Repair A Stuck Emergency Brake On An Auto

Fixing a stuck emergency brake requires a process of elimination.

The emergency brake holds a vehicle in a stable position while in park. Almost all emergency brakes have cables that run from a center console emergency brake handle to the rear brakes. Once the emergency brake hand has been activated, it tightens the cable which locks the rear shoes against the brake drums. Sometimes cables bind or stick at their pivot points, or the handle adjustment has gone too far keeping the release mechanism from activating. Inspecting and repairing a stuck emergency brake need not be difficult if the do-it-yourself repair person knows what to look for.


1. Set the shifter in park or neutral and apply the emergency brake on your vehicle. Use a tire iron to loosen the back wheel lugs on both wheels, but just enough to break them loose. Use a floor jack to lift the rear frame of the vehicle and place two jack stands under the chassis.

2. Go to your hand brake console and remove the fastening screws (or bolts) to the console with a screwdriver or socket. Detach the rubber or fabric boot and pull the console off.

3. Note the cable connected to a mount that runs to a gear next to the emergency brake cable. Make sure the cable end attaches to the gear. Feel its tautness. If extremely tight, and you can not deactivate the brake lever from the “on” position, loosen the mounting bolts that hold the cable to the mechanism. Spray penetrating oil inside the cable end with the extension nozzle on the spray can. Soak it good several times.

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4. Go under the vehicle and trace the emergency brake cable from the front of the vehicle to the back. Make sure the cable housing has not kinked or been damaged. Pull on it several times, giving it firm jolts. Look at the equalizer “Y” joint where the single cable branches off to each rear wheel.

5. Spray penetrating oil inside the cable ends, and make sure the cables ride in their support grooves and have not slipped out. Inspect the cable support clips at the backing plate to each wheel. They should be fit and snug in their holes.

6. Use the tire iron to remove the lug nuts on both wheels. Use a heavy hammer to tap the back of the backing plate and the front of the brake drum. Shock it several times. Pull each brake drum off its hub. Look for any broken springs, particularly the round hold-down springs, the two upper retracting springs holding the top of the shoes together and the lower keeper spring that holds the bottom of the brake shoes together. Reconnect any spring that has disconnected, using a brake spring tool or pliers.

7. Spread the bottom end of the brake shoes by hand and remove the self-adjusting star. Make note of the threads showing on the star, then manually unscrew it. Clean the inside thread bore of the adjusting star with carburetor cleaner and a rag. Pour some oil into the thread bore and reassemble it. Spread the brake shoes and place the adjusting star back into position, turning it the same amount of threads. Use your finger to apply some lithium grease on the front of the backing plate where the edge of the brake shoes ride.

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8. Push both wheel cylinder piston rods in and out, to make sure the wheel cylinder piston has not jammed. Place the brake drum back on the hub. Go to the vehicle cabin and reattach the mounting bolts for the emergency brake cable with a socket and wrench. Place the console into position and replace the mounting screws or bolts. Install the boot. Tighten the console down with a screwdriver

9. Go underneath the rear of the vehicle and place a brake spoon through the rear adjusting slot in the backing plate. Use up and down motions with the brake spoon to expand the shoes out until they touch the brake drum. Turn the brake drum by hand while you adjust the star for a light drag against the drum. Place the wheel back on the vehicle and loosely tighten the lug nuts with a tire iron. Perform this same inspection and maintenance procedure on the other rear wheel.

10. Use the floor jack to lift the vehicle and remove the jack stands. Activate your emergency brake handle. It should be freed up and adjusted properly. You want to hear three or four clicks when activating the handle before it engages. If out of adjustment, remove your console with a screwdriver or socket. Remove the boot. Adjust the cable tightness or looseness from the cable adjusting nut, using and end wrench. Reassemble the boot and console with the appropriate tools.

11. Use a torque wrench to tighten the rear wheels according to the specifications in your owner’s repair manual. Test drive and activate the emergency brake several times during stops.

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