Last week I wrote about how the common problem of rusty brake lines in late-’90s to mid-2000s Chevy Suburbans raised its ugly head in my 2000 ’Burb for the third time, resulting in another popped line. (At least this time it happened in my driveway.) I detailed how an examination of the lines showed that they were so rusty that replacing all of them was really the only sane and safe choice. I outlined my cost analysis, which appeared to show that I could get out of it by spending, worst case, about $250 for new pre-bent stainless-steel lines, front calipers, rubber brake hoses, and a few other odds and ends. And I explained that although the truck had a number of other non-trivial problems—including rust and a snapped exhaust manifold stud—it was my truck; it was useful to me, and if I could get another winter out of it by throwing $250 and a few evenings at it, well, why wouldn’t I want to do that?

Because it’s a terrible idea, that’s why.

First, let me explain something. I’m not on this tack because BMW people are clamoring for me to write the best how-to article on Chevy-truck brake lines (although a surprising number of my BMW friends own these trucks); I’m doing it because it’s a microcosm of how so many of us approach repair.

We do it ourselves. We save a ton of money. We fight our way through obstacles. We don’t give up easily—and sometimes we are rewarded for this kind of bone-headed perseverance. 

It began with a rather large box of seven stainless lines that arrived on my front porch from Rockauto. The lines were cheap: $70 shipped. Granted, the lines were Chinese-made, but still, you have to wonder how anyone makes any money off this stuff. (Wait, I know how: There’s a whole lot of Chevy trucks with rotted brake lines. Duh.)

I opened the box, read the documentation, and sorted out which lines went to the master cylinder, the front calipers, and the rear calipers.

Reading the page of documentation, I learned that in addition to the lines being pre-bent, they had shipping bends—sections marked with white tape that were bent 180 degrees so the lines could be shipped in a box smaller than fifteen feet long. Even though stainless steel is tough, it wasn’t that hard to straighten out the shipping bends; I found that laying each bend on a spare wheel and tire and beating it with a rubber mallet was quite effective.

I began with the rear brakes, for three reasons. First, even though I’d already replaced the rear lines—they popped while we were on vacation a few years ago—they were by far the easiest ones to access, and I wanted the forward momentum. Second, I needed to get the emergency brake working so that I could safely move the truck in and out of my garage and up and down my driveway. Finally, when this job was at an end, the brakes would need to be bled, so I had to know if I could open each of the bleed valves. If I couldn’t, it meant possibly needing to replace calipers.

As it happened, I checked all three of these off fairly easily. The rear-brake adjusters were frozen, but this is common hardware that Autozone stocks. The design of the emergency brake on these cars is almost as unforgiveable as the brake lines; there’s no access hole to reach the adjusters through the drums, so you have to take the calipers and drums off. But I got it done. The new rear lines looked pretty.

With the emergency brake working, I safely turned the truck around and put it nose-in in the garage.

I engaged the repair strategically. Initially, I thought that I’d finish doing the timing belt and related work in my E30—that’s a whole ’nother story—get it down off the lift and running, and thereby free up enough garage space to put the ’Burb entirely inside the garage. However, it’s been an unseasonably warm winter in Boston, with consecutive days of 50º weather, so I decided to roll the dice and try the repair with the truck half in the garage. Of course, that meant that if the temperature plummeted, it’d be a mite chilly in there, and if Old Man Winter spat a ton of snow, it’d be right problematic. But the weather held.

I first tried to undo the bleed nipples in the front calipers. They were rusty nubs that snapped off as soon as a Vise Grip grabbed them. I heated the stubs glowing red with an oxyacetylene torch, and I tried using an EZ Out—which I loathe, but I had nothing to lose—all to no effect. I even tried drilling them with left-hand drills and had no luck. 

Clearly the truck needed front calipers. One of the few joys of working on this truck is that parts for it are inexpensive compared to BMW parts; rebuilt calipers (loaded with pads) are about a hundred bucks shipped. But even with the weather window, I was determined not to spend any additional money until I was convinced that the repair would be successful.

