Chassis & Suspension: New Products to Increase Safety & Performance

Jul 3, 2010

The days when hot rodders found a discarded chassis (as often as not a cross-sprung Ford) and adapted it to their needs ended long ago. The last few decades have brought increasingly sophisticated chassis components, until today when it would be more accurate to say that top-end hot rodders start with their personal vision of transportation perfection, and-selecting from a broad menu of brand-new components- build or have built a unique chassis to satisfy their ideal.

“In the past, it was commonplace to field-engineer a chassis to compensate for a suspension that was not performing as it should,” said S. Kellie Colf of EATON Detroit Spring Inc. in Detroit. Today, however, “through the use of the correct suspension components you can have the handling and the ride quality you are looking for without many hours of tweaking.”

“People these days expect more from their custom cars,” added Craig Morrison of Art Morrison Enterprises in Fife, Washington. “At the very least, they expect [them to have] ride quality of their daily driver cars or trucks. To achieve this in a muscle car requires a working understanding of suspension geometry and chassis tuning.”

“With increasing intensity we see hot rodders using their cars more on the street, on the track, at the autocross-anything to get themselves out of their lawn chairs and into some activity,” said Bret Voelkel of RideTech [formerly Air Ride Technologies] in Jasper, Indiana. “As a result, they are looking for components that improve the overall drivability of their cars. [This not only includes] suspension and brakes, but comfy seats and smoother horsepower.”

“The emphasis continues on handling and overall performance,” said Ken Hale of Wilwood Engineering in Camarillo, California. “Forty-year-old cars are now coming out of the shops that accelerate, turn and stop as well or better than the best new cars. And the bar keeps getting raised by the premier chassis builders every year as they design new components and improve on old designs.”

It Began With a Plan

It would still be a mistake, however, to assume that all of your customers are looking for the same driving experience.

“It helps to have a game plan in mind,” said Corey Flynn of QA1 Precision Products in Lakeville, Minnesota. “What does the customer want to do with the car? Is the car going to the track? To an autocross? Or is it just a head-turner? Knowing what is going to be expected of the car during the pre-build stage will help you choose the appropriate products.”

Morrison reports seeing a distinct split in the market.

“Over the last few years, the street rod crowd has moved toward cars of the 1950s,” he said, adding that while 1955-1957 Chevrolets are probably among the most-popular choice, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiacs are also being restored because they offer unique style without the rising prices of the Tri-5 Chevys.

This market is also discovering that cars from the 1950s, in general, are “bigger, and therefore more user-friendly for longer trips than the more traditional cars of the 1930s and 1940s,” said Morrison. “The Pro-Touring movement is a completely different market being driven by a much-younger demographic that remembers classic muscle cars from when they were kids, but now wants one that can out-perform a current-day sports car. While Pro-Touring was once just about style, now it means a sport-tuned suspension, EFI engine and other modern technology.”

“We’re actually seeing the weight coming off the classic muscle cars, allowing them the flexibility to be driven harder than ever before,” said Flynn of QA1. “We’ve been extremely busy for the past 12 months. We’ve widely expanded our products to allow car builders to keep pushing the technology that’s going into old cars.”

“You must know your customer to determine the style of car and chassis that is appropriate,” said Voelkel of RideTech. “Some customers want the absolute most-advanced technology available: billet spindles, electronic shocks, adjustable everything, and money is not a consideration. At the other end of the spectrum, some want the simplest, least-expensive components that will meet their needs [in regard to] safety. It’s the hot rod builder’s job to become educated about the choices available and to present them to the customer.”

“There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all, especially in suspension components,” added Colf of EATON Detroit Spring. “Just because a part fits in an allotted space doesn’t mean it’s the right part for the job. We’ve all ridden in hot rods that ride more like a truck than a car. [This is] because there’s a well-known, less-expensive truck spring that will fit in the place of a proper 48-inch rear spring for a Ford passenger car. Use the correct car spring and you get car-like ride and handling. The truck spring may fit, but once installed, the car rides like a buckboard and corners like a tank. You already know using the right tool for the job is necessary. Using the right part is, too.”

