I’ve often referred to the two years I spent as a professional automotive technician as my “post-college” graduate work. It was a different kind of education, and included the benefit of earning a salary. One of the earliest lessons, and one I still carry today, is that there is no substitute for having the right tool for the job at hand. The correct tool ensures that the repair is done correctly, safely, and within a reasonable amount of time. It is not an exaggeration to state that there were times when sweat dripped from my brow, and curses sprang from my lips, when the lack of the appropriate tool made a repair attempt a real struggle.
A corollary lesson states that sometimes, one needs to practice some creativity and “invent” a tool, perhaps by assembling one from hardware parts, or by modifying an existing tool. This point was put into practice during the Isetta restoration, as tools for that car aren’t exactly found in your local NAPA store.
The challenge rose up again during the recent brake work on my Alfa. I found myself struggling with the reassembly of the parking brake shoes, which reside inside the rear brake rotor ‘hat’. The shoes and their assorted springs and clips came apart easily enough. But now my efforts to put it all back together were just taking too long.
Let me be more specific: the brake shoe assembly mounts to a backing plate, like on most cars. Unlike most cars, though, the wheel hub is mounted on a bearing that is press-fitted into place through the backing plate. The parking brake reassembly would be easier if the hub were not in the way, but to remove it, I would need to remove the entire axle and press the hub and backing plate apart. That was more work than I wanted to bother with. I was convinced that there was a way to put the parts back on with the hub in place.
And Alfa Romeo actually made that accommodation. The hub surface has two additional holes, lined up in such a way to allow a tool to pass through them to access the brake shoe hold-down pins. The pins require a 5mm Allen tool, and I have one as a 3/8” drive socket. Since there is so much spring pressure to overcome, putting the Allen socket on an extension, with a 3/8” drive ratchet wrench, provides way more leverage than one could ever get from a tiny hex key.
Herewith was the problem: I could not push the pin in far enough to engage its lock, because the socket was too wide to pass completely through the hole in the hub. I briefly considered grinding down the socket, but a close examination revealed that would likely weaken it to the point of failure once an extension or a wrench was snapped into place. I briefly (like, for 10 seconds) considered enlarging the hole in the hub before rejecting that crazy idea. (Repair lesson #39.b.2: when making permanent modifications, always do so to inexpensive, replaceable objects, NOT to complex, difficult-to-replace components of the vehicle itself.)
Staring at things for several minutes brought forth the revelation that if the 5mm hex shaft were longer, I’d have what I needed. After considering a Home Depot run, which I internally wagered would yield a 25% chance of success, I challenged myself to modify the tool I owned. Could I do this in less than an hour? I thought it entirely reasonable.
With a 3/32” drift, I hammered out the roll pin and pulled out the existing 5mm bit from the socket. I found a standard 5mm hex key in my Allen key collection, and tested it at the car. It was long enough for my purposes. Next, I secured the longer hex key in the bench vise and hacksawed off the short end. (I really should have pulled out the Dremel tool for this step, as the hardened steel took longer than I thought it would to hack off.) I filed the end smooth, and it fit right into the socket. My attempts to drill a hole in it to reinstall the roll pin resulted in two broken drill bits – like I said, that tool steel is hard! But the new bit was a tight fit in the socket, and since I’d be pushing against it, not pulling on it, I let it be, feeling certain that there was nothing to worry about.
Total time to modify the 5mm Allen socket: approximately 30 minutes. I attached my ‘new’ socket onto an extension, snapped on a ratchet wrench, and was easily able to engage the brake shoe pins in their locks. Mission accomplished!
I’m keeping my new, longer 5mm Allen socket as is. Who knows when someone might need my help with their Alfa Romeo parking brake shoes? “Hey, I got just the tool for that!”
All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.