Rochester Clutch and Brake: friction specialists

by Larry Bernstein

We live in a throwaway society. Most people have little patience for repair, but prefer to replace instead. However, some businesses, such as Rochester Clutch and Brake, make a living from individuals and businesses that choose repair/reuse — whether by choice or necessity.

Founded in 1927 by Phillip Damico, the business was known as Phil and Al’s. The Damico brothers wrecked vehicles for parts and sales, sold the used auto parts, and rebuilt transmissions. When the 1930’s rolled around, the company began rebuilding clutches and brakes and later changed their name to Rochester Clutch and Brake. Phil’s sons, including Sam, took over the business in 1958. By the late 90’s, when Sam’s son, Sam Jr., was running the company, Rochester Clutch and Brake stopped selling auto parts. “Other big companies started selling auto parts and we could not compete,” says Sam Sr.

Today, Rochester Clutch and Brake focuses solely on rebuilding clutches and brake shoes. They do not do mechanical work on the clutch. They rebuild or remanufacture clutches, disks and brake bands that have driving force or stopping force which is needed to operate the machine. They only work on parts.

Types of Work

Imagine going to work in order to repair a 1934 Rolls Royce. Sam Sr. worked on classic/antique cars for years. In the 1970’s, he also worked on racecars for Mario Andretti and Paul Newman. Since the early 2000’s, Sam Jr. has been doing this sort of work. Besides automotive, Rochester Clutch and Brake also has clients from the agricultural, construction and industrial sectors. They have worked on railroad equipment, ski lifts, elevators, tractors, bulldozers, earthmovers and other heavy equipment.

The times are changing for those who do the type of work that Rochester Clutch and Brake does. “Our niche is small, and it’s not going to get bigger,” says Sam Jr. Besides the small industry market, those who are skilled at the trade are few and far between. Sam Jr. explains, “This is something you learn with time and experience, and kids today are not interested.” In terms of background, Sam Jr. is an A&P licensed mechanic. Sam Sr. learned basic physics, which he uses to deduce problems. However, both father and son were brought up in the business, and their skills come primarily from experience.

Rebuilding a clutch is a unique process. Particular products are required in order to work on clutches. These products include raw friction material in roll or sheet form, specialty adhesives for thermal bonding and custom jigging for the bonding process. Friction ranges from 0 to 1.0 — and everything in the world has a different coefficient of friction. The lower the number, the more slippery the material; a higher number indicates more adhesion.

According to Sam Jr., the focus these days of their business is industrial. “Industrial — such as manufacturing, vehicles and big equipment, require friction materials and that is where the business is,” says Sam Sr. This is true because this type of equipment is particularly expensive which leads business owners to be more open to remanufacturing their equipment rather than buying new.

Custom work is another area that keeps Rochester Clutch and Brake busy. “There are machines that have obsolete clutches and brakes, so they are not mass produced. We are able to fabricate news ones,” says Sam Jr. He points to a couple of cars including the 2004 Sebring Convertible Chrysler (only a few thousand were made), a Mark V Scarab (only three left in the world), and a 1916 Hudson as examples.

When a business has their equipment rebuilt by Rochester Clutch and Brake, they get a product that is specifically geared towards them and their requirements. “The advantage of having your product geared is that we can do it so it fits the particular need to the consumer,” says Sam Sr. This type of personalization along with the savings that come from repair rather than replace are what drives many of Rochester Clutch and Brake’s customers to choose them.

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