07 Disc brakes aContrary to popular myth modern disc brakes and anti-lock braking systems, or ABS, did not have their beginnings in motor racing, they were actually adapted for motor racing from technology developed for the aircraft industry. But disc brakes were trialled in cars before powered flight was even invented, dating from 1902 British Lanchesters. Back then, however, the idea proved expensive and unreliable.

Drum brakes started being fitted to aircraft in the first world war and disc brakes were first used in second world war aircraft. Good brakes are a fundamental in aircraft; the shorter the stopping distance, the shorter (and cheaper) a runway can be. ABS systems pulse the brakes to shorten the braking distance (I could explain the physics of this but it would put you to sleep – just accept that the frictional coefficient of a turning wheel is higher than that of a sliding wheel.) Disc brakes were also used in tanks, trains and (from time to time) motorcycles before they became common in cars.

They came around again in cars in a 1950 American Crosley but lasted just six months. The following year BRM started using them in its race cars, but it was the Jaguar D-Type and its win in the LeMans 24 Hours race of 1953 that made them famous. They are now ubiquitous, and the old and less effective drum brakes only turn up occasionally in modern cars, and then they’re usually at the rear end of cheap, low performance models.

07 ABS bBy the late 1950s anti-lock braking, or ABS, was being used extensively in aircraft, especially in England, and in 1958 turned up in a Royal Enfield motorcycle. In the 1960s Ferguson developed an ABS system that was used in the Jensen FF sports car. But these ABS systems were largely mechanical. The first fully electronic system came with the Concorde aircraft in the late 1960s. The idea reached cars in the 1970s, frequently acting only on the rear wheels. Mercedes-Benz was the first manufacturer to offer ABS as standard equipment across its entire range in 1987.

It wasn’t until 1984 that ABS turned up in race cars and Ayrton Senna was an early tester of it. He hated it because the brake pedal pulsated under his foot. Ever since ABS has had mixed reviews in racing, many believing that a good driver who knows how to pulse the brakes can do better without it.

07 ABS aAn example of the debate: While Senna hated ABS, Mercedes driver Roland Asch loved it. He stunned his competitors by comprehensively out-braking them in the German Touring Car Championship invitation race at Kyalami in South Africa on 18 November 1990. After the race he stood on the roof of his car jumping for joy and singing the praises of ABS braking.

In case you’re wondering the braking systems of many modern passenger planes are designed around carbon fibre components. You can get that in a car if you want, but you may prefer to buy a house instead.

Posted June 2020.


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