Carriage Maintenance 101

- An article written by David Quist

I get asked questions about carriage maintenance all the time. My wife and I moved from Montana to Southern Pines, NC in 1998. She became interested in driving when we came to Southern Pines. At that time, we bought her a used carriage and guess who became responsible for its repairs and maintenance? Then the neighbors started bringing me carriages to work on. I've always done the servicing and maintenance on our own vehicles and trailers and I had my own auto body and paint shop for years. Carriages didn't look too tough. And they aren't. But like any vehicle capable of injuring its occupant(s), regardless of its source of horse power, they need care and maintenance to remain safe and dependable. There are tricks I've learned and knowledge I've gained that I'd be more than happy to pass on in this article. This is not a "how to fix things" article. Rather it's meant to be an overview of common problems and how to find parts and people to maintain or repair your carriage(s). Whether you're an avid do-it-yourself mechanic or can barely check the oil in your own car, I hope I can pass along some useful information to you. Structurally, modern carriages are pretty amazing when you consider their design and the engineering that goes into them. Mechanically, they are nothing more than the parts used in them. The wheel bearing assemblies and brake systems in the lighter carriages are motorcycle parts. The heavier carriages (pairs and four-in-hand) use automobile parts. The number one challenge I had from the beginning (and still occasionally) is finding domestic parts sources for the carriages made in Europe. Buying parts from the manufacturers out of Europe is not practical. Even small parts become overly expensive considering the exchange rate of the Euro and the cost of shipping. And it's slow. The four main manufactured carriages I see and work on most are: Khunle (Germany), Van den Heuvel (Holland), ECC/ WCC, (Poland), and an occasional Benningtion (England). Let's call them the Main Four. The most common mechanical problem I'm asked to fix are brake problems. And here's where we start talking "shop".

HOW BRAKES WORK: Most all modern carriages use disc brakes. The only carriages using drum brakes these days are mostly Amish-built carriages and some older US carriages like the old Jeff Days. Here's how a braking system works with disc brakes. Braking systems are simple hydraulic systems. The brake pedal mechanically pushes a rod into the brake master cylinder (located under the floor board). That rod pushes a piston in that master cylinder that creates hydraulic pressure in the master cylinder and forces pressurized brake fluid into the attached brake line This pressure then travels through the brake lines and out to the brake calipers that are bolted to the axle at each wheel. There are two opposing pistons in the brake caliper that squeeze the brake pads against the brake rotor (the rotor is the large, round metal disk that is bolted to the actual wheel.) When you step on the brake pedal you generate hydraulic pressure in the system and the caliper pistons then squeeze the brake pads against the rotor. When you release the pedal you are no longer generating hydraulic pressure to the system and the brakes release. It's that simple. Carriages with two brake pedals have two identical, but separate, brake systems...one system for the front brakes and one system for the rear brakes. Sorry, that may be painfully obvious for everyone but there's always someone who doesn't know about separate pedals- separate systems.

BRAKE PADS: The most often neglected thing I see are over-worn brake pads. I can't tell you how many brake pads I've removed with no brake pad material left on the pad which results in the metal backing plate of the brake pad contacting the brake rotor...metal to metal...not good. Checking the brake pads in modern disc brakes can be done visually in seconds, you just need to know what you're looking for. A brake pad is a small metal plate with a special friction compound bonded to one side of the metal plate. There are one or two holes (depending on the caliper's size) in the top of the metal plate for the anchor pins of the caliper to hold the brake pads in position on each side of the brake rotor. Calipers are designed so there is a rectangle "window" or open area on the top of them. This window is the slot the brake pads are slid in and out of to remove and replace the brake pads. This widow allows the brake pads to be accessed (removed and replaced) while the caliper is still bolted in place to the axle. By just looking at the caliper window you can readily see the brake pads in position on each side of the rotor. You can also see the pad's metal plate, the anchor pins holding it in place and the thickness of the pad's friction material against the rotor. Obviously, it's the friction material on the brake pad that actually contacts the rotor during braking. Each time you apply your brakes, a little bit of that friction material is worn away until the brake pads need replacing. As long as there is friction material left on the pads, things are fine. When the layer of friction material gets thin it's time to change brake pads, but don't wait too long. If it's the thickness of a match book cover it's overdue. And don't wait until then to order your brake pads; try to keep a couple of sets on hand. Some people wait too long and I've even seen the metal backing plate worn completely away and the actual caliper piston in contact with the rotor. Most drivers use their rear brakes more than their front brakes (for those with a choice). So naturally, the rear brake pads wear faster. I often just have to change the rear brake pads in carriages.