As I said last week, the ABS control module in these GM trucks is underneath the truck, above the middle of the left frame rail, and the brake lines are laid down on top of the frame before the body of the car is dropped on. This combination makes the lines difficult to access, very difficult to remove, and even more difficult to install. Having decided that I would replace all the brake lines, I cut the old lines with a bolt-cutter and a Dremel tool, using whichever one would fit into a given space—sort of like Cortez burning his ships so his troops had no course of retreat. Onward or nothing. 

With the lines cut, I could put a six-pointed socket over the fittings—much less likely to slip than a flare-nut wrench—and get them out of the ABS control unit.

But even after chopping the lines into pieces, pulling them out was awful, mainly because the brake lines inexplicably all run through a rectangular bracket on top of the frame rail, about a foot in front of the ABS control unit. The lines all take a hard turn to the right after going through the bracket to reach the control unit, making a twisty hooked shape that’s hard to pass through a small crevice. It would be hard to intentionally design something where the lines would be more difficult to replace.

Chevy truck forums say that the way to deal with this is to remove the six bolts holding the body of the car to the frame, put a floor jack on a two-by-four beneath the left rocker, and lift the body. Owners report getting as much as six inches of clearance before the emergency-brake cable starts to stretch. Unfortunately, when I tried this, I got only about an inch and a half of extra clearance between the frame and the body before the upward lift from the floor jack began picking the frame up off the jack stands that were allowing me to work under it. I couldn’t figure out why it was binding up, but lifting it any higher was obviously unsafe. 

With that small amount of extra height, I tried taking the shortest brake line—the one from the ABS control unit to the left front wheel—and maneuvering it into position. Because these pre-bent lines take a lot of tortuous turns, there didn’t seem to be enough room to push even one end of one line through the small bracket without something hanging up, much less all four lines. I was stumped.

At this moment, my friend Tom Samuelson stopped by, with a running rust-free E30 he’d just bought for nine hundred bucks in tow. “How goes the battle?” he asked.

I showed him the problem. He ducked his head in under the left front fender and saw the minuscule clearance between the frame and the body. Of course, from that angle, he also saw the rust coating every suspension and steering component of the truck, and the black blow-by on the outside of the block from the snapped exhaust-manifold stud.

Tom extricated himself from the wheel well, stood up, brushed himself off, sighed, and said, with the kind of deep knowledge and sensitivity you expect from your car guy friends, “What the @#$! are you doing?”

He then explained that (a) I was an idiot to try and save this truck, (b) I was an idiot for attempting to use rigid pre-bent stainless lines instead of rolling my own with bendable copper-nickel tubing, and (c) I was an idiot just because, well, obviously I was an idiot.

Point taken.

But look: Here’s how my mind works. I am not a visionary. I am not a big-picture guy. I’m a guy who thinks in small, practical, achievable steps. I’m the guy who would try to reconcile the Israelis and the Palestinians by showing them both the video of Robin Williams explaining how the Scots invented golf and saying, “Can we start by all agreeing this is funny?” I didn’t want to give the truck a death sentence and donate it for parts; I want to be the guy who stays the execution, not orders it. And I didn’t want to start over with a hundred-dollar outlay of copper-nickel tubing. I wanted to drive down this road as far as I possibly could, and only turn around when there was absolutely no other way—because I can be exactly that practical. And stubborn.

Then I had an idea: I could cut the stainless brake lines in half with a tubing-cutter, making something less difficult to install. I could then install fittings, flare the cut ends, install the halves of the line separately, and finally splice the halves together with an inverted flare union. 

Even in theory, this was a bit tricky, because I’d need to cut each of the lines in a place that would be accessible to allow me to reach it and install the union. I did some careful measurement and figured out a place to cut the shortest line—as a test; if that didn’t work, nothing would—so the cut would be out in the open on the left frame rail. I cut the line and test-installed the difficult section that ran to the ABS control unit. 

It worked like a charm.

All that I needed next was to buy a flaring tool—the tool I’d bought to do the lines in Old Blue only did bubble flares, not traditional flares—the tubing fittings, and the unions.

And then I found what appeared to be a showstopper. Stainless steel is a hard metal. The inexpensive $30-to-$80 consumer-level hand-cranked flaring tools don’t work on stainless. You need either the $225 Eastman tool that you put in a bench vise, or the $330 Mastercool 74175 handheld hydraulic tool.

