Make It Handle! Great Suspension Upgrades for Any Budget


Make It Handle! Great Suspension Upgrades for Any Budget


When it comes to infusing old-school machines with contemporary performance, most enthusiasts tend to gravitate toward powertrain-related components. Thanks to decades of technological development, today’s engines and transmissions deliver the kind of power, drivability, and efficiency that automakers could only have dreamed of half a century ago. But usable performance is all about balance, and if the vehicle’s other systems can’t properly utilize that newfound grunt, it might simply go to waste.

“By today’s standards, a perfectly restored ’70 Chevelle with factory suspension still handles like a boat,” says Dan Oddy of Detroit Speed. “There’s going to be a ton of body roll, and that’s because the suspension’s camber and caster curves just weren’t set up for handling. Some of that was about prioritizing ride quality, but it really just comes down to engineers of the day not knowing what we know now. Back in the ‘60s, handling was still a relatively new realm of performance, and that new focus came as a result of the big engines. Suddenly they needed a suspension setup to match the horsepower, and they were kind of learning as they went.”

Fortunately for today’s hot rodders, the situation has improved dramatically. Thanks to a wealth of aftermarket options for virtually every common vehicle platform, vintage-car owners now have a wide range of choices to improve their vehicles’ suspensions based on their goals and anticipated budget. Here we’ll take a closer look at some key upgrades that can take your ride’s handling to the next level – whether you’re on the hunt for a new personal best at the track, or simply looking to modernize the factory setup.

The suspension on older cars and trucks wasn't built for great handling, at least by today's standards. But now there are a vast number of possibilities for remedying these shortcomings. Many of these upgrades are affordable even on a tight budget.

The Fundamentals

Before diving into suspension upgrades, it’s important to first properly assess what you’re working with. “You always want to do restoration work before you do modification work,” Oddy points out. “The car needs to be in good working order before you start throwing parts on, so you want to make sure the frame is straight and the car is properly aligned.”

This is also a good point in the process to decide exactly where you want to go with the project: If you’re planning to install an entirely new suspension system, it probably doesn’t make sense to swap worn out dampers and bushings ahead of time because you’ll probably replace those as part of the upgrade process anyway. The same considerations should also be made for the vehicle’s wheels and tires. Still, it’s important to ensure that the car is foundationally sound before you start bringing new parts into the mix.

“For instance, if you’re not planning to replace the control arms, you want to make sure the ball joints are still good, along with your tie rod ends, pitman arms, and things like that. You basically want to make sure that the things you’re not planning on replacing are in good working condition.” Once that’s been verified, it’s time to pin down a game plan. “The first thing we ask every customer is what they’re planning to do with the car,” says Oddy. “Because that sets us down an upgrade path.”

Click here to see Detroit Speed's front-end service parts

The first place to start when upgrading your stock suspension is to make sure all components are in tip-top condition. “You always want to do restoration work before you do modification work," says our source at Detroit Speed. Replacing worn parts such as ball joints is an inexpensive and simple change that can significantly improve how your car drives.

When it comes to budget-minded projects, there are a few simple upgrades that can make a world of difference in the handling characteristics of a vintage vehicle. “Some folks really just want to get that lowered stance, and simply swapping out the factory springs for drop springs will get you that look.”

But if you’re really more concerned about improving the car’s handling and getting the most bang for your buck, a set of aftermarket sway bars should probably be your first upgrade. Sway bars will help reduce body roll with minimal impact on ride quality, and they can improve the car’s at-limit behavior when it comes to understeer and oversteer. They’re relatively inexpensive and are direct bolt-on parts for most common platforms.

“As far as entry-level upgrades go, swapping out sway bars and shocks is the best way to get a car to handle much better,” Oddy says. “These are things that you can easily swap without spending a lot of money.”

Click here to see Detroit Speed's full line of sway bars

Swapping out stock sway bars for performance-oriented aftermarket units offers a lot of bang for the buck. For a relatively modest investment, they can significantly reduce body lean when cornering, without hurting ride quality.

Bushings are another inexpensive component that’s often overlooked. These consumables inevitably degrade over time, and that can lead to sloppy handling and poor body control. “This is something that people often forget about, but replacing bushings can make a big difference in a vintage vehicle’s handling,” Oddy tells us. “Even leaf spring bushings can make a significant difference. The front leaf spring bushing is essentially the ride comfort bushing, so we’ll often recommend a rubber bushing for those. But the rear leaf spring bushing is your handling bushing, so you might want a polyurethane or Delrin bushing there because it will reduce deflection. Detroit Speed has kits to do these bushing upgrades on factory leaf springs, and the same goes for front upper control arms; we have a polyurethane kit that replaces the factory rubber control arm bushings, and that’s also going to help tighten up response.”

Steering box upgrades can also substantially improve a vehicle’s handling without breaking the bank. “Like any other part on an older car, steering boxes wear out over time,” says Oddy. “We offer a direct bolt-on quick-ratio steering box that’s engineered for handling performance, and I think it’s one of the best upgrades you can do. If your steering is just kind of sloppy driving down the road with a lot of play on-center, this will resolve it while also giving you increased steering effort and a ratio that’s engineered for handling performance. It makes you feel much more confident in the car just driving down the road.”

Click here to see Detroit Speed's quick-ratio steering box

If you have more money to invest beyond just the basics, coilover shocks are the next suspension improvement you should consider. For a reasonable cash outlay, they'll give you much higher quality springs and dampers, along with the ability to adjust ride height, damper rebound, and more.

