Air it Out – A Guide to Air Suspension
One of the first custom touches many enthusiasts make to their classic rides (or even new cars) is to lower them a few inches. Stance is one of the most important visual aspects of a cool cruiser and even just a couple inches lower can make a huge difference in the car or truck’s attitude. Of course, there are also those who want to take that lower attitude to the max by dropping the frame right to the ground. Whether you’re looking for just a couple inches or to lay frame, the use of an air suspension system can help provide the stance you crave.
Over the past 20 years, the use of air suspension components has grown exponentially thanks to some innovative products and controllers. But air-supported suspensions are certainly not a new technology, as they’ve been used for decades and even in a few OEM applications dating back to the ’50s. In fact, air springs were proven on the early NASCAR teams and have been used for decades in the hauling and towing industries.
In our modern hot rodding times, air suspension systems are more popular than ever and can be controlled with automatic ride height sensors and high-end gizmos that can be controlled through your cell phone. Suspension and chassis companies have developed parts to utilize the latest air suspension systems and builders can pretty much deliver whatever ride height or stance you can dream up these days.
We reached out to several of the top air suspension companies to see what’s new, plus we talked with a number of suspension experts and builders to get their take on air suspensions. Take a look and give them a call to learn more about what they can do or offer for your next project.
Tips from the Pros – Built to Last
Boris Maryanovsky, Street Machinery
We have hundreds of thousands of miles on the cars we’ve built with air suspension systems. The main issues people seem to have with them are from installer error and by using the wrong or cheap parts. Bags designed for a mini-truck are not going to support a vintage Cadillac! You have to use proven, quality parts designed for the application. And you also have to make sure to install these parts with quality fittings, DOT-approved hose, thread sealers, grommets, and keep them away from heat sources.
Also note that some cars are just made to accept air systems while others, not so much. Late-’50s and early-’60s Chevys are ideal for air systems, in fact the factory even offered a ‘Level Air’ option in ’58-’59! Conversely, nearly any Dodge with torsion bars is tough to do an air system on, same with leaf spring applications. The best bet there is an aftermarket chassis. You have to think the entire system through from bag fitment to shock locations to achieve a good riding, reliable air system.
Big Ford Drop
Full size Ford and Mercury fans rejoice as RideTech now offers a complete air suspension system designed to deliver the performance, comfort, and all-important slammed style for your ’65-’72. The heart of the front system is RideTech’s proven Shockwave to replace the stock spring and shock. Inside the Shockwave is a Fox monotube shock with rebound adjustability.
The rear system features new brackets and components to fit CoolRide air springs in place of the factory coils. A pair of HQ shocks are used in the rear and are also adjustable to help achieve the handling and ride quality you desire. No cutting, welding or fab work is required with the system and the shocks feature RideTech’s exclusive 1,000,001-mile warranty!
To finish off the new air system, be sure to check out the RidePro E5 Leveling Control system. This high-tech system will self-adjust the ride height and compensate for changes in load. Each time your turn the ignition key, the RidePro E5 will calculate proper air spring rate and balance, then continue to maintain proper spring pressures and vehicle height.
Tips from the Pros – Quality Parts and Installation
Jason Wilcox, Total Cost Involved Engineering
In order build a reliable hot rod air suspension system, make sure to use good quality parts designed for the job. Hard lines will always be preferred, as the risk of damage is far less than plastic. And make your electrical/charging system can support the amperage draw that the compressor(s) require. The number one complaint we get about air systems is leaks – yet big rigs have used bags for years and millions of miles! It goes back to using good parts and installing them right!
When planning an air system, a general rule of thumb is to position the shock/spring/bag to be at mid-travel at ride height. You don’t want the bag running at near maximum pressure to get the vehicle to ride height yet on the flip side, you don’t want a little pressure in the bag to keep it at ride height. This is why it’s best to use parts specifically designed for your vehicle.
When you’re running an air suspension system, you’re going to need an air tank. And when you need an air tank, you might as well go for a tank that provides amazing looks as well as functionality. Flo Airride offers a modular billet air tank that completely fits the bill in form and function.