Brent VanDervort, founder of Fatman Fabrications Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina, offered this observation: “It is increasingly important to have a design that rodders with more enthusiasm than experience can install successfully.”

Popular Cars & Parts

Fatman has been increasing its products for Fords from the 1950s and 1960s, according to VanDervort.

“These cars are increasingly popular, but in many cases lack a front suspension that can perform anywhere near the level of a new production car,” he said. “Anyone getting out of a new Mustang and into a ’65 will find it a very disappointing experience. Accordingly, we make parts to upgrade the original IFS (dropped spindles, tubular control arms, shocks, etc.), as well as a complete replacement IFS system. We have simple bolt-in systems [that require] no irreversible modifications, which have been well-received.”

EATON Detroit Spring’s latest introduction has been its Performance line of leaf and coil springs, designed for high-performance, street/strip or full-race vehicles.

“We’ve applied all our experience to produce the proper spring for each application, rather than forcing chassis builders to engineer around the springs’ deficiencies,” said Colf.

RideTech has completely reinvented itself to take maximum advantage of this exploding market.

“About a year ago we completed the transition to the RideTech name in order to properly represent the products we build beyond air suspension,” said Voelkel. “While we have continued to refine our air suspension offerings with the new e3 LevelPro leveling system and a whole new line of shocks, we have also been working diligently to bring out new coil-overs, our Select series of electronic shocks, and more TigerCage roll-cage applications. The silver lining to a down economy is that we now have access to some very advanced technology that was not available to us three years ago.”

Gassers to Pro-Street

Jim Meyer Racing Products of Lincoln City, Oregon, offers a wide range of street and race chassis components.

“Our emphasis remains on [builders who are] working out of their garage with limited tools and resources; and on shops that depend on quality parts,” said Jim Meyer. “Early Chevys, including the Corvette C1, C2, and C3, remain strong due to our expanded front and rear suspension products. And the gasser movement marches on.”

Accordingly, among Meyer’s newest products are gasser-style straight-axle front suspension conversions for the 1964-1972 GM A-body, 1962-1967 Chevy II/Nova, and 1955-“1957 Chevrolet; plus a complete gasser chassis for the Tri-5 Chevys. The company has also released new kits for Falcons, as well as a universal kit.

Jim Meyer Racing has released several complete replacement chassis, including 1949-1951 Chevrolet passenger cars and 1941-1946 Chevrolet pickups.

“These are built to suit your specific project with improved steering geometry and adjustable ride-height, while retaining factory body mount locations,” said Meyer. “For more-experienced chassis builders we’ve developed a Pro-Street chassis for the 1967-1969 Camaro. This is a full chassis, requiring modification to the factory floor pans and fabrication to finish the installation, but it features an additional 12 inches of clearance for rear tires, and fully adjustable front and rear suspensions.”

More Complete Chassis

“We see a real trend toward rodders preferring a complete chassis, rather than buying components to update an original chassis,” said VanDervort. “We also see more higher-end components; more stainless steel, upgraded aftermarket brakes and either coil-over or air suspension. We used to build many chassis with conventional coil springs up front and leaf springs in the rear, but those have become less-common choices.

“We think the reason is that the rodders who have the resources to build a higher-level car today lack either the time or ability to do the same work on original chassis,” continued VanDervort. “They have seen that we can build a new chassis for a price that makes re-working an original chassis a far less-attractive alternative. Having to pay a pro shop’s labor prices [to rework] a trigeminal chassis just isn’t an option anymore, unless no reproduction chassis is available.”

Art Morrison Enterprises is expanding its GT Sport Chassis line to include the 19491954 Chevrolet and the 1964-1972 Chevelle. The latter, according to Morrison, will actually fit any 1968-1972 GM A-body.

For Camaro enthusiasts, the company have “tested both the three-link and triangulated four-bar suspension clips that we have available for these cars and they deliver a serious level of performance,” added Morrison.

