You climb into your Vanagon, fire it up, put it in gear, release the parking brake and…. go nowhere. What the heck? You hop out and make sure nobody has fastened a gigantic ball and chain onto the back—or maybe one of those wheel clamps for all your unpaid parking tickets. You find nothing, but your van just won't move. Yes, you've just become a victim of the typical Vanagon rear drum brake seizure syndrome.
This problem isn't isolated to Vanagons; it can occur with any drum brake-equipped vehicle (of which there are fewer and fewer on the road these days). The rear brakes on most drum brake-equipped vehicles, Vanagons included, double as the parking brake. While you're out driving around, the rear brakes are applied via hydraulic pressure. The parking brake cables do the same thing—they just do it mechanically rather than hydraulically. When the rear brakes are applied via the parking brake and left for awhile, the brake shoes tend to seize to the drum, especially in wet or humid weather. If you get the brakes wet and set the parking brake while the brakes are still a bit warm and damp, then leave it for a week, they will pretty much seize up every time. Even when left overnight in the just the right conditions, this can happen. We learned this the hard way. In the GoWesty parking lot, we have a policy never to set the parking brake. Our lot is relatively flat, so setting the brake is not necessary—we just leave the vehicles in gear or in park.
So, what to do when this happens to you and your van? Rocking the vehicle forward and backward using engine torque will usually get the brakes to break loose. When it happens, be ready: You will hear a big BANG, and the vehicle will jolt forward or backward. And that's that. But sometimes this is just not enough, and you have to go to Brake Unsticking Code Yellow: Shut off the engine, put it in gear and release the parking brake. Get yourself a BIG hammer and some sort of large drift. A piece of very straight, very heavy rebar about 12” long works well. Slide the drift through the wheel so the end of the drift is on the side of the drum, and bang on the drums with the hammer and drift. 90% of the time this technique works 100% of the time. But if it doesn't, you'll need to exercise Brake Unsticking Code Red: Jack up the wheels one at a time and figure out which one is stuck (typically it is only one of the rear brakes that is stuck), take the wheel off, and hit the drum all the way around with a hammer. Boom. Bam. Unstuck.
If this happens to you, it could be a sign that your rear brakes need some attention. Don’t mess around having the brakes partially fixed. You can waste a lot of time and money monkeying around with rear brakes on Vanagons. For example, only turning the drums and putting on “rebuilt” shoes can make a relatively straightforward, once-every-40K-mile job a black hole for time and money. For one thing, the drums are not really designed for machining—they just don’t have enough meat for that. Plus, they are relatively inexpensive and made of 100% recyclable material. The way to go is replace everything at one time, via the GoWesty rear brake overhaul kit.
The rear brakes are pretty easy to overhaul—no special tools are required. Taking the hub out of the way by removing the huge nut makes it easier, but that does take some special tools and is not absolutely necessary. If you have a Bentley manual and are very detail oriented, you should be fine. Just make sure to have both drums off during the process, and do one side at a time so you can check your work as you go. The auto-adjuster in particular is a bit tricky to get right—but it is not rocket science. Thank goodness.