Lowered Suspension - The Lowdown On Lowering

A Dozen Tips, Tricks, And Suggestions For Giving Your Chevy A Slammed Stance

Damon Lee Jun 1, 2000 0 Comment(s)
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As long as hot rods have existed, hot rodders have been modifying them for a lower stance. The trend goes all the way back to the '30s, when tall and stubby roadsters were given sleek and rakish makeovers by swapping on different wheels and tires and altering suspensions. Soon after, hot rodders realized that lowered cars not only looked cool, but could also be more stable around corners and at high speeds, thanks to a lower center of gravity. This combination of style and substance has kept the low and lean look prominent on both the race track and the street for the better part of seven decades.

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Cutting coils has long been common practice in lowering Chevys. It's acceptable for fine-tuning ride height, but we wouldn't suggest it as a primary means for dropping a car several inches. Cut small increments at a time using a cut-off wheel or hacksaw, not a torch or plasma cutter.

These days the stance on the street is sinking even further as enthusiasts push the limits of lowering with aftermarket products ranging from low-profile tires and dropped spindles to air springs and completely re-engineered subframes. Such slinky stances are some of the surest ways to eliminate the snooze factor of any Chevy, as they offer otherwise average rides an extra bit of attention-grabbing attitude. But the low look can have consequences. Rubbing tires, increased tire wear, reduced ground clearance, and improper suspension geometry are all potential drawbacks that can cause inconvenience and possibly lead to unsafe driving conditions if you aren't careful.

So before you go dropping your Chevy in the weeds by whacking away at its coil springs (or worse, heating them with a torch until they collapse), we suggest doing a little research first. Ask yourself some questions, like whether you're lowering your car just for looks or if you're looking for all-out handling performance (there is a difference, but there's also some middle ground between the two). What kind of ride and handling do you want, and how much time, effort, and money are you willing to spend to get the look you're after? Finding the best method for lowering your particular ride will depend on your answers to these questions, as well as the car's suspension configuration. We can't pinpoint all the variables or make the final decision for you, but we can help clear the air with some suggestions and considerations pertaining to the most common street machine suspension alterations. Check them out to see what you think would be best for your car.

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If you're going to cut coils, it's wise to slice the correct end! Some coils have one open-or "wild"-end (left) and one "ground" end designed to sit flat. Always cut the open end. This way the spring will still fit properly in the frame or control arm.

METHODS
Cutting Coils
This is probably the most time-honored method for lowering the front (and sometimes rear) of a Chevy, but that doesn't automatically make it the best. It basically entails removing the coil springs and cutting off a coil or so, making the springs shorter. This not only lowers the car, it also alters the spring rate (the amount of force required to deflect the spring) slightly. Cutting coils typically increases the likelihood of bottoming out either the suspension or the chassis (like when your crossmember hits the pavement), and that potential is exaggerated with older coils that are already suffering from fatigue. In general, we aren't big proponents of coil cutting as a primary means of significantly altering a car's height. Instead, we recommend it for making minor ride height adjustments (an inch or less). We should also note that you can't cut coils that are tapered on both ends (like the rear springs on '67-and-later A-bodies, as well as some other Chevys). If you're going to cut coils, we suggest using new (or relatively new) springs and cutting them in small increments (1/4-coil at a time) on the open, or "wild," end. In addition, front springs should be left long enough so they won't shift or slip out of the spring pockets when the suspension is at full droop (completely unloaded). An air-powered cutoff wheel, hacksaw, or chop saw are the best tools for cutting springs.

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Dropped spindles like these Heidt's units offer a great way to give your car's front end a 2- to 3-inch drop while still keeping its original ride quality. The concept is pretty simple-a new steering upright with a spindle that has been raised to a higher location. We suggest pairing dropped spindles with sport springs and upgraded shocks to give your car better all-around handling.

Lowered Coils
Several companies offer replacement coil springs specifically designed for lowering cars. These lowering springs-or sport springs-work on the same principle as cut coils, but they overcome some of the drawbacks by employing a different design from the start. By using a thicker wire or winding the coils at a different pitch, short springs can be given a higher spring rate that will prevent lowered suspensions from bottoming out so easily. Some sport springs have a variable spring rate, meaning the coils are more tightly wound at one end. This provides a relatively normal ride during regular driving, with an increasing spring rate as the coils are compressed during aggressive driving. When choosing sport springs, keep in mind that some are tailored more for performance handling, while others are designed simply for lowering, so you need to consider what type of driving you want to do. If you're installing a stiffer sport spring, it's also smart to upgrade to a performance shock designed to work with a higher spring rate. And finally, realize that when you're replacing sagging 30-year-old stock springs, some sport springs won't alter your car's ride height much.