Side note: Grimeca calipers have a plastic cover that snaps in place over their access window to help keep road crud out of that area. The plastic covers easily pry off with a screw driver for inspection and snap back on easily.

BRAKE FLUID: The next most common problem is a reduction or complete loss of braking power. This most commonly occurs in carriages that aren't used often, or have been parked for an extended period of time. Always first check your brake fluid reservoir(s) (usually located under the driver's seat) to make sure the master cylinder is getting the fluid it needs to work. The hydraulic fluid used in these systems is automobile brake fluid. There are two different types of brake fluid. There is DOT 3 brake fluid and DOT 5 brake fluid. There is also a DOT 4 but it's just a heavy duty version of DOT 3. DOT is an acronym for Department of Transportation, something as critical as brake fluid must meet DOT standards. In an automobile, brake fluid must perform and function in harsh environments. It must work in -50 F and it must work in smoking-hot brakes while someone is riding their brake pedal down a steep mountain road in the middle of summer. DOT 3 has been used forever in braking systems and is suppose to have a higher threshold to boiling and better performance in extreme conditions. It's down side is that it is corrosive when spilled on paint (and other finishes) and it's hydrophilic. That means it will absorb water. When DOT 3 brake fluid regularly experiences the working temperatures in an automobile any water absorbed is boiled off. Carriage brake systems don't reach those temperatures so any absorbed moisture (atmospheric humidity) builds up in the brake fluid. And then the problems start. The master cylinder piston (that generates hydraulic pressure) and the caliper pistons (which react to hydraulic pressure by squeezing or releasing the brake pads) are very precisely machined parts with very close tolerances. Over time the moisture in the brake fluid corrodes and pits these pistons and the cylinder bores they slide in. It also seems to cause the seals in these parts to become brittle and they fail.

That leads us to DOT 5 brake fluid. It is a different formulation of brake fluid because it is silicon based. It is designed to perform in automobiles also, so the demands of a carriage brake system are easy duty. When spilled or leaked, it doesn't lift paint and it is not hydrophilic, it is hydrophobic. It won't absorb water. All Vanden Heuvel carriages use DOT 5 brake fluid and I feel it's the main reason I seldom see any brake component failures in Vanden Heuvel carriages. You are not supposed to mix DOT 3 with DOT 5. It's possible to convert a system from DOT 3 to DOT 5 but I've never done it. However, when I completely change out all the parts of an old, deteriorated system, regardless of make, I use DOT 5 with the new system. A quick test (but not definitive) to check your fluid type is to check your reservoir. DOT 3 is clear to slightly amber in color and has a distinctive smell. DOT 5 is often a light blue or purple and has no distinct smell. I don't know of any other carriage manufacturer other than Vanden Heuvel that uses DOT 5 at the factory.

MASTER CYLINDERS: In my experience master cylinders are the most problematic component of the brake system. I think ninety percent of the failures I see are attributed to moisture-contaminated DOT 3 brake fluid. Master cylinder failure seems inevitable with carriages that are seldom used and use DOT 3 brake fluid. Carriages using DOT 3 fluid that are used often will give years and years of reliable service. Then one day you'll notice a leak or diminished braking efficiency or paint lifting on the axle located directly under the master cylinder(s). Then it's time to get proactive and check your entire brake system. Here are a few scenarios:

  • (1) a reduction in braking power (several possibilities)
  • (a) brake fluid reservoir is empty,
  • (b) air in the brake system. Check for air in the system by bleeding the brakes, or;
  • (c) the master cylinder isn't producing enough hydraulic pressure and/or the caliper pistons aren't reacting fully;
  • (2) the carriage rolls hard:
  • (a) the caliper pistons aren't releasing completely because of corrosion, so one or more brakes are always partially on,
  • (b) there are problems brewing in the wheel hubs such as lack of lubrication, contamination, or out-right bearing failure. The wheels need to be pulled and inspected.
  • (3) No pedal, frozen pedal, no brakes – advanced deterioration in the master cylinder and/or calipers. The master cylinder most often seems the first thing to fail. So if you catch the problem quickly enough it's just a matter of replacing the master cylinder and flushing the system with fresh brake fluid.

