I’m barreling down Interstate 35 just south of Austin, Texas in a scrofulous green-colored 1969 SAAB 95, headed for a long night of fine dining at Whataburger. I had only owned the car, my second old SAAB, for about two weeks or so, but I was already getting to know the eccentricities of its almost working parking brake.

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“You smell that?” I said to myself, “that’s the smell of a parking brake that needs adjusting”. I’ve been working on old cars so long I can smell these things. Another tip off was that it took five or six clicks on the parking brake lever and all my strength to keep the car from rolling away in a gentle breeze. That could only mean one thing: the parking brake was wrong. And I was just the sort of person to put it right.

What a 1969 SAAB looks like when the parking brake needs adjusting.

You see, old cars are a lot like an old trombone. Beautiful, made of metal, noisy, and in need of oil and adjustment. Additionally, only certain kinds of people like hearing them and using them, and everybody else is annoyed by their presence. Fixing a parking brake on a 1969 SAAB 95 is a wonderful, character building experience, it builds a strong relationship between you and the stop making part of the car. For what good is a vehicle that will carry you there, but which cannot be parked to let you enjoy the there you’ve been carried to?

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The first thing that needs to be done is to adjust the brake shoes with the brake shoe adjuster on the back of the drum brake backing plate. The front wheels are chocked, and the rear wheel to be adjusted is jacked up until it is off the ground. One may then turn by hand the wheel, a beautiful magnesium alloy design, the quality of which modern cars never see these days. If the wheel turns freely without any drag or dragging noises, the brake shoes need adjusting. Sticking out of the top of the backing plate is a really tiny square adjusting nub, which needs a special socket that can turn square nubs. The 1969 SAAB 95 is a special car, and this special socket is just a further reminder of how specially engineered the car is. You turn the wheel, then you wrench on the nub, and keep tightening the nub and turning the wheel until you begin to hear or feel the shoes dragging on the inside of the drum. Then you go back to the front, jab the brake pedal a few times to make sure the shoes are centered, and go back to turning the wheel and wrenching the nub.

What a 1969 SAAB 95 looks like after the brake drums have been adjusted.

Eventually, the shoes will start to drag again. At this point, one may back off the adjusting nub one quarter turn. The shoes are now adjusted. One completes the task having earned a deeper understanding and respect for the engineering of machines from an older age. But now it is time to adjust the parking part of the brake situation. The 1969 SAAB 95 has a wonderfully crafted passenger seat. They really don’t make them like they used to. The seat is released from its track with a traditional, old fashioned seat releasing lever, and gently slides forward completely free from its mounting. It lands on the floor with a solid “whump” that only quality seats and floors emit. This is a beautiful automobile.

At this point, an old man inspecting your neighbor’s roof appears. He asks what you’re doing. What kind of car is this? It’s a classic car and I’m giving it love and attention. Not every classic car can be a Porsche 911 or BMW 2002, (contrary to popular belief) but they all still deserve unending admiration, effort, and occasional curse words. The old man leaves. With the wonderfully crafted, old-world quality seat out of the way, one now has access to the parking brake lever mechanism. Again it is a design of astonishing beauty: a lever part with some things attached to it. The cable things go to the back of the car and into the brake drums. The lever end of the cables terminate in a special adjusting nut. Turning this nut clockwise pulls it further along the threaded end of the cable, effectively pulling the slack out of the parking brake cable. Over the decades, this cable stretches, and the insides of the brake drum become larger and thus slack is created. This slack tells the story of many long decades of parking places. Wonderful places, I’m sure.

science stuff of a drum brake

Using a gross modern vice grip pliers tool, one arrests the movement of the inner end of the threaded part of the cable. The genius engineers at SAAB Aktiebolag didn’t apparently appreciate that the cable might just wind up as it moves with the slightly rusty adjusting nut when you try to tighten it. But vice grip pliers engineers, in their infinite wisdom foresaw this eventuality (amongst many others, I’m sure) and their good deed is to save one from endless twirling and winding of parking brake cables. The nut may be turned with an extended 14mm socket, and an extension and a socket wrench. SAAB’s engineers apparently didn’t figure on designing in enough space for a wrench to turn the adjusting nut - but there is a method to this madness, it saves a lot of space and makes for a very compact car - brilliant!

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The important thing to remember is to have fun. It’s pretty fun to spin the rear wheel up, then ratchet down on the adjusting nut and see if you can pull the slack out and lock the wheel before it runs out of momentum. Did the previous owner ever adjust this shit once!? You pull an inch of slack out of the damned thing and the wheel is still spinning like a shitty blooming ground flower. At least it’s not emitting any high pitched whistles or showers of sparks. Try pulling the lever anyway. The wheel locks after only four clicks. Pretty good improvement, and definitely enough to pass inspection. The other parking brake cable adjuster is seized. Fuck it for now. Situation neutralized.

Smells pretty parked to me.