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Though they aren't very common yet, coilover springs are another option for lowering the front of a vintage Chevy.

Dropped Spindles
Another popular method for bringing a Chevy closer to terra firma is using a dropped spindle. Dropped spindles are actually new steering uprights (the components connecting the upper and lower control arms) featuring a spindle that has been relocated to a higher point. This mounts the wheel and tire in a higher location, which effectively lowers the front end while maintaining original ride quality and preventing excessive ball joint and shock wear. Dropped spindles are a great way to achieve a 2- to 3-inch drop, but you still have to consider issues such as bottoming out and tire-and-wheel clearance. If your goal is aggressive cornering and handling, you should pair dropped spindles with stiffer coil springs and sport shocks.

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Many aftermarket coilovers, like these from Superior Spindles, are adjustable, allowing you to fine-tune your car's ride height.

Coilovers
Many street machine enthusiasts think of coilovers only as they relate to Pro Street-style four-link rear suspensions, but aftermarket coilovers are also available for the fronts of many Chevy applications. This spring unit consists of a shock absorber within a coil spring. Most aftermarket coilovers are designed to provide at least a slightly lowered stance, and some are adjustable, allowing you to fine-tune your car's ride height. This is done with a spanner nut that adjusts the tension (and height) of the coil spring. Like lowered coil springs, coilovers can be effective in lowering most cars a couple of inches.

Air Springs
Adjustable air spring suspensions have become popular by offering the promise of "having your cake and eating it too" (or slamming your ride and driving it too). Air springs (or air bags as they are commonly called) are bladder-like components made of heavy-duty, fabric-impregnated rubber similar to that found in tires. Adapted from the trucking industry (you've probably seen some under the rear of a big rig trailer), air springs can be used in place of coil springs or in conjunction with leaf springs. They allow you to easily lower or raise your car by adjusting the pressure in the springs (an on board compressor and air storage tank facilitate this). Adjusting the pressure can also "tune" the suspension to some degree by making the springs softer or stiffer. On the down side, you can throw your suspension and steering geometry way out of whack if you're not careful about how you install the springs and the drive height you select. Air spring installation is typically more involved and expensive than other methods of lowering, but it does allow you to literally put your car on the ground.

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Ground clearance is always an issue when lowering a car. When you start going really low, negotiating speed bumps and steep driveways can be a challenge, especially if your Chevy has a low front crossmember or full-length headers. How much inconvenience are you willing to deal with to maintain that slammed stance?

Lowering Blocks
Lowering blocks have long been the standard component used for lowering leaf spring rear suspensions. Installation is very simple-it merely involves unbolting the rearend housing from the leaf springs, installing lowering blocks (which are essentially just spacers) between the spring and housing, and using longer U-bolts to hold everything together. This raises the rear axle housing, lowering the rear of the car without changing the springs. Lowering blocks work great, but you can run into problems if you're using them to lower the car more than a couple of inches. For example, if you're still employing the stock, soft leaf springs, your car will tend to bottom out on the bumpstops or the frame if the axle housing is raised too much. You also need to remember that as you raise your axle housing, you decrease the clearance between the ground and your leaf springs or U-bolts. Therefore, we'd suggest limiting lowering block use to applications where you're lowering the rearend 2 inches or less.

De-Arched Leaf Springs
Another alternative for lowering a leaf spring rear suspension is to replace the stock springs with lowered, or de-arched, leaf springs. As the name implies, these leaf springs have less of an arch than OEM springs, so they raise the rear axle housing and lower the car. Many leaf springs designed for lowering also feature a higher spring rate that can help handling and prevent the axle housing from bottoming out. Lowered leafs are a great way to drop your car's rearend several inches with less potential for bottoming-out problems. Several aftermarket firms offer lowered leafs for popular Chevys, or you can custom order a set made to your specifications through companies like Eaton Detroit Spring.

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Keep a close eye on suspension components when lowering a car, as they can start interfering with each other. For example, the tie rod sleeve bolts on this Chevelle are getting dangerously close to the sway bar, enough that they could hit it while cornering under load.