So I thought it through, as I try to do with most things. If I couldn’t get my hands on a flaring tool that’d work on stainless, it basically spelled the end of the attempt to use the pre-bent stainless lines. I could reverse course, eat the cost of the lines, and instead use easy-to-bend copper-nickel tubing, but the cost of 50 feet of ¼" copper was nearly a hundred bucks, and I really wasn’t sure that the truck was worth it.

I put up an announcement on Facebook that if any of my buddies had a flaring tool that would flare stainless, I’d love to talk with them about borrowing it, because if that couldn’t happen, the ’Burb would likely be put out to pasture—sort of the Suburban equivalent of the classic National Lampoon magazine cover, Buy This Magazine Or We’ll Shoot This Dog.

As if that’s going to happen.

And then, that happened—the sort of thing that makes you not only glad that you have a community of car-crazed friends, but makes you get down on your stained knees and kiss the brake-fluid-soaked cement garage floor for it. My local friend Lindsey Brown contacted me saying, “I have one of these tools at the shop [The Little Foreign Car Garage in Waltham]. Stop by on your way to work and you can pick it up.”


The next morning, I did just that. Lindsey gave me a quick tutorial on how to use the tool. That evening I hit Autozone on the way home and picked up the tubing fittings and a few unions. When I got home, I made a few test flares using some of the scrap tubing I’d pulled out of the ’Burb. When I was convinced that I had it right, I flared the short stainless line I’d already cut.

It worked perfectly.

I set to work on the most troublesome section—the right front brake line that runs from the right front wheel around the nose of the car, around the left side of the car, and down the left frame rail. It must be about fifteen feet long. I estimated where I’d need to cut it so the union would be accessible at the front of the left frame rail, measured twice, cut once, and thought I had it right. 

I crawled beneath the car and, starting at the ABS control unit, tried to pass half the brake line through the little 1"-by-2" bracket. With the first brake line in there, though, and with the captured tubing fitting on the line, it didn’t seem possible; the end of the line didn’t have enough clearance. As yet another evening neared its end, with me having spent hours beneath this rusty truck, I wondered if Tom was right, and I had wandered off into the weeds on this fool’s errand.

But then I looked at it again and wondered why, exactly, did all of the lines have to pass through this small square bracket? At first I thought that the bracket must be the only place that had clearance between the frame rail and the body of the truck, but on closer examination, I saw that this wasn’t the case. It seemed more that the bracket provided the path to get all the lines aligned perfectly in the remarkably large number of plastic clips into which they were supposed to snap on the frame rail (the clips in which the old lines sat secure and contentedly rotting away). 

Abandon that requirement, just hold the lines to the frame rail with big zip ties, and it seemed that I could go over, or around, this little square bracket. In fact, with the car jacked up an inch and a half, I had a fair amount of room to do exactly that. So I did. 

And it worked: I got the back half of the right front brake line installed.

Then I went for the front half. What a bear it was, getting that stainless line to run in a U around the nose of the car! But once I was convinced that treating it rough wasn’t going to break it, I simply strong-armed it into place, shoving here, yanking there. I got the left end wrapped around to meet the other section of line, installed the union, tightened it down, patted myself heartily on the back, and called it a night.

The following evening, I went out yet again to the field of Suburban battle, thinking, “If I do one of these lines a night, I’ll be done by the weekend.” I was about to measure and cut another line in preparation for a union when I wondered if, with my discovery that I didn’t need to try to pass the lines through the silly little bracket, I could use the extra clearance and just manhandle the lines into place without cutting them. And that worked as well. In one evening, I was able to get the rest of the lines installed at the ABS control module! So I went from this:

to this:

Once the lines were run, I committed to buying the new front calipers and rubber brake lines. They’ll be here in a few days. With luck, the weather will continue to hold. It’s forecast to be a balmy Christmas in Boston. 

Next week, I’ll wrap this up. And yes, I am an idiot. But I hope to be an idiot with a truck I can drive through the winter.—Rob Siegel

Rob’s book Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic is available through Bentley PublishersAmazon, and Bavarian Autosport—or you can get a personally inscribed copy through Rob’s website: