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1953 to 1962 C1 Chevrolet Corvette front suspension rebuild

Breathing new life into a 1953-’62 independent front suspension

Jim Smart Nov 5, 2018
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The Corvette has always been America’s sports car. That said, you can imagine our initial impression of the 1953-’62 (C1) Corvette’s suspension system, which is rather archaic. The Corvette was the beneficiary of a mild technological leap when one considers what it received in 1963 with the more advanced C2 and C3 (1963-’82) front suspensions. It isn’t that we’ve never seen a C1 suspension system before. It is that we don’t see them that often. Rarely does anyone keep this old, crusty suspension system unless they’re doing a concours restoration or a mild restomod.

Because the Corvette was introduced in 1953, there was a lot to be learned about how to design and mass-produce a truly American sports car. It was more about looks than it was handling. What made the C1 Corvette so unique was its radically different demeanor compared to everything else on the road at the time. The Corvette exuded sportiness, free spiritedness and status. There was nothing on the American roads like it. Not only did America love it, so did the rest of the world. Ford’s two-seat Thunderbird introduced two years later was more of a personal luxury car whereas the Corvette was a true road car.

We can understand why the 1953-’62 Corvette used this suspension system the first two model years, but what we can’t is why Chevrolet didn’t update it with the suspension introduced with the then-new ’55 Chevy, which had ball joints and fully articulating control arms. Unfortunately, Chevrolet stayed with the Corvette’s antiquated underpinnings for nearly a decade.

The first-generation (C1) Corvette sports a conventional suspension system with rear multileaf springs and front coil springs between the upper and lower control arms. It has a stabilizer bar, which most automobiles did not have at the time. To say the C1’s front suspension is challenging to rebuild is an understatement. It is time-consuming and labor intensive because you must pay very close attention to detail or you will wind up greatly frustrated when it’s time to drive. What’s more, this is not an alignment-friendly frontend. You can adjust caster, sort of, and toe, but not camber.

You may not believe this, but the 1953-’62 Corvette has the same basic suspension system as the post-war 1949-’54 Chevy passenger cars because this was the timeframe in which it was developed. It has conventional upper and lower control arms with threaded shafts at the pivot and attachment points. This approach keeps things true, yet it is dated in its execution. Because the C1 Corvette sports kingpins instead of ball joints it is tricky to lower the ride height without changing the spindles, also known as uprights. One option to lowering the ride height is the installation of aftermarket drop spindles.

The C1 Corvette sports a bolt-on subframe, which looks like an integral part of the frame. You can unbolt the subframe, have it mediablasted and powdercoated, and be ready for assembly on your garage floor. The subframe is secured with eight Grade 8 bolts on each side accessible with a 9/16-inch socket and a box end wrench. Unbolt and support this subframe with a floor jack and lower it to the floor.

Kingpin bushings are generally available in standard and oversize, which size you need just depends on the degree of wear you are experiencing. The steering arm (also known as the third arm), which ties the steering gear to the tie-rod ends via the drag link from a worm-and-sector steering gear, has a bearing that must be replaced. The third arm does the work of both an idler and pitman arm in a recirculating ball steering system.

A couple of spacer plates are employed between the subframe and framerails. This aluminum shim was employed on all 1956-’62 cars, however, can also be installed on 1953-’55 Corvettes. The installation of this tapered shim increases front wheel caster for improved handling. The thickest side of this shim goes toward rear of the car.

These aluminum alignment plates are badly corroded and should be replaced unless your C1 has been in the southwest desert all of its life. They corrode because steel and aluminum don’t get along in terms of corrosion. These spacer plates are available from Corvette Central, as are most of the components needed for a C1 front suspension rebuild.

You might be tempted to ask why these alignment plates should be installed. By tilting the top of the front suspension subframe rearward, you are increasing the nominal positive caster angle and providing more range of positive caster adjustment. As a result, Chevrolet added tapered aluminum shims between the bottom of the frame and the top of the crossmember. Chevrolet’s logic was simple. The alignment plate improved high-speed straight-ahead tracking and steering stability at all speeds. This upgrade entered production at approximately 1956 Corvette VIN #4000 along with a modified steering third arm support bracket, according to Corvette Central.

Be prepared for challenges such as removing the kingpins during disassembly. Lock pins, which secure the kingpins, are sometimes seized from corrosion to where you will have to heat the area in order to drive the pin out. Driving badly corroded kingpins out can be another huge challenge. If the spindle is too far gone due to corrosion or wear, it will have to be replaced.

Unless you’re performing a concours restoration, there are a host of stealthy restomod improvements you can make to the existing suspension system, including urethane bushings, heavy-duty stabilizer bar and springs and disc brakes. And because the C1 has this groovy bolt-on subframe you can eliminate it completely and opt for an aftermarket bolt-on front suspension with rack-and-pinion steering, fully articulating upper and lower control arms, and disc brakes from Corvette Central.

We’re going to focus on how to rebuild the C1’s stock front suspension system and make it better via quality replacement parts from Corvette Central, along with proper suspension tuning that will make the drive a whole lot better and safer. Vette

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Begin your front suspension rebuild with a shot of penetrating lubricant on all the fasteners; do this at least a day ahead of time. Another option is to heat the area around each fastener with a torch, which can free up stubborn fasteners.

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Start busting the fasteners loose beginning at the tie-rod ends and work your way to the third arm and control arms. Doing this first gets the steering linkage out of the way. Measure both tie-rod end assemblies from end to end before taking anything apart.

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The stabilizer endlinks are broken loose next. If you break these bolts, don’t worry about it because Corvette Central has you covered with new endlinks. Opting for urethane bushings for both the endlinks and bushings firms up the handling.

