Behind the Rotor: Building A Brake Kit With Wilwood

When adding more power to a car, increasing performance on the road course or building a killer show car, braking upgrades are mandatory. There are ways to jury-rig braking upgrades on classic cars, but using a carefully engineered aftermarket kit designed to suit the specific needs of the intended purpose (road, drag, street or show) is the best choice. For example, you might be able to scour the junkyards for Granada front disc brakes for an early Mustang, but they will not provide the same stopping power or durability offered by an aftermarket kit. Wilwood Engineering manufactures brake kits for nearly every conceivable make and model; each kit features components designed to meet the specific needs for each application.

We recently got an invitation to take a look inside Wilwood’s operation and gained a new appreciation for the engineering, manufacturing, and logistics challenges faced by one of the world’s leading suppliers of performance brakes.

Wilwood Engineering manufactures brake kits and components designed to withstand the rigors of drag racing, road racing and even the daily commute.

In the late ‘70s there was a growing demand for increased braking in stock car racing, an engineer named William Wood saw opportunity to create a high performance brake package for this expanding niche market. During this time most cars were using a nearly stock brake system, which was completely inadequate. After developing the new calipers, Wood brought them to a race at the Riverside Raceway in hopes of showing off his creation to a few of the crew chiefs at the event.

While showing the caliper to a crew chief, Wood was in for a surprise when this fellow called over “the King”, Richard Petty, to take a closer look at Wood’s product. Petty was impressed with the product and began using Wood’s calipers and soon after the rest of the field followed Petty’s lead. Wood used this opportunity to create Wilwood Engineering in 1977, a company dedicated to creating some of the finest brake components and kits on the market.

Wilwood's first big break (pun intended) came in the stock car market, and they continue to be a major supplier.

With customers worldwide, the company is always performing R&D on new vehicles in order to meet the ever-increasing demand. Once a vehicle is selected for development, Wilwood determines the intended use in order to cater the brake kit to the application. For example, drag racing applications utilize thin rotors and lightweight components that are capable of stopping the car from high speed, but would not stand up to rigors of the road course and multiple stops without a cooldown period between. Unlike drag racing, road course brake kits require larger, thicker rotors in order to maintain adequate braking throughout the event.

It takes a substantial investment in real estate and machinery to put together an operation like Wilwood...

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Brake system design is a balancing act between weight, stopping power, cost, and the physical space available for the brake package inside the wheel. Whether developing a standard fitment for a new vehicle application or a custom setup, all those factors come into play. Once the requirements have been determined, the engineering process begins with digitizing the spindle, wheel, and everything in the wheel well to create a 3D model to work from. This model allows Wilwood to mock up components and determine the proper positioning through the computer. The 3D modeling allows Wilwood to save time and money, while providing them with an excellent starting point as they progress to the next step, a design and review meeting involving sales and engineering. “Three or four different options are put together,” said Dustin Burr, a Sales and Tech Representative for Wilwood. According to Burr, the option that combines performance, ease of installation, and cost effectiveness is selected for the final design.

Out of an enormous inventory of existing components, Wilwood is able to custom-tailor brake systems to cover new applications.

The prototyping process involves taking “off the shelf” parts to create the new kit. With the vast number of existing parts, the need to recreate every component to develop a new kit is rare. According to Burr, “Wilwood may only need to create a bracket or brake hat,” for a new kit.  At this point the parts are installed on the vehicle to ensure proper alignment, sizing and fit. Once the proper parts are selected and any new parts are created, the kit is installed on the vehicle. The test fitting process provides an ideal opportunity for the installation instructions to be written; any difficult or out of the ordinary installation requirements are noted in the instructions along with solution to simplify the process.

Often, a new application will require a fitment-specific part to be created from scratch, like these Forged Billet Hat Mount Hubs.

The development process doesn’t end when the design is worked out and the prototype is approved, though – customer feedback and real-world testing play a big role in Wilwood’s product creation cycle. After the customer has time to evaluate their brakes in their desired environment, they report their findings back to Wilwood. According to Burr, “It is very rare for something to go wrong,” thanks to their experience in brake design, but should areas for improvement be discovered, they’re incorporated into a new round of prototypes. Following the response back from the customer and final approval, the kit is then released for sale to the general public.

Wilwood feels that keeping as much manufacturing in-house as possible at their 100,000 square foot facility leads to a better product - here, rotor blanks are CNC-machined.