BRAKE CALIPERS: The good news is there has been a lot of standardization in the brake calipers used now. This is best illustrated by the almost universal use of Brembo brake calipers on most light carriages. Brembo is a quality Italian brake component manufacturer. One exception is Khunle; they use Grimeca brand (also Italian) calipers on some of their lighter carriages. Brembo and Grimeca are standard equipment on many makes of motorcycles (the front brakes). There are two sizes of Brembo calipers used on carriages. The smaller version uses one anchor pin to hold the brake pads in place. The larger size uses two anchor pins. The Grimeca caliper is also a two-pin design and the good news is that the Brembo two-pin brake pads also fit the Grimeca, and vise versa. The heavy carriages use automobile brake calipers. Kuhnle uses a readily available Mercedes caliper (part numbers in the Kuhnle section below). I have never needed to replace the brake calipers on a heavy Vanden Heulvel. I'm sure they are readily available too. The ECC/WCC heavy carriage calipers are readily available too (see the ECC/WCC section below). A quick side note: Your old automobile (heavy carriage) calipers have value when you buy the new ones (remanufactured actually). All these items can be purchased at an automobile parts house like NAPA or Car Quest. Take the old parts with you and you'll receive a nice credit for them, reducing the price of the new ones. I am not partial to NAPA over Car Quest. I just happen to live closer to a NAPA dealer with some great parts guys that know their stuff. I use a Car Quest dealer too but they are triple the distance away. You can take a NAPA part number to Car Quest and they can cross reference it to their system, and vice versa. Also, there are specific right side and left side calipers (even for motorcycles) and they have different part numbers.

BRAKE LINES: Metal brake lines run from the master cylinder to the brake calipers. Since most carriages are European-made using European components they are exclusively metric. This is very important for finding brake lines that work with metric-threaded brake components. And it's actually very easy. Any reputable parts house such as Car Quest or NAPA has metric brake lines in stock. The threaded fittings are mostly a standard metric size but the line diameters vary. It's best to take along a sample of the brake line you are replacing so the parts guy can match it exactly. The brake lines come in a large variety of lengths and diameters with factory-crimped fittings on both ends so you don't have to cut the line to length then crimp the cut end yourself. Brake line crimping requires a special tool and the metric lines use a different crimp than the standard lines do. Off-the-shelf brake lines are sooo nice. There is also another type of brake fluid line found on carriages. That line runs from the brake fluid reservoir (located under the seat) to the master cylinder (located under the floorboard). It provides the master cylinder with braked fluid. This line is not pressurized because the brake fluid is gravity-fed to the master cylinder. That's why the reservoir is always located above the master cylinder. Sometimes these lines need to be replaced. You can replace these lines with clear vinyl tubing found at the big box stores or any local hardware store. The vinyl tubing comes in a variety of diameters (take your old line with you) and it's cheap.

WHEEL BEARINGS AND HUB ASSEBLIES: As mentioned earlier, the bearings used in light carriages are usually motorcycle wheel bearings. The heavy carriages often use automobile wheel bearings. These bearings are designed for much heavier vehicles reaching far higher speeds than carriages do so, again, they are seeing light duty in carriages. I mostly see bearing problems on older, heavily used or abused carriages. The main bearing killers are lack of lubrication (wheel grease) and/or contamination (sand, dirt, water) that has found its way inside the hub, usually through a worn-out wheel seal (often called an oil seal). Bearings and seals, even metric, are very easy to source most anywhere. Every bearing has a part number engraved on it along with the name of its manufacturer. When you take that information to a parts dealer they will cross-reference those numbers into their system and find their corresponding bearing. If the numbers are worn off or not legible, the parts guys can measure the bearing with a micrometer and find one with those dimensions. Most wheel seals have three numbers on them. They simply represent the dimension of the seal: inside diameter, thickness, and outside diameter. If your local parts dealer can't help you there are regional parts houses that specialize in bearings and seals. I use them occasionally for hard-to-find metric stuff. Whenever you disassemble a wheel hub always use new seals when you reassemble. Kuhnle is the exception. They use a unique, reusable all-metal seal. Just clean it up and reuse it.

FINDING MECHANICS: It's a challenge for many drivers, in all parts of the country, to find people to work on their carriages. Hopefully, for you less mechanically inclined, I've helped take some of the mystery out of carriage systems and how they work. Any professional automotive mechanic will have no problems with anything found on carriages. I've had people tell me they've used motorcycle/ATV mechanics, handy neighbors and one woman found a neighborhood teen (who was always tinkering with his and his buddies motorcycles) to work on her carriages. The biggest problem is most carriage owners, and their mechanics, just don't have a clue where or how to find parts. So let's go find some parts.

