What are Kinmont Brakes?
There are certain parts in the traditional hot rodding world that guys scour swap meets for and this article is about such a part. If you have read my other articles about drum brake options for traditional hot rods then you have read about early Ford Juice Brakes, 53-56 F-100 self-energizing brakes, and 39 Lincoln Brakes. These would all look great on an old hot rod aiming for a period look but there is one brake that towers above all others for rarity and cool factor and that is the Kinmont “Safe Stop” Brake!
You might ask what the big deal is about Kinmonts. The answer is a blend of elements including WW2 era engineering, American inventiveness, failed production cars, and hot rod history. When you combine all of those things the result is a braking package that is truly unique and hard to find today. If you have seen a set of Kinmonts installed on a Hot Rod you might remember the distinctive look. I had always seen Kinmonts from the backing plate side, like the time I snapped the picture of the above roadster hiding out Roy Brizio’s shop. Not knowing what the other side looked like it was an education when I first saw a set all alone, not installed on a car. I crossed paths with such a set the second week I was employed at Speedway Motors. I always looked through the glass of Bill Smith’s office while walking in to start the day. He was always there at his desk on the phone before I got to work and was still hard at it when I left to go home. I loved looking at the objects he had around his expansive office which included tether cars, pedal cars, prototype parts, and catalogs in seemingly endless stacks. One day I noticed a set of brakes just inside his office door which looked unlike anything I had ever seen before. Backing plate down, I could see the big scoops of the aluminum hats and knew they were something rare and special. It wasn’t until recently while exploring brake options for my 29 Roadster when I really dug into the history of Kinmont brakes. This article is to share with you some of the information in hopes you are luckier than I and stumble across a set.
Remember, if you do find yourself so fortunate and find these relics, remember your old friend Tim and give me a call!
Joking aside the rarity of these brakes was my first problem when deciding to write this article. How would I figure out where to find a specimen to photograph? The last pair to be offered for sale sold for 5 figures, and they rarely pop up for sale at all. The Kinmont Manufacturing Company produced only 325 sets of four during and immediately after WW2. Being so fortunate to work at Speedway Motors I thought I might try the Museum of American Speed located just next door to our main office.
It took only a quick call over to John the curator who said I should come over because they could fix me up with one still barn-fresh. I was excited to have my hands on a Kinmont set up for a rear application, and as soon as I got it back over to my desk I immediately took a closer look at what really makes these brakes work.
In talking to people fortunate enough to have these brakes on their car they will tell you they work great and they love them. As far as the design goes, while heavy, it seems to be a winner. To hot rodders these are referred to as the “Kinmont”, but prior to that they were more appropriately called the “Milan Brake” after their original designer Joseph Milan.Milan’s original design was intended for racing adopted from brakes he had seen during the first World War on artillery equipment. Milan’s earliest versions were light weight and constructed out of aluminum. A set of Milan brakes were used at Indy in 1941 and while the car did not do well many people took note of the unique brakes. Eventually the rights to produce the brake design were purchased by Kinmont Manufacturing, in Maywood California. Their aim was to mass produce the brakes for passenger cars making them robust enough to perform in 3000 pound cars including service vehicles such as Taxis and trucks. To increase the reliability they were beefed up with the aluminum components replaced by cast iron.
Being a lover of history it is interesting to read about Kinmonts being fitted to an early Tucker Torpedo prototype by Preston Tucker. As the story goes he remembered the Milan design after seeing them at Indy and would turn to Kinmont later when in the thick of producing his famed car. He eventually opted for something more rigorously tested for the cars that made it off the assembly line. Gary Davis also fitted Kinmonts to his three-wheeled Davis automobile. Obviously these guys were intrigued by the design and saw the benefits although it just wasn’t to be.Their car companies were not successful and the major manufacturers continued with the more time tested design of drum brakes.
As mentioned earlier 325 sets were produced and later sold off when they didn’t catch on with auto manufacturers of the day. They would eventually trickle down to hot rodders. At first they were the hot ticket and sold well, but interest faded fast in favor of other options. During the final days of their availability you could purchase a set of four Kinmonts in 1950 from Bell Auto Parts for $52, a bargain price even for that time.
So what makes these things tick? What is amazing about “Safe Stop” brakes is how they miraculously mount right up to Ford spindles because they share the same bolt pattern. Many people call Kinmonts early disk brakes when in reality they are neither disks nor drums. They actually work similar to a clutch and pressure plate. There is a toothed ring that has a brake lining on both sides. That ring is sandwiched between a heavy cast iron piece that acts as the backing plate, and another cast piece that resembles a pressure plate.
A single wheel cylinder at the very top presses out against a small rocker arm that in turn moves an arm and through leverage squeezes that rotating disk.
The disk itself links to an aluminum “hat” by engaging a series of matching teeth.The accuracy of the castings really show here and a nice tight fit is a testament to how well these were designed and made.
The “hat” is a work of art in my opinion. The big scoops stand out and are unlike any other brake you will see. If you see someone who has Kinmonts on their hot rod don’t call them Buick Fins….those might be fightin’ words! The backing plates were identical front to rear with the only difference being a hole drilled in the rears for the emergency brake cable to come through. People who use these brakes explain they are easy to adjust, and once adjusted stay set not needing attention as much as early Ford juice brakes. There are brakes currently being produced which resemble Kinmonts, but are simply a cover hiding a disk brake on the inside. Without a doubt this would be a nice option for a car that is driven extensively. Being an old traditionalist however I would opt for the real thing. If a Hot Rod is a Frankenstein of parts that all come together in a unique narrative, what could richen the story better than a set of Kinmonts? Brakes from California, designed for Indy, produced by American entrepreneurs, played with by Tucker, and sold at Bell Auto Parts in the 50’s….it just doesn’t get any better than that!