Frontal Lobotomy

Retrofitting a '54 Chevy with RB's Affordable IFS

How many times can you beat a dead horse? Well, if it's dead, the horse isn't going to put up much of a fight, and as long as its carcass is still beatable, well... Anyway, the point is, even though Mustang II-based IFS installations have been shown in practically every form possible, there's always going to be some new twist. Although what we're about to document might not affect a lot of readers, it is a serious situation and needs to be addressed.

With the advent of airbag-assisted suspensions in the last decade, shops have popped up all across the country that "specialize" in custom suspension work. Unfortunately, not all of them are properly versed in the modification of early components, let alone the adaptation of modern updates. Eager shops don't let this deter them from taking on such jobs, and the results are not always pretty. What we stumbled across recently is a perfect example of a lot of enthusiasm coupled with lack of knowledge, ultimately resulting in a practically undriveable situation. Without getting into too many details, '49-54 Chevy frontends are supposed to unbolt from the framerails and literally come off in one piece--the '54 Bel Air in question required a day's worth of torching to remove the remains of the stock crossmember and various parts. A previous hydraulic job was replaced by airbags, which subsequently failed, and an attempt (or two) was made to repair, making things worse. The only thing to do at this point was to strip it down to bare framerails--but that's where another problem arose. So much welding had been done in the past that portions of the framerails were literally gone, and any attempt at getting a Mustang II crossmember to fit properly would require more work than anyone in their right mind would undertake. The solution: RB's Obsolete Automotive's Serious Hardware MII kit installed by Brian Jendro and the crew at Temecula Rods & Customs.

RB's kit was chosen mainly for the fact that it's a foolproof, bolt-in package, and the research taken to devise the kit could be used to reconstruct the Chevy's framerails. Plus, the fact that it's a tested and proven alternative to early suspensions makes it obvious why this was the right choice. Brian and his new shop were chosen because of the amount of experience and talent they possess. Back in 1994, Jendro did what is believed to be the first airbag system on a non-mini/sport truck, and it just happened to be a '54 Chevy. Since then, he's mastered his skills on adjustable-height suspensions on all types of vehicles. So, suffice it to say, nobody was going into this procedure with blinders on. As you will see, it's a lengthy and involved job (which is why it's being run in two parts, the second focusing on the adaptation of the airbags), but the results are amazing, especially considering that the framerails had to be rebuilt before a "bolt-in" kit could even be test fit.

Basically, the moral of the story is the fabled "don't judge a book by its cover." If a shop boasts complete airbag systems at a discount, don't believe the hype without seeing some previous work. Spend the extra couple bucks in the beginning so that you don't end up shelling out two- or three-times what you might have spent in the first place. It pays to have things done properly, even if you have to pay more than intended. Follow along as Temecula Rods & Customs performs a frontal lobotomy with RB's Obsolete upgrade Mustang II IFS system.

4

Temecula Rods & Customs began the '54 Chevy's frontal lobotomy by removing the entire front sheetmetal clip, ultimately making future chores much easier.

With the engine and trans removed, the underlying problem became more obvious. Notice the over-gussetted crossmember welded to the framerail, as well as the "unique" upper shock mounts. We'll let you come up with your own words to describe this.

The condition was such that the airbags were constantly rubbing; failure was very near. No matter what, no portion of a bag's bladder should ever come in contact with any part of the suspension.

The lower control arms had been altered to mount the bags with flat plate and oversized tubing. Notice the torch-cut (and uneven) mounting holes.

After the initial shock had worn off, work continued with the cutting of the steering column. It will be retained; an RB's Column Saver will be used as well as a pair of U-joints to link with the new power rack-and-pinion.

A good portion of the day was spent cutting the normally "un-boltable" frontend apart. Because so much repair work had been done with welds in the past, it was hard to distinguish where the original framerails were hiding.

It would be hard to get the RB's upper spring pockets to fit over the butchered rails, so the decision was made to completely cut out the bad portions and replace them with new steel.

Due to all the heat created from the cutting session, the rails were checked for squareness before we continued. Amazingly, everything was still within less than a 1/16 inch.

Brian measured and marked the area that needed repair; he ended up making one pattern for both sides to minimize the amount of work.

A plasma cutter was used to remove the side portion of the frame, while a cutoff wheel took care of the underside piece.

The pattern for the siderail piece was made from typical poster board, but the lower pattern was already made for us--RB's hole template, which was provided in the kit. As you can imagine, this made things a lot easier.

The "patch" panels were cut from 1/8-inch steel plate.

The lower piece was fit and tack-welded in place first. Notice that the stock holes have already been transferred from the template and drilled.

The sidepiece had to fit as near perfect as possible to minimize welding. When the frame rehab is done, it will be pretty hard to telll that anything was ever done.

RB's manufactures their spring hats to fit "over" the framerail and bolt in to stock and additional holes. Because the airbags will be reused, the outer gusset was trimmed off and the hat will be welded in later.

The hats were measured for proper caster and camber as well as for squareness; adjustments were made for perfect fit.

(Further caster adjustment is made with the upper control arms.)

With the dial indicator still handy, the lower crossmember was bolted in place.

Some of the holes will require additional drilling for alignment.

Being that this kit is the stock Mustang style, strut rods are used.

The provided template gives hole locations to transfer to the Chevy frame.

With everything set properly, the hats were tack-welded in place and the crossmember snugged up with the hardware (it will be welded later).

Save for final welding, the front of the frame now has a new outlook on life. Throughout the process, the rails, as bad as they were, never strayed from trueness.

Brian left final welding until later so that he could determine whether or not further modification to the frame and/or crossmember was necessary for airbag clearance.

To figure this out, the suspension had to be assembled as well, including the strut rods and spindles.

A Mustang power steering rack was supplied by RB's, as was a valve for the GM pump to reduce the quick-steer effect the rack can produce.

In order to mount the wheels and rough-in alignment, the Stainless Steel Brakes rotors were installed. The calipers were also installed to verify that the 14-inch wheels would clear--they didn't, so 15s were ordered.

The wheels were mounted without the calipers on. An airbag was then test-fit with the stock lower control arm and slightly modified upper spring hat. In the next issue we'll focus on getting the bags mounted, the crossmember and frame finished up, and the steering and brake components buttoned up, including the RB's power brake conversion. Stay tuned.

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