Ship Globally, Act Locally

With the understanding of how a kit transforms from concept to on the sitting on the shelf, the day-to-day functions of manufacturing are equally important. The process of building the brake kit is fairly uniform regardless of the application. All parts, from calipers to rotors are machined in-house; Wilwood believes in doing as many processes as possible in-house to maintain quality control. Machining and many of the coating processes are done in this manner, because in past instances where work has been sent out it proved hard to maintain the same level of excellence.

Once the parts are machined, they are anodized for corrosion protection, and a powder coating process can then be applied to add color for visual appeal and an additional level of protection from the elements.

Prior to powder-coating, green stickers that are resistant to the heat of the curing oven are applied to the calipers to prevent the coating from entering the bores.

Red and black are the standard powder coat offerings for most kits; but thanks to in-house powder coating Wilwood is able to offer a variety of optional colors, including a hot pink hue. That particular color came along when Wilwood was selected to provide the pads for Shirely Muldowney’s project ‘40 Plymouth Sedan, dubbed the ”Grocery Getter.”

Wilwood powder coats their calipers in-house; red and black are the standard colors offered, but there are other optional colors available.

Disc Details

Wilwood’s rotors are not ignored when it comes to adding beneficial finishes. One unique feature offered by Wilwood is the E-Coat process on the SRP rotors. The E-Coat process is basically an electrified paint dipping process. Each rotor is goes through two cleaning solutions before entering the E-Coat tank. Once dipped into the E-Coat tank the liquid is electrified, thus circuit-bonding the paint to the rotor surface. This process gives the rotors a distinctive black finish.

Various cleaning solutions are used to prepare components prior to any coating process. The E-Coat process requires the use of two cleaning solutions before entering the coating tank.

A zinc plating process is the industry standard for protection from rust and corrosion, and Wilwood offers rotors with this type of finish as well. For instances where a greater level of resistance to the elements is desirable, E-Coat provides an interesting advantage. It turns out that zinc plating adheres best to machined surfaces, but not as well to as-cast areas like the the internal vanes of a rotor.  Internal vanes are subject to rust and corrosion when the rotors are exposed to water like they are on most street-driven vehicles. For customers interested in keeping rust at bay even in those unseen spots, the E-Coat process is ideal.

The E-Coat rotor finish not only adheres to the smooth surface of the disc, but also coats the internal vanes and cooling channels to protect them from rust.

The E-Coat process delivers an strongly adhered coating to the rotors because the electrified paint sticks to the smooth machined surfaces as well as the rough surfaces found on the inside of the rotors. This is a one-step process that is performed in-house by Wilwood at their manufacturing facility.

Adding the Finishing Touches

Once the coating processes are completed on the calipers and rotors, they are sent to various workstations for finished assembly and packaging. For example, the caliper bodies are sorted and then assembled and the necessary hardware is attached. After the calipers are completed they are sent off to the packaging area. At this point products are placed into bags (to prevent scuffing the finish) and finally boxed up along with the installation instructions.

Calipers are placed into bags prior to packaging to prevent scuffing the finish.

Once the products are individually boxed they are placed on a pallet and moved to a different location in the facility. These items are now considered ‘stock’ and ready for shipping and or sale. In the warehouse the crew receives a picking sheet for each order; this sheet details the specific parts and quantities for the order. After all of the items are pulled for the order, the items are placed on a pallet and prepared for shipping. With customers and distributors worldwide, a UPS tractor-trailer is used to pick up the pallets of performance parts; this should give readers an idea to the volume and demand for brake kits and components across the world. Europe and Australia are two of the larger international consumers of Wilwood’s parts, but there are distributors in countries across the globe.

Orders are pulled and placed on to pallets prior to shipping. Wilwood moves enough product to require UPS to send out a tractor-trailer to pickup orders.

Regardless of the application, if it needs to be stopped Wilwood has a solution thanks to tireless research, experience and taking the time to understand the needs of the consumer. Having the ability to create successful state-of-the-art brake kits and components for racecars, military vehicles, street-driven cars, ATV’s and even theme park attractions makes Wilwood an industry leader.

About the author

Lauren Camille

Lauren is a graduate of California State University Fullerton, and has experience working for several enthusiast publications. She enjoys drag racing, classic Fords, and vintage Lincolns. She currently races a 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback, and has a soft spot for 1960’s Lincolns. Currently, her collection includes: ’04 Cobra Convertible, ’65 Mustang Fastback, ’04 F350 6.0 diesel, ’96 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and a ’87 Jeep Wrangler. She provides insightful content as a freelance writer for Power Automedia.
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