The company’s BTS Billet Tanks are built with high-quality parts for an impressive air management setup combined with a universal mounting design. Three sizes are available (18-, 24- and 28-inch) with 1/8-, ¼- and 3/8-inch NPT port options all in a symmetrical design which is ideal for hardline applications. The tank has a drain port as well as a 225/250-psi pressure relief valve.
Tips from the Pros – Chassis Design and Options
Phil Gerber, Roadster Shop
When our chassis are optioned with airbags, there are several differences in the design that are specific to the airbag. On our IFS, we have specific control arms and brackets that are dedicated to air suspension and place the bags and shocks in the most ideal location to balance maximum wheel travel and desirable motion ratios. Sway bars and end links are put under additional load and see more travel, so they are also specific to the air bagged suspension.
On solid-axle rearends we engineer specific frame rails and components to properly package the additional height and travel of the bags and shocks. When the focus is on the lowest possible ride height when aired out, then consideration is taken to the crossmember assemblies to make sure that everything is flush to the bottom of the frame rails so as not to have anything contact the ground when airing out the suspension.
Remember, an air suspension system is considerably more complex than a conventional coil-over system with the pump, controller, plumbing, and wiring. With that said, I would just stress the importance of selecting a well-engineered setup and being thorough with your installation for a trouble-free air bag experience.
Making the move to an air suspension system can be a daunting task when you’re trying to pick out all of the right components for your application. Speedway Motors has done the homework to assemble a kit made up of trusted, bulletproof components that will help you achieve the performance you desire without chasing parts and pieces.
Take for example their entry-level system that is supplied with AVS Dual Needle Air Gauge and Intake Valves, a three-rocker switch controller, and Specialty Suspension’s seamless aluminum air tank. A Viair 450C continuous cycle compressor is also supplied along with the check valve, vibration isolators, mounting hardware, stainless steel braided leader hose, air line for a remote mount air filter assembly, and more. Speedway also offers other kits with greater capacity and more elaborate control valves to suit most any application.
Building with Air
Working on your dream ride and fabricating your own unique suspension setup? Air Lift can help you take it to the next level when it comes to an air system with their new Builders Series line. This new universal shock series is designed specifically for the advanced builder, with air springs that can be adapted for the most creative and complex builds on the street.
The Builders Series features 36 different applications based on air spring sizes and types, shock length, and mounting options. Builders can choose between a sleeve-style air spring, a compact bellows-style air spring for tighter builds, and a standard bellows-style air spring for builds with a little more heft. Each air spring option is paired with an adjustable monotube threaded-body shock (in three different lengths) and upper mounting options with an eye or stud end with a trunnion or eye end for the lower mount. Plus, there are 30 levels of damping adjustments to settle the ride quality in just right on any custom application.
Tips from the Pros – Air Benefits
Jason Hill, Hills Hot Rods
When installed correctly, the ride quality of an air suspension can be a major benefit. By saying that, you have to make sure the suspension travel is not limited. So many times the install of air is just about how low it can get with no thought about the amount of travel your suspension components need to achieve a nice ride as well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to beat the look of a vehicle at a show laid out on the ground, but I like to strive for the best of both worlds with our builds.
As far as longevity of air systems, obviously the air spring or bag is not the weak link here, as they have been on semi trucks forever – they have to be installed correctly, with no rubbing issues and no leaks. I feel like the most common problem with air is the wear items, such as pressure switches, valves, and control panels.
Slam like a Pro
The name pretty much says it all and when you ring up the tech line at Slam Specialties, you know you’re talking to someone that understands your end goal. Slam Specialties offers a full line of their own air bags, controllers, manifolds and more designed to deliver the stance, adjustability, and endurance that you want.
The company’s USA-made products are available separately, or they can put together a system to meet your expectations. Their basic system includes their proven SS6 and SS7 bags that have internal bumpstops, a billet NPT port with heavy-duty 3/8-inch mounting holes on top and bottom. Their MC.2 controller works seamlessly through the SV8C manifold and is housed in a billet case with a customizable LED touchpad. The system is fed with a pair of Viair 444 compressors to easily maintain and alter the stance.
When you roll into the cruise night and release all the air to drop your ride down to its most bitchin’ stance, eventually you’re going to need to raise it back up to go home. This is where Viair shines with their line of reliable on-board 12-volt compressors such as their 444C model.