Considerations Bottoming Out
Bottoming out can refer to hitting the limits of suspension travel (when you bounce off the bumpstops), or actually having your frame or chassis components contact the pavement when the suspension is compressed (which we'll discuss in the "ground clearance" section). Bottoming out the suspension is not only annoying, but also potentially dangerous. Over time it can generate stress cracks in the frame or suspension parts, and it probably goes without saying that the condition will regularly wear out shocks, ball joints, and bushings. You can prevent some bottoming out problems by installing shorter aftermarket bumpstops in place of factory ones. But if you alter bumpstop height significantly (or remove the bumpstops altogether-which we don't recommend) you should consider using shorter shocks so you don't bottom out and damage the stock-length shocks. In general, if you're continually having problems with your slammed Chevy bottoming out, you should investigate alternate lowering methods.

Ground Clearance
Needless to say, ground clearance becomes an issue whenever you lower your car. Your state vehicle laws probably dictate how much ground clearance is legal, but from a practicality standpoint you should consider how your vehicle will be used and the types of obstacles you're likely to face. How steep is your driveway, and how tall are the speed bumps at your favorite cruise night burger joint? Driving a severely lowered car can be a chore if you're constantly having problems navigating such common obstacles. And things start getting dangerous when your front crossmember scrapes the pavement whenever you go over a bump or encounter a shallow dip in the road. Bumpstops can help by limiting suspension travel, but constantly bottoming out on the bumpstops isn't wise either.

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To show how lowering can affect alignment and handling issues, the guys at Hotchkis took the coil springs out of this Chevelle and, using a combination of jacks, played around with the stance.

Another ground clearance issue can crop up on leaf spring suspensions using lowering blocks. If the rear axle housing is raised too high with lowering blocks, the leaf springs and U-bolts will be hanging down a lot lower than they should be, making them targets for road debris and other obstacles. The situation gets significantly worse if the U-bolts hang down lower than the rim, since they can potentially contact the tire's inner sidewall as the tire flexes while cornering.

Tire & Wheel Fit
This seems like an obvious consideration, but we've known plenty of hot rodders who have enthusiastically lowered their cars, only to encounter problems with tires rubbing on fenders or quarter-panels. This is particularly an issue if you already have fairly wide tires and wheels on your car. Minor rear tire rubbing can often be remedied by trimming or rolling the wheelwell lip, but it's harder to fix front tires that rub during turns or under suspension compression. Often the only solutions are ordering new wheels with more backspacing, installing narrower or lower-profile tires, or raising the front end of the car back up. To prevent such situations, we suggest lowering your car first, then ordering new wheels and tires. You should also realize that some disc brake conversion kits and dropped spindles will actually alter the front end's track width slightly, moving your tires and wheels either out or in. You should ask about this when ordering your parts so it won't come as a surprise after you've installed them.

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While everyone liked the look of the slammed stance, it really affected the suspension geometry. Read on to see how.

Pinion Angle
Something a lot of enthusiasts fail to consider when lowering a car is the pinion angle on the rearend. This is particularly noteworthy on '64-72 A-bodies and '78-88 G-bodies with coil-spring, four-link-style rear suspensions. As the back of the car is lowered (which raises the axle housing), the pinion has a tendency to rotate downward, creating a positive pinion angle. This can cause extra stress on the U-joints (especially if the car is creating a lot of horsepower), as well as some nasty driveline vibrations at certain speeds. One solution is the installation of adjustable upper control arms (like those available from Hotchkis Performance), which will allow you to bring the pinion back to a proper angle. In general, the pinion yoke should point slightly upward (negative pinion angle) as viewed from the side. The face of the yoke should basically be parallel with the vertical face of the transmission's extension housing.

Alignment
One last thing to consider when selecting a method for lowering your car is whether or not you'll be able to properly align it once it's in the weeds. We've seen some seriously slammed Chevys that rely on extra-thick upper control arm shim packs to correct camber problems. Needless to say, this isn't advisable. There are enough ways to lower a car without resorting to Band-AidTM -style alignment solutions. After all, once you're profilin' with a dumped stance, you'll want to be able to safely and comfortably cruise down the street without wearing out mega-buck radials or wandering from lane to lane.

Sources

Hotchkis Performance
Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670
877-735-6425
www.hotchkis.net
Inland Empire Driveline
Ontario, CA 91761
800-800-0109
www.iedls.com
Eaton Detroit Spring
(313) 963-3839
www.eatonsprings.com
Superior Spindles
Los Angeles, CA 90063

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A dozen tips, tricks, and suggestions for giving your Chevy a slammed stance
Damon Lee Jun 1, 2000

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