Digging Deeper

If you’re looking to take a more comprehensive approach to your suspension modifications, there are several key upgrades that can have a profound impact on the ride and handling of any vintage vehicle. A coilover shock kit, for example, is going to allow you to really dial things in for your specific vehicle and application. Along with ride height adjustability, high-quality coilovers feature springs and dampers that are much more sophisticated than their factory-style counterparts. Adjustable coilovers can allow you to tune characteristics like damper rebound to find a preferrable balance between ride compliance and handling capability, too.

Detroit Speed offers direct bolt-in coilovers for platforms like the Chevrolet Camaro, Nova, and Chevelle that are compatible with the factory control arms. But if you’re looking to get serious about improving your vehicle’s handling, aftermarket control arms should be on your radar as well.

“As far as mid-range upgrades go, I would be looking at tubular control arms as well,” Oddy says. “Upper and lower control arms are going to give you a pretty good bang for your buck. This is a great option for someone who wants to keep the stock subframe but make the car handle the best that it can.”

While Detroit Speed offers Speed Kits, which are full bolt-on suspension systems that are tailored to the specifics of your build and include control arms as part of the package, budget-conscious builders can add control arm upgrades incrementally if they prefer to do so. “For example, you could run tubular upper control arms and factory lower control arms if you want. And a lot of people do that, at least initially, because an aftermarket upper control arm will allow you to gain more caster than you can with the lower one. If you have to pick one or the other, always do the upper control arms first.”

See Detroit Speed's coilover kits and Speed Kits

Tubular control arms are a smart purchase for those able to afford the middle range of suspension upgrades. Detroit Speed's Speed Kits, such as this one for first-generation Mustangs, are full bolt-on performance suspension systems that include tubular control arms, improved spindles, and coilover shocks.

At this level you’ll also want to turn your attention to the chassis for upgrades that will increase rigidity. As the chassis starts to flex under load, that flex actually changes the effective suspension geometry at that moment. That, in turn, makes it more difficult for the suspension to do its job right when you need it the most. Chassis stiffening can correct the issue.

“With something like a Chevelle you have a C-shaped frame rail,” Oddy says. “For those who’re competing with their cars, they’ll often box in that frame rail, or do some other kind of chassis strengthening to help add some stiffness. For vehicles such as the Camaro or Mustang, subframe connectors are a great option for this, and for some applications we also sell solid body mounts that help eliminate the flex that occurs between the body and the subframe connections with the factory rubber body mounts. That way they’re not working against each other.”

Polyurethane engine and transmission mounts offer similar benefits and are worth considering as well. Strut bars and chassis braces can also help triangulate the forces that are applied to the suspension, in turn reducing chassis flex.

Click here to see Detroit Speed's full line of subframe connectors and chassis stiffening components

Any suspension is only as good as the structure it's attached to. Chassis flex can compromise suspension geometry, potentially negating the handling improvements you hope to get from upgraded components. For this reason, effective chassis stiffening measures, such as this Detroit Speed strut-tower-brace, should be part of your suspension upgrade plan.

Going Hardcore

If you’re pulling out all the stops to get the best possible handling out of your vintage vehicle, you may want to consider an aftermarket chassis, as it can provide an array of benefits ranging from substantially increased rigidity to compatibility with modern suspension and brake system parts. But aside from the hefty costs involved, the big drawback here is that you’re going to be rebuilding the car quite literally from the ground up.

While Detroit Speed hardware will certainly complement an aftermarket chassis, the company also offers complete clean-sheet suspension systems that can be integrated into a vehicle’s existing factory chassis. “Along with our front subframe assemblies, we also offer complete four-link rear suspension systems like the QUADRALink, which is installed right into the factory subframe,” he explains.

These systems can deliver handling that goes above and beyond the aforementioned options by eliminating some of the constraints of the factory setup. “With our Speed Kits, you’re improving the camber and caster curves, but you’re still limited by where that control arm bolts to the frame. With a subframe assembly it allows us to start with a clean sheet of paper and put all those mounting points in the spots that will give you the best camber and caster curves.”

See Detroit Speed's QUADRALink rear suspension and full line of subframe assemblies

The ultimate handling upgrade is to replace the entire front suspension and frame with a performance-oriented aftermarket unit. By designing the frame from scratch, engineers are free from the compromises imposed by vintage-car chassis parameters. Detroit Speed uses hydroformed rails for its subframes, giving them superior strength and a smooth, factory appearance.

The subframe assemblies also include a Detroit Speed-tuned rack and pinion steering system, and in the case of their hydroformed subframe assemblies, you’re gaining chassis rigidity as well. “Hydroforming is something that the OEs didn’t start doing until a couple of decades ago,” says Oddy. “Instead of bending tubing and having variations in wall thickness as a result, in the hydroforming process the tube is pre-crushed in a die and then fluid is forced through it to make the shape of the frame rail. That allows it to maintain the same wall thickness throughout the frame rail, and that makes it stronger. Detroit Speed is the only aftermarket company to offer hydroformed subframes."

Since the midsection of the car is the weakest spot in these applications, subframe connectors are recommended to maintain stiffness throughout the vehicle’s structure. Detroit Speed also offers four-point roll cage kits that provide an added measure of safety while enhancing structural rigidity.

Oddy notes that if folks have questions about their project and upgrades they’re considering, they can call Detroit Speed and expect to find a suspension expert on the other end of the