As for trends, Flynn of QA1 said that he has observed more adjustability being built into chassis design. Customers are also looking for performance control arms front and rear, caster and camber curve adjustments, and ride-height control, he said.

The newest addition to QA1’s product line is a wireless remote adjust system that can change both compression and rebound rates from the driver’s seat.

“The system works with both our single- and double-adjustable shocks from our current and previous lines,” said Flynn.

Adjustability is also a key feature of the new coil-over kits QA1 has developed for both the C5 and C6 Corvette.

“The system bolts right into the factory location, and allows you to gain ride-height and dampening control of your C5/C6 suspension,” said Flynn.

Additionally, QA1 offers new NA Stocker Stars, a premium non-adjustable shock absorber that bolts into the stock location “to give the car the performance and handling the customer has been looking for-but for under $100,” said Flynn.

Tips for Titling

Another problem that can arise from building what’s essentially a brand-new car-a new reproduction body mounted on new, full-length, high-performance chassis-”is obtaining a legal title. How do you title an old car that never really existed?

“It’s very easy today to build a car that’s a total reproduction and then find it all but impossible in a number of states to register it,” VanDervort said of cars that contain no original parts. “SEMA’s sample ‘year most closely resembles’ legislation helps, but it can still be a struggle without documentation acceptable.

“Your own serial number won’t get the job done in most cases, if the manufacturer is not registered and approved,” he continued. “The manufacturers of street rod chassis, bodies and packages should be getting set up with the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) to provide the proper paperwork to help the final customer to get the car registered. It isn’t that hard, and the current government situation is requiring more and more documentation.

“I might add that all the state DOTs are well-acquainted with bought and bogus titles,” said VanDervort. “Using that approach has worked in the past, but a person attempting that should know that it is a violation of federal law for anyone other than the licensed manufacturer to mark a vehicle with a VIN number.  Other parties doing so risk fines and imprisonment. The best approach is to speak, prior to the purchase of parts, with the local state highway patrol enforcement group, as they will be the ones deciding if your paperwork is correct and complete.”

Trail- ‘Braking’

While we plan to cover braking systems in our October issue, we thought it might be appropriate to include a few words about them here. Like frame and suspension systems, brakes are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

“In the last few years, builders and owners alike have awakened to the importance of good brakes to round out any project,” said Hale of Wilwood Engineering. “It would be a terrific disservice to your client if you didn’t insist on making your projects stop as well as they go. The stock brakes on most cars were designed to perform within the limitations envisioned by the original engineers. When you ratchet up those design limitations by several percentage points, you must also design brake performance to meet those new demands.”

Beyond that, our experts offered advice that should by now sound familiar.

“Find a reliable supplier that can deliver a properly designed and manufactured product, and who will share all their technical knowledge with you,” suggested Voelkel of RideTech. “Not every product a company sells is appropriate for every customer who asks about it. A manufacturer needs to be forthright about a products’ limitations and should be able to steer a customer toward the solution that fits them best.”

Customers will show their appreciation through repeat business, “but any customer, consumer or professional, who selects a product purely on price will eventually be disappointed,” Voelkel added.

“Be aware of the quality of the products you are using,” said Meyer. “Don’t buy junk. Ask where parts are manufactured, and buy U.S.-made. Your job may depend on it.”

“Quality sells,” Morrison confirmed. “A lot of people have stolen ideas, and are having the parts made offshore with no regard for quality. But going the cheap route will result in nothing but headaches in the end.”

“Find a niche that works well for you,” VanDervort added. “Going on the road to promote a small product line can be prohibitively expensive. The Internet can actually benefit small shops more than large ones. Find a type of build or a type of car with a good following-”but not so large that the bigger companies will want to compete directly against you. And do what you say.

“Most builders get into trouble by spending more deposit money than they have earned by completed work,” continued VanDervort. “They end up with a shop full of stored products and a bunch of disgruntled owners. Keep your overhead to a bare minimum. For your first five years, just aim at surviving, rather than growing or making a profit. Establish your shop and your reputation, and keep your word. There’s plenty of work for shops operating with integrity.”