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I would be really grateful for any advise on how to go about updating the brake system on this vintage Universal La Riviera ladies bike.

The brakes don't work properly so I can't safely ride it. The front brakes are very stiff and the back breaks have completely seized.

I tried to oil it but I think the rust damage is too extensive and it's probably too old to salvage. I'd like to install a new brake set but I'm not sure what kind to buy. Do I need the exact same model or can I change to any brake system? If I can use another brake system could you please let me know your recommendation and why it's better?

Here are some photos:

The back brake lever has seized with rust.

Back brake lever completely seized

Front brakes function but very poorly.

Front brakes

Back brakes.

Back brakes

Back brakes.

Back brakes

The bike.

The bike

A friend donated this bike to me. From what I read of the company, the bike is probably from the 1980s. It's very rusty but the frame is sound, the wheels look fine and there's no problem with the steering. I recently put on a new chain and now pedaling is smooth. There's a problem with changing gears but everything's fine if I don't try to change gears. I only use it to go to my local shops a few times a month so I'm happy as long as it's functional and safe. :)

Many thanks in advance for your time.

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    First off, the bike's not worth much, except for sentimental or artistic reasons. You could buy new parts to replace the brake levers and calipers (they're pretty much standard for cheap bikes of the era), but it would be expensive. Your better bet would be to buy a "donor" bike with similar components (but not as rusted) and transfer the parts. Or you could buy a jug of "wood brightener" at a paint store/"home center" (making sure the container says it contains "oxalic acid" or "ethanedioic acid") and use that to treat the rusted pieces. (Be sure to oil well after treatment.) – Daniel R Hicks Nov 18 at 3:24
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    (New brake pads are a standard bike shop item.) (The oxalic acid may be used on the handlebar and other bare metal items as well. Or scrub with "Bar Keeper's Friend" scouring powder.) – Daniel R Hicks Nov 18 at 3:24
  • @DanielRHicks another convenient source of oxalic acid is "Barkeeper's Friend", a cleaning product commonly sold in grocery stores (at least in New England, USA). – Adonalsium Nov 18 at 17:44
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The brake pads are almost certainly hardened and need replacing, and the cables probably rusted and stiff, so also need replacing. Both these items are considered consumable and relatively cheap.

Before going out and buying new ones, I would remove the cable and check the levers are free. Also check the brake calipers are opening and closing freely and spring back when released. A spray of WD-40 or penetrating oil may be needed if really stiff, but once freed up a squirt of a light oil or chain lube will provide lubrication. If you can get these moving then install the new, high quality pads and cables and they should work better than new.

Replacement brake levers and calipers are easy to find if you're not after exact, era-accurate replacements. Your local bike co-op or recycle center is likely to have brakes or a donor bike.

Installing cables is best done with a proper cable-cutting tool. It's possible to cut cables with other tools (such as a Dremel), but it's probably better to hand it over to the LBS if you don't want to purchase a tool and cannot get access to one.

As suggested by @Daniel, the bike is not worth a lot, and you could very quickly end up spending more on the bike than it is worth. Before spending too much time and money I suggest looking very closely at the tires, as if original these are likely perished and in need of replacement.

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The brake calipers and levers can likely be salvaged, but they need to be removed from the bike to do so.

Simply spraying liberally with a penetrating oil such as WD-40 and working the calipers and levers back and forth until they free up may be effective. If that does not work there are also rust removing solutions that you submerge the parts in for hours (or days). Vapo-Rust is a fairly well known product (in North America at least). Using a rust removing solution will also remove all the surface rust, but the parts will rust again quickly as the chrome plating has worn off or corroded away.

As others have said, replace the cables and cable housings, and brake pads. These are 'wear items' and are normally periodically replaced. Also check and clean the rims.

For replacements, product recommendations are off topic here but we can point you in the right direction.

You need side pull rim brake calipers that have the correct reach from mounting bolt to rims. Your calipers look like the 'long-reach' type that accommodate a larger tire and fender.

the type of lever you need is commonly referred to as 'city bike' levers. You need to find a pair that will clamp on the handlebar diameter you have, which you can easily measure.

  • It's always worth noting that WD40 isn't really a lubricant... it's a water displacement formula (hence the WD). A better product would be something like B'laster or liquid wrench or another penetrating catalyst, then using a 3 in 1 oil or something to actually lubricate the parts once they're moving enough to be worked back and forth easily. – Adonalsium Nov 18 at 17:47
  • @Adonalsium true that traditional WD40 is not a lubricant. But WD40 does possess penetrating powers, because it will wick along a small gap between parts. It also soaks "through" rust to help physically free the stuck components. At this task its okay, not great but its cheap and quantity can beat quality at this particular job. – Criggie Nov 19 at 6:33

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