FINDING PARTS: For easy reference I'll break this down by manufacturer.

ECC/WCC: First I'll clear up the ECC/WCC thing. ECC means European Carriage Company. WCC means World Carriage Company. ECC is a Polish carriage manufacturer that has been bought and sold several times and is still a very viable, quality carriage maker. The North American ECC distributor/dealer is Bob Cook and he just happens to be a neighbor of mine here in Southern Pines, NC. Bob started the WCC brand several years ago to differentiate ECC's European carriage market from his North American carriage market. More simply, ECC builds carriages for Bob Cook's WCC brand name. Bob maintains a large warehouse full of carriages and parts inventory for his customers and potential customers. He has the largest financial commitment to inventory and parts than any other carriage distributor/dealer in the country. And it's very much to your and my advantage. If you own an ECC or WCC carriage you don't have to look any farther than Bob Cook for parts and support. If you own other brands of carriages he can probably help you with those parts also. Case in point is my earlier discussion about Brembo brake calipers. Regardless of your brand of carriage, Bob's got Brembos...both sizes. And Bob's got brake pads for them. The older, light ECCs used a Chekolslavokian motorcycle brake caliper named JAWA. There were a lot of ECC carriages using those calipers and many are still in use. JAWA is no longer in business so replacement calipers are no longer available (although Bob may have some). However, Bob stocks JAWA brake pads for those carriages that are still rolling. The older (fifteen years or more) ECC's used a variety of master cylinders over the years and many are no longer available. Ditto for some of the brake calipers used on the older, heavy ECCs. This is a typical scenario with many older carriages of all makes. Perfectly functional carriages are parked because a component part (and a mechanic to install it) can't be found. But I've found I can often find substitution parts and usually make them work. For most carriages ten years or newer finding parts is not a problem. Here's how to get in touch with Bob Cook: website: horsecarriages.com; email: hunterscreek@embarqmail.com ; phone: 910-693-1121. Be careful, you'll call Bob for a part and end up buying a carriage.

KUHNLE: I work on Kuhnle carriages more than any other make. Not because of any quality issues, but because of the shear number of them in use. Kuhnle makes very high quality carriages. There is a US Kuhnle distributor/dealer. His name is Paul Martin: website: martinauctioneers.com; email: martinauctioneer@supernet.com ; phone 717-354-6671. Several of my customers have worked directly with the German owners, Gustav and Paul Kuhnle, to replace large items such as bent wheels and bent shafts. I've never worked with them but I've heard nothing but good things about them. You can reach them at: website: www.kuehnle.de ; email: info@kuehnle.de (note the different spelling of kuhnle in both).

It seems Kuhnle standardized their parts long ago. Their light and heavy carriages have both used the same master cylinder for many years. It's for a 1965-1966 VW Bug - NAPA part number 36272. I've never seen another type of master cylinder used on a Kuhnle. Some of their light carriages use a Grimeca brake caliper. Grimeca is a motorcycle brake and is available in different sizes. The size Kuhnle uses is the 32mm size (diameter of the caliper's pistons), Grimeca part numbers B254 (left), B255 (right). I have two Grimeca sources: (1) Precision Metal Fab Racing (PMFR): website: PMFRonline.com ; phone: 952-496-0053. (2) Vintage Brake: website: vintagebrake.com; phone: 209-533-4346. They sell brake pads too but I like Brembo's pads better. I can't remember if I've seen Brembo calipers on light Kuhnles, but if you need Brembos call Bob Cook. As mentioned earlier, Kuhnle uses a Mercedes brake caliper on its heavy carriages: NAPA part number SE1329 (right side) and SE1330 (left side). They have been used on many different Mercedes models from 1968 to 1991 (models 220, 230, 240, 280, 300 and more) so they are very common which makes them very affordable.

