The Brakeman

Let’s slow things down for Sunday.

I’ve driven under this bridge many times in my home town. The bridge remains but the slogan, lost. Sheffieldhistory.co.uk

Ever since cavemen realised the wheel was more conducive to transportation, reducing vehicular speeds safely has been a problem, to say the least. Fine to get motion rolling but just how do you make that cart or wagon slow down and stop, preferably before the impending river/edge/group of people?

Boughs from trees, old boots, metal, bricks, rocks – all of the above have at one time or another been employed to serve as brakes – mostly ineffectual, not to mention most rapid in wear. Absolutely nothing was available to provide lasting friction without damaging the vehicle until Mr. Frood hit upon an idea.

Early cars had brakes similar to those of the horse drawn carriage, crude in operation, usually operating to the rear only. Michelin used canvas brake blocks laminated with, no surprises here, rubber. Half decent in dry weather, catastrophic when wet. Abrasive roads wore these blocks faster. 

In 1895 Herbert Frood moved to his new home, Rye Flatt House in the hamlet of Combs, near Chapel en le Frith, Derbyshire. Combs Moss, a moorland plateau above his home formed a stream, flowing into Frood’s garden.

Herbert Frood & the shed where brakes were made. Image: Ferodoracing.com

His new wife was the daughter of Sir William Ogden, proprietor of the Rossendale Belting Works in neighbouring Lancashire. Making woven cotton belting for many an industrial job created considerable waste which Ogden used to fire his boilers. That waste was oil-impregnated, stiff but retaining purpose. On a trip to the factory, Frood noticed the boilerman saved half decent sections of this oiled cotton for use on the cart braking wheels, to good effect. 

Naturally inventive and inquisitive, Frood began to experiment in ways akin to Goodyear, the former creating a more purposeful brake material. One huge difference between the men was that Frood had one free item – water power. He constructed a waterwheel that could be left running both day and night, powering equipment which tested the abrasive qualities of many different materials until two years later, his eureka moment arrived.

As Michelin had discovered, under wet conditions the cotton belting wore rapidly. The connecting fibres were key; the old cotton belting, impregnated with oils, once hardened, wore far better than any other material and had a high frictional capacity – even faced with abrasive, wet road conditions – the brake pad was born. Well, at this stage it was still a block but this invention had far reaching implications. Keen to personally try out his new invention, Frood invested in a belt driven and poorly braked, 6hp Benz in 1899, already with an eye on providing the motorist better braking. However, first he had larger items to arrest.

Frood, daughters and car at Chapel en-Le Frith carnival, 1906. Image: Author’s collection

October 1900 witnessed patent no. 18,292 Brake Blocks in Frood’s name. In his first two years of operation his shed was his factory. A longstanding prejudice from the old coach building and wheelwright trades kept sales low. Mechanical horsepower was in its ascendancy however as large fleets of vehicles appeared. With these, the entrepreneurial Frood offered sample brake blocks free of charge, guaranteeing safer and cheaper braking.

His first large customer was the London General Omnibus Company. Used to twice or more weekly leather belting changes, within six weeks, Frood’s brake blocks had proved themselves, bringing about the demise of the horse drawn bus by 1911. Economies of scale, far superior braking effect along with ease of maintenance saw his first big contract, meaning larger premises in order to manufacture brake blocks in Gorton, Manchester.

Scotland Yard had decreed that a bus travelling at 12mph must stop within 14 feet. Frood’s blocks managed this skid-free within ten. The motor industry began to take notice. Determined to remain ahead of the game, luck came Frood’s way one lunchtime. Prioritising stomach before samples, one was left on a hot plate whilst dining. He quickly realised this particular blend of oils, varnishes and bitumen proved the key fibrous mix. Blended with (now abhorrent) asbestos creating the BA block – ideal brake block material, offering smoother retardation, long life, lower costs.

Research continued unabated; from Brooklands to the battlefields of the Great War, Ferodo brakes were to be had on everything from Allards to the tanks of lorries in France and Belgium. As a mark of recognition, once hostilities had ceased a tank occupied pride of place in the New Chapel en-Le Frith factory yard for some twenty years.