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McJack’s Corvette chose to remove the front subframe to make access to the suspension easier. It is strongly encouraged to install new Grade 8 hardware at these attachment points using flat washers and locknuts. You could also use conventional nuts and lock washers.

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The idler arm is centrally located directly beneath the radiator, which can make removal and installation tricky because you will have to remove the radiator. Soak these fasteners with a penetrating lubricant for several days prior to starting work. These fasteners have lock tabs, which have to be bent out of the way.

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We stress extreme caution when removing the shock absorber and lower control arm. Coil spring energy and pressure can kill and maim. It is suggested you use the weight of the car to your advantage for spring removal. Support the lower control arm and disconnect the spindle. Slowly raise the car off the suspension until all spring pressure is released.

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With the subframe removed, you can see the eight attachment bolts, though someone decided to be cute and run off with one of them. There are eight bolts on each side. These bolts should be replaced with new Grade 8 fasteners, without exception.

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Here’s the replacement, powdercoated subframe and everything you’re going to need from Corvette Central. We suggest the use of high-performance gas shocks from Corvette Central, which will enhance damping and handling. Always go with urethane soft parts.

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Each pivot/attachment point has these threaded shafts, which keep things tight and enable adjustment. The pivot points should be treated to a thread locker to ensure security.

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The threaded pivot shaft has been screwed into the subframe as shown. This shaft can only be installed one way, which ensures proper installation. It has been screwed into the subframe and tightened. McJack’s Corvette installs the upper control arms, which require manipulation to get them on the pivots. The reason for this is to keep them in place should the screw-on bushings fail. Note the rubber seal around the shaft.

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These screw-on bushings, or caps, thread onto the upper control arm pivot shaft. Pack these guys with chassis grease and then, once installed, inject as much grease as it will take.

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Screw the bushings onto the shaft from both ends. You must get the caps and control arm dead center on the subframe. If you’re doing it right, each cap will be seated on the rubber seal perfectly. If any threads or shaft are showing, you do not have the arm centered.

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These early C1 Vettes do not have ball joints. They have old-fashioned kingpins, which do not allow much articulation. Standard and oversize pins and bushings are available. The bushings normally slide right in. Kingpins have to be driven into place. Always apply a lot of chassis grease to the pins and bushings. Make sure the groove lines up with the grease Zerk or you wind up with kingpin bushings you cannot lube.

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The kingpin is driven in this way once you have the steering knuckle in place. The kingpin is driven in this way once you have the steering knuckle in place. The kingpin is driven in this way once you have the steering knuckle in place.

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The steering knuckle and support bearing are positioned and the kingpin driven into place. The black side of the support bearing goes against the steering knuckle.

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Once you have the kingpin properly centered and indexed, this lock pin is driven into place and secured with a nut and lock washer. This pin keeps the kingpin properly positioned, with no chance of going anywhere.

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C-clips at each end of the kingpin keep things very secure, which is what you want. The C-clips and kingpins are protected with press-in caps.

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The spindle and steering knuckle assembly is good to go. A nice upgrade if you can afford it is front disc brakes.

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This is the upper control arm alignment eccentric, which adjusts caster only. It moves the top of the spindle fore and aft to control caster only. There is no camber adjustment.

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The lower control arm shafts are installed the same way as the uppers. There is interference that keeps the arm on the shaft even in the event of cap failure. Get the shaft and caps dead center on the control arm where the caps are seated again the seals. There’s no margin for error.

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We have installed the subframe with the upper control arms installed, which makes the rest of the job easier. The lower control arms are bolted to the subframe as shown. Only Grade 8 fasteners are acceptable.

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McJack’s uses the weight of the vehicle to get the coil springs installed. The springs are seated up top and then the vehicle is lowered onto the spring as a compressor. This works with the engine installed. It does not work with an empty chassis.

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Once the spring is properly compressed, McJack’s clamps the upper and lower control arms together and secures the spindle to both the upper and lower control arms.

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This is the way your C1 front suspension should look, with the upper and lower arms secured to the brake, spindle and steering knuckle.

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The shocks are installed next. The front shocks on C1 Corvettes have a stud at both ends, with the bottom mounts being a plate that bolts to the lower control arm.

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The C1’s idler arm is located mid-ship unlike generations of Corvettes to follow. The idler arm bolts to the chassis as shown here. McJack’s has replaced the idler arm bearing, which is provided in the Corvette Central kit.

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We look at these toothpick tie-rod ends and wonder how there can be any stability with them. McJack’s Corvette has measured the original tie-rod ends and set the new ones up with the same dimensions for a good static adjustment. The frontend will be properly aligned at a seasoned alignment shop familiar with these classic Corvette frontends.

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With our C1 frontend completed, we’re ready for alignment. There’s plenty of room for improvement in the C1 frontend. Your best option is to perform what upgrades you can to the stock frontend. Budget permitting, shelve the stock frontend and opt for an aftermarket bolt-on rack-and-pinion frontend with fully articulating control arms.

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This illustration gives you the lay of the land for 1953-’62 Corvette frontends. Compared to 1963-’82 C2 Corvettes, it is considerably dated. A worm-and-sector steering gear sports a pitman arm tied to a drag link that moves the third arm, which is a combination idler and pitman arm tied to the tie-rod ends. Kingpins are the pivot points instead of ball joints, which entered service in 1963.

Photographer by Jim Smart

Sources

Corvette Central
Sawyer, MI 49125
800-345-4122
www.corvettecentral.com
McJacks Corvettes
714-775-2799
www.mcjackscorvettes.com

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