VAN DEN HEUVEL: They make very high quality carriages. The craftsmanship and attention to detail in these carriages is of the highest quality. Van den Heuvel is an old family business. There is no official US distributor/dealer, but another neighbor of mine seems to be the next best thing. His name is Wieba Dragstra. He was born and raised in Holland, is now a US citizen, and is a professional driving horse trainer. Wieba imports Van den Heuvel carriages to the US from the factory in Holland so he has extensive knowledge of their line of carriages. And he, obviously, speaks fluent Dutch. However, if you call the factory in Holland their English is just fine. Since there is no authorized US dealer, there is no US dealer support for parts. That hasn't been an inconvenience for me at all. About all I ever do with Van den Heuvel carriages is change their brake pads. This is due, in large part (in my opinion) to their use of DOT 5 brake fluid along with their use of very high quality brake components. Their light carriages use Brembo calipers (call Bob Cook), their heavy carriages use Mercedes calipers (go to NAPA or Car Quest). I've changed one Van den Heuvel master cylinder in ten years and Wieba happened to have an extra he brought back from a trip to the factory in Holland. I haven't had the need to find another. If you want to get in touch with Wieba: email: dragstrahw@aol.com ; phone: 910-245-3290. If you want to get in touch with Van den Heuvel at the factory in Holland: email: chrvandenheuvel@gmail.com.

BENNINGTON: These are very nice, quality carriages. I don't see many Benningtons, but I've worked on a few. There are several in our area and I occasionally change the brake pads (Brembo calipers) for a customer that owns one. I have no idea what kind of master cylinder(s) they use. They have a US distributor/dealer. She is Jean Kinsella, email: karst1204@earthlink.net ; phone: 860-354-4947.

There are certainly other makes of European carriages like Glinkowski, Warco, Seirakowski & Son and others. All the above information pertains to them also; you can source the part(s) you need through the methods listed above. Glinkowski and Seirakowski have US distributor/dealers.

Now that I've covered the Big Four, let's cover some odds and ends. There are a very large number of US Amish-built carriages in use. As you know, many of the Amish use carriages for their everyday transportation needs. Some have shops that still practice the old-world skills of wooden carriage making and wooden spoke wheel making. Some of them also hand-build beautiful, modern custom carriages. Finding parts for any of these carriages is quite easy because of a place called the Witmer Coach Shop in New Holland, PA. Phone number: 717-656-3411. I don't know if they are online yet, I couldn't find them. I've worked with them many times over the phone and they are great.

Back in the early nineties, when combined driving was catching on in the US there were very few European-made competition carriages around. A guy named Jeff Day started building an early competition, single-horse carriage. I've worked on several and there seems to be a few still around being used. Those old Jeff Days used drum brakes on the rear wheels with no brakes on the front, just like the Amish carriages. All of the drum brake components are readily available through Witmer. The stickler was replacing the master cylinder but I found a source. Jeff Day used a Tilton master cylinder (Tilton Engineering) where the reservoir and master cylinder are all one piece. You can find them at Motor State Distributing: website: motorstate.com; phone: 800-772-2678.

My wife (the driver) thought I should briefly cover dented carriages and bent axles and shafts. She has provided me with the opportunity to fix both dents and bents several times over the years. Here's where my auto body experience comes in. Modern competition carriages are a marvel of structural engineering. Like any vehicle, there is a strength to weight trade off, but carriages are amazingly strong for their weight. And the axles used on carriages are usually designed for much heavier loads than they see. But by design they have a short wheel base (for tighter turning ability) and a high center of gravity (so the driver can see over the horse). That combination causes them to turn over pretty easily (helped by possible reckless driving.) As many of you know, they also roll out of the back of a pickup truck pretty easily if someone forgot to strap them down. My wife has spared me from that "oversight" so far. And most have seen (on video or in person) the results of a run-away.

And lastly, let's discuss comfort. I've done quite a few seat modifications over the years. Most carriage seats are designed for average size men. If you are smaller or larger than that (especially smaller) you probably aren't as comfortable in the seat as you should be. How the seat fits you is also a safety issue. I recently modified a carriage for a very small woman. She had trouble reaching her brake pedals. She was also swimming in the seat. I took her to Bob Cook's warehouse (he keeps a wonderful selection of seats) had her try different seats, she found one that fit her well, and I mounted it on her carriage closer to the brake pedals. Because of that, she still raves how much more enjoyable driving is now. Since all men and women come in a variety of shapes and sizes you need to know there are seats made to fit you. Seats are available in a variety of dimensions (height, width and depth) and their mounting location on the carriage can be modified too. It's best to be able to "test sit" a seat before you buy it. Bob Cook is the only dealer I know that stocks extra seats. Your carriage's factory should also have a selection.

- David Quist



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