Image: Forums.jag-lovers.com

With the 1920s motoring boom, Ferodo (a blend of Frood’s name and the E from wife, Elizabeth) supplied practically every British, along with plenty of foreign-made cars with not only brakes but clutches. Most braking effort remained rear-biased with owner’s manuals often encouraging drivers to “apply the handbrake as soon as an obstacle is sighted before pressing the brake pedal” advancing to, signs displaying “Caution: four wheel brakes.” Working closely with brake manufacturers such as Girling and Lockheed produced ever better results but also increased competition. Frood retired in 1927, dying four years later aged 66. The firm Turner & Newall had purchased shares in Ferodo just before Frood’s retirement.

Remaining the go-to brand for such wild divides as the Austin 7, the land speed record Bluebird, to the coal-hauling lorry, Ferodo’s factory expanded once more to meet demand, becoming standard brake linings for Jaguar’s XK120, the DS, TR3 along with most British racing cars. Garages throughout Europe had Ferodo Brake Testing Service Stations by the mid-fifties although, inevitably, the competition gained strength.

An excuse to put some heroes up there. Image: Ferodoracing.com

A twist of fate did for the original name. Once Turner & Newall had procured the remaining shares in Ferodo, they also took on the asbestos issue. Facing extensive payments, not just to factory workers but all manner of claimants, Federal Mogul bought out T&N, inheriting the financial and health burden caused by their products. Many years of protracted negotiations took place with asbestos brake products confined to the history books but the original Ferodo name lived on. 

Remaining as many manufacturer’s original equipment and strong in aftermarket supply, the name Ferodo continues but with far more benign characteristics than the original blend. An early exponent of large scale advertising; newspapers and the motoring press being bombarded by Ferodo products since the firms inception, a legacy being the sight of the name on some overhead bridges to this day.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

14 thoughts on “The Brakeman”

  1. Good morning Andrew. Thank you for a nicely told history lesson for a Sunday morning. It never occurred to me that tanks would need brakes. I just assumed that the inertia in the caterpillar tracks would do the job once the drive was interrupted. Every day’s a school day!

    1. Thank you Andrew for a little Sunday morning nostalgia and a reminder of a time when a Sunday job (don’t let the vicar see you) might well involve brake shoes, copper rivets, hammer & punch and a box of nice new Ferodo brake linings.

      As for that railway bridge, there was just sufficient clearance to pass under in an ERF with a double-decker on suspended tow….

  2. Another great and interesting article Andrew 👍🏻 Asbestos was still in brake pads, shoes and clutches when I started working on cars as a teenager. Just blow the dust out lad, it won’t harm you 😱. Happy days though.

    1. I used to sit on the kerb, by the jacked-up hub, lean back and take a deep breath, then lean forwards, close my eyes, and blow…
      I gather the materials that have replaced asbestos are less harmful to humans but more harmful to other life-forms.

  3. Another piece of history is disclosed on DTW. Interesting story. Andrew, I salute you.

    1. Yes – I didn’t know any of that and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to find out, so thank you for a well-told story, Andrew.

  4. Excellent storytelling Andrew and technically very interesting too. Great way to start Sunday morning so thank you!

  5. I remember that Ferodo ad with the F1 champions. I wait with baited breath for the Mintex history !

  6. Now thats areal interesting story i knew nothing about!
    i recently replaced the handbrake-shoes on my XJR, and got some Ferodo’s.
    Had it not been for this article i had assumed they were just some noname brand!

  7. I’ll ask the awkward question – what’s the relationship between the British multi-national maker of friction materials and the Ferodo semi-automatic gearbox used by Simca in the 1000 and 1100?

    Casual research does not deliver any clear answers.

    I’m thinking the French division of Ferodo must have had sufficient autonomy to indulge in non-core activities, as no manufacturer in Britain used the system. The torque convertor-based design used by Simca seems to have originated within Renault, although the 8 and 10 had the option of a Jaeger semi-auto closer in its principles to the British AP Newtondrive offered in the Standard 8/10 and Ford Anglia.

    1. Robertas – I looked at Valeo’s site and found this:

      “In 1923, Eugène Buisson, the French representative for Ferodo brake linings, opened workshops in Saint-Ouen to manufacture, under license, his own friction materials. This was the birth of Société Anonyme Française de Ferodo (SAFF). In 1932, the company expanded its activities to include the production of clutches, and SAFF was listed on the Paris stock exchange.”

      See: https://www.valeo.com/en/our-story/

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