (a very little) grease on these. There exists a special grease for this purpose, wheel bearing grease will probably be fine. While you are greasing, LIGHTLY grease the threads on the self-adjuster rod. Then run the toothed wheel up and down the rod. Wipe off any excess grease. I know that the grease will attract brake dust but I see no easy solution to this problem. If you don't grease it, brake dust sits on the threads and gums 'em up, and if you do, it attracts brake dust, and gets gummed up. I figure it will work longer if you grease it first. This may be a periodic maintenance item.
Speaking of which, minor rant forthcoming: Why did VW design these brakes like they did? I'm not impressed. Notice that the wheel cylinder and the self-adjuster are both at the top. The brake shoes sit in non-adjustable cups at the bottom. Because of this design, the shoes only wear on the top half, while the bottom half never really has any way to come in contact with the drum. The bottom cups act as pivot points here. The adjuster is at the top as is the wheel cylinder. So the brakes are adjusted so that the top halves of the shoes come into contact when you step on the brakes. The bottom halves never really contact the drum since they are effectively pivoting on the mounting cups. This is borne out by the wear patterns on all four of my old brake shoes. They are all worn at the top but are fine at the bottom. This situation would not happen on the late Bus, for example, with manually adjusting brakes. The wheel cylinder is still at the top, but the adjusters are at the bottom! This way you adjust the bottoms of the shoes into very light contact with the drums and then when you step on the brakes, the wheel cylinder pushes the top out to the drums as well and you get nice uniform wear. Why VW went with the design they did on the Vanagon is a mystery to me.
OK, well now you're basically ready to put it back together. Assembly is the reverse of removal :-) . Hook the two big thick springs to each of the shoes, then twist them like you did to get them out, so you can hook the springs back onto the backing plate. Then twist them around to their normal orientation and get one shoe into the slot on the wheel cylinder. Do the same with the other shoe. Then get the shoes into the slots on the bottom cups. Trust me, do it in that order or you will have a hell of a time getting the second shoe into the wheel cylinder. Mind the self- adjuster lever too, you may have to wiggle it a bit to get it over the hub.
Now you want to install the self-adjust mechanism. Take the toothed wheel and thread it onto the threaded rod, same orientation as when it came off. Take the rod and wheel assembly, and stuff it in there. Notice that on the end that goes around the brake shoe and e-brake lever, one side is wider than the other. I believe that the skinny side goes on the inside (facing backing plate) and the wide side goes facing you. Remember when you take it apart to be sure. Or check the other side if you're unsure.
Now grab the no-name part of the adjuster mechanism and notice it also has a skinny and wide end. On this one, you can see that the skinny end goes facing you or else the wide end would interfere with the adjuster lever riveted to the shoe. You will need to pull the shoe out from the bottom cup a smidgen to get this piece to go over the threaded rod like it's supposed to and fit into its groove on the shoe.
OK, now hook up the emergency brake cable. Push the lever forward with your finger, and hook the cable end around it.
Now put the springs back on. It really doesn't matter which ones you do first. Hook one end of the spring through the proper hole, then grab with your pliers and move the other end into the other hole. Can be tricky, but you'll find the best way to do it through trial and error.
OK, so now you have the two thick springs installed, the self-adjuster installed, the bottom small spring installed, and the vertical spring to the self-adjust lever installed.
Now do the pins, springs and washers. Stick the pin through the backing plate, then hang the spring off it once it comes all the way through. Place the washer in the tool and hold the pin from the backside while you compress the spring with the tool and turn the washer 90 degrees to seat the pin in its depression. This is nearly impossible with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. I've done it, but I don't ever want to do it again. Now do the other one.
OK, now you have to adjust the brakes. Use your finger to hold back that annoying little self- adjust lever and use your screwdriver to spin the toothed wheel so that the shoes get farther apart. You'll see right away which way does it. Get it so you can just slide the drum on, then spin the drum by hand and see how resistant it is to turning. You should have a very slight drag when properly adjusted. When you think you've got it right, leave the drum on, go to the driver's seat and pump the brake pedal four or five times. This will center the shoes. Now go back and turn the drum again. You will probably find it's much easier to turn now. So take it off again, adjust again, and repeat until you get it right.
Now, you're done one side. Repeat everything above with the other side. Don't worry about time. It took me quite a while to do the first side I did. It only took me about half as long to do the other side, since I had found the best way to do it.
OK, now you've got new brake shoes on both sides and both sides adjusted. Make sure you put back the bolts that hold the drum on. Then throw the wheels on there, hand-tighten the lug nuts, and let it down from the jackstands. Now fully tighten the lug nuts and replace the hubcaps. Clean up all your stuff, put the old shoes into the box the new ones came in, go wash your hands, and then for your first test drive take the old shoes back to the FLAPS to get your core charge refunded. Make sure you test your brakes before you get up to any significant speed.
Now that wasn't so bad, was it? Certainly not as cumbersome as I made it sound :-) .
November 22, 1997
Back to the tech page.