John Simis­ter

John be­moans the im­pend­ing loss of a mo­tor­ing sta­ple

Practical Classics (UK) - - CONTENTS - JOHN SIMIS­TER

John be­moans the loss of the me­chan­i­cal hand­brake in cars.

Apress re­lease landed in my email in­box. As far as new cars are con­cerned, it said, the con­ven­tional man­ual hand­brake will soon be dead. Just 37 per cent of new car mod­els on sale to­day have an ac­tual lever that you pull up to brake the rear wheels (in some cases the front wheels) for park­ing pur­poses.

The new nor­mal is usu­ally a but­ton you press to en­gage the park­ing brake and hook up­wards to re­lease it. With most of them, though, you don’t have to do any­thing at all. When the car is sta­tion­ary and its en­gine is turned off, the brake au­to­mat­i­cally en­gages. When you want to move off, the sys­tem senses the torque build-up in the trans­mis­sion and re­leases the brake.

The sys­tem of­ten in­cor­po­rates a hill-holder, too, so you don’t need the hand­brake for a hill start. It au­to­mat­i­cally pre­vents the car rolling back after you re­lease the foot­brake, for a few sec­onds at least, giv­ing you time to press the ac­cel­er­a­tor as you en­gage the clutch. Ac­tu­ally, it’s usu­ally line pres­sure in the brake hy­draulics that per­forms this func­tion, but it comes as part of the elec­tronic hand­brake pack­age.

The draw­backs

It all sounds re­ally good in the­ory. These sys­tems were seen first on lux­ury cars, mostly with au­to­matic trans­mis­sion. Claimed ad­van­tages be­yond the ob­vi­ous one of per­ceived con­ve­nience were that los­ing the man­ual lever made space in the cabin for ex­tra stor­age, and that not hav­ing a hard lever by a seat made the cabin safer in a side im­pact, be­cause you wouldn’t bash into the lever.

But the elec­tric brake is bi­nary – it’s ei­ther on or off, with no half mea­sures – and you can’t feel an in­stant cause-and-ef­fect as you ac­ti­vate it. These char­ac­ter­is­tics can make close-quar­ters ma­noeu­vring, such as re­vers­ing into a tight up­hill park­ing space, nerve-wrack­ingly clumsy, es­pe­cially in a man­ual-trans­mis­sion car.

Then there’s the fact that most driv­ers don’t bother to en­gage it when sit­ting wait­ing at traf­fic lights, pre­fer­ring in­stead to keep the right foot on the foot­brake. So, more than ever, driv­ers be­hind them in the traf­fic queue are daz­zled by high-level LED brake lights.

Be­cause of the de­gree of au­toma­tion they can of­fer, elec­tric park­ing brakes have sev­eral fail­safe sys­tems. For ex­am­ple, in some cars they au­to­mat­i­cally en­gage when the driver’s door is open, end­ing any chance of look­ing along the rear flank of your car as you try to back up against a low

John Simis­ter has been at the heart of Bri­tish mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ism for more than 30 years. A clas­sic en­thu­si­ast, he owns a Saab 96 and Sun­beam Stiletto.

wall. With some sys­tems the brake won’t re­lease un­less you’re belted in. Push­ing the car with the ig­ni­tion off is gen­er­ally im­pos­si­ble, too, be­cause the switch will be dis­abled. And if your bat­tery is flat, the car be­comes im­mov­able.

Driv­ing skills

There are two com­mon sys­tems of elec­tronic park­ing brake. One uses con­ven­tional hand­brake ca­bles but re­places the old-fash­ioned lever with a mo­torised drum, which reels in or re­leases the ca­bles as re­quired. The other sort, a neater so­lu­tion but much harder to over­ride, has a geared mo­tor in each rear brake caliper, act­ing on the caliper pis­ton.

Both sys­tems can go wrong, ex­pen­sively, and both usu­ally re­quire com­puter-di­ag­nos­tics-driven fixes when they do, although work­arounds do ex­ist.

Elec­tronic park­ing brakes are a rev­enue-earn­ing so­lu­tion to a prob­lem that never ex­isted, and they chip away at the need for what should be a ba­sic driv­ing skill. They en­cour­age thought­less driv­ing, they fur­ther dis­tance the driver from the phys­i­cal feed­back, and they make the DIY me­chanic’s job harder. Hand­brake turns, tidy ones at least, are off the menu too, should you be so in­clined.

So, why are they so pop­u­lar? Prob­a­bly be­cause not to have one is viewed as low-tech. One day, this mag­a­zine’s Work­shop sec­tion will have to ex­plain how to over­haul the elec­tronic park­ing brake, which will fol­low queries in Ask Our Ex­perts about how to move an elec­tri­cally-braked car with a flat bat­tery.

I pre­dict it will hap­pen soon. The first car I drove with an EPB was a VW Pas­sat in 2005. That’s 13 years ago: al­most on the edge of PC el­i­gi­bil­ity.

B5 Pas­sat was one of the first cars with the now com­mon EPB sys­tem.

Up for off, down for on. It’s all so counter-in­tu­itive.

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