Big rigs have them, as do mini-truckers. For most hardcore performance nuts, however, stuffing airbags between the sprung and unsprung underbelly of a classic car is sacrilege. Adjustable coilover shocks, tuned leaf and coil springs, and performance struts have long been considered the way to go for introducing better handling to Chevelles, Tri-Fives, Novas, and Camaros. Heck, the only air suspension I ever remember adding to my hot rods while growing up was a set of Gabriel Hi-Jackers.
My, how our attitude about oxygen has changed, and in a relatively short period of time, no less. Today, the level of operation and sophistication of air-assisted suspension systems is at record highs. At the forefront of this movement is Air Ride Technologies. The engineers-and I mean engineers-at Air Ride have figured it out. While you'll still find ultra-sophisticated suspension systems on the world's most expensive race-only machines, you'll be hard-pressed to get better performance from a street-driven ride than you'll experience with an Air Ride Technologies system mounted beneath the floorboards.
To give you a firsthand account of that statement, I recently took a trip to Indiana to take part in Air Ride's annual Street Challenge track day.
By all initial indicators the event should have been a wash, since Hurricane Katrina delivered a residual storm through most of the area. When I landed, I had my raingear close by. But after a strong soaking overnight, the day of the event was clear and dry, making for a fun outing at Putnam Park.
I was there to personally experience the difference an Air Ride suspension system would make, both in ride quality and handling. To make my job easier, Air Ride supplied a '67 Nova with factory stock suspension that I traversed around the racecourse at my own skill level.
The Nova was a pretty clean, yet sedate, example of just how poorly old classics handle. I was able, however, to keep the go-pedal firmly planted in the turns without too much worry about overpowering the track and spinning out in the rain-soaked infield grass. The little Chevy featured an automatic trans behind a bone-stock small-block. Not exactly my idea of the perfect streetcar, mind you, but a viable donor to accurately gauge any improvements that the air suspension might provide. On the upside, the car did have power disc brakes to help me scrub off what little speed I could attain.
My initial outing with the car on the track was fun. I even had a videographer along for the ride, and he got plenty of footage of me as I wrestled with the Nova's steering wheel. As far as the car's road-hugging ability, there was not much of any, until Air Ride's on-site mechanics changed over to an entire air suspension.
While the large contingent of enthusiasts who turned out for Air Ride's Street Challenge were sitting enjoying the catered lunch, a crew of technicians meticulously installed an Air Bar bolt-in, four-link rear suspension and replaced the stock front over-the-A-arm coil springs with air bags and adjustable shocks. While the Air Ride crew was experienced at doing this install, the effort that was required to get all the components in place was well within the range of the average do-it-yourselfer with basic tools. In short: you could do it in your driveway in an afternoon.
The results of the installation proved convincing to this veteran hot rodder that air ride suspensions are here to stay and that they offer the ultimate in tuneability from inside the cabin. The feeling I got while driving the little white Deuce around the track after the Air Bar install was of a different car altogether. Well, the horsepower stayed the same, but the effort to maintain a faster speed around the corners was much less than with leaf springs out back and coils up front.
Even in the slalom, the Nova's nimbleness was impressive. If there had been an additional 100 ponies, the car would have been a blast going around the cones.
As it was, the Air Ride crew didn't stop with the Nova, as a First-Gen Camaro also got its underpinnings upgraded. The result with that car, which featured a manual trans behind a potent Mouse motor, was staggering. According to world-renowned road racer Boris Said, who was one of the celebrity pro drivers on hand, "[the Air Bar-equipped Camaro] could probably run 7 seconds quicker around the track than it did with the stock suspension."
Lending credence to that was a trip I took with Boris in the slalom, which netted us the Camaro's best time of the event-almost 4 mph faster around the cones than with the stock components.
To sum it up, all I can say is that it sure was a lot of fun riding on air!
I love doing tech stories. It's in my blood. But even after 30 years of working on cars, watching the Air Ride crew swap out the suspension under the little Nova was a new one for me. While it wasn't my intention to show a blow-by-blow install story, here are a few of the highlights of the changeover. I didn't get to eat much because of the work going on, but I did enjoy the fruits of our sacrifice when I experienced what a difference a little air can make.