The 444C compressor features a newly developed intercooler head assembly and is capable of producing 200psi at 100-percent duty cycle. The permanent magnet motor is under 11-inches long, 4.2-inches wide, and 7-inches high, so it fits in tight confines. Viair now offers a Dual Performance Value Pack that is supplied with two of these efficient motors in show-quality chrome or a stealth black. The kit also includes stainless steel braided leader hose, an inline check valve, and mounting hardware.
Tips from the Pros – Wheel Clearance and High Tech
Camren Beattie, Scott’s Hotrods ‘n Customs
You have got to check the clearance of the tire/wheel combination through the full motion of the air suspension. We designed our SuperSlam IFS kits specifically for airbags and external shocks, providing the best fit for each application. We narrow the track width accordingly to allow for a larger wheel/tire combination.
It’s also important to choose a quality air management system such as the RideTech E5. With today’s advanced air handling systems (ride height sensors, valves, compressors, and tanks), adjusting bag pressures to achieve a level ride height no matter how many people you have in the vehicle is a breeze – and can all be controlled from your smartphone.
Sometimes it’s not just all about a low stance, but rather the right support. Firestone, yes the same Firestone you’re familiar with, has been producing air springs and bags for decades to help not only light trucks and SUVs haul with control and comfort, but also tow rigs and RVs.
Firestone’s Ride-Rite Air Spring kits are their most popular system to help maximize a vehicle’s load carrying capacity and ride quality. These kits are made from the same proven material used on the biggest rigs on the road and are available for most vehicles. There are eight spring combinations, so you’ll be able to find one just right for your setup. To complete the system, they offer an Air Control System so you can easily adjust the air pressure to suit road conditions and load changes with the flip of a switch, click of a remote, or even from your phone!
When it comes time to plumbing the air lines for your suspension, you’re going to need high-quality lines and fittings plus a few other components. AccuAir knows what it takes to plumb a complete system and now offers a complete kit to help you get the job done right and done once.
This kit is supplied with 50-feet of DOT 3/8-inch air line, a fitting kit for the air springs, and an aluminum filter/trap to keep the moisture out of your air suspension system. They even supply thread sealant, plugs, elbows and more to help complete the plumbing task.
Tips from the Pros – Ride Height Range
Tim Tullo, Fatman Fabrication
An air suspension will allow for changes in load with the simple press of a button or with the use of the higher-end compressor kits with automatic adjustments for load changes. Air also gives the customers the slammed stance when parked. Something that is important to clarify regarding air systems is that they will not allow you to set the ride height wherever you choose.
Any suspension has a range of acceptable travel and geometry. In order for that suspension to provide proper handling and ride quality it must be within that range while driving. Going outside of that range can result in bump steer, poor handling, or in a worst-case scenario, broken or bent parts. An air system will allow you to more easily adjust the suspension within that window of travel, but it must be setup and designed properly.
Hip to be Square
Air tanks are air tanks, right? Wrong! At least that’s the reasoning behind the SquareTank. The team at SquareTank wanted more from an air tank and came up with an innovative solution by using square billet aluminum endcaps for a refreshing new look.
The company’s Original SquareTank provides more than just cool looks. The end caps feature a total of six 3/8-inch NPT ports and two 1/8-inch dump ports, providing several plumbing configuration choices. Or, if you’re looking to keep things stealthy, the SquareTank also has unique mounting points to help hide the ports. Tanks are available in a 3-gallon, 20-inch long version or a 5-gallon, 30-inch model and are finished in raw, Tungsten, or a jet black Cerakote.
A good number of OEM trucks and cars have been using air-assisted suspension systems from the factory for a number of years. Conversely, many of these vehicles are reaching the miles and years where things are starting to require updating. When it comes to OEM replacement air springs and compressors, Arnott Air Suspension Products is here to help.
Arnott’s aftermarket compressors are powerful, compact, and very efficient. The example shown is designed as a direct replacement for a number of GM trucks and SUVs. The compressor, P-3242, is built to the OE specs and connects directly to the vehicle’s lines and accepts the factory electrical connection. It is supplied with a mounting bracket, hose and new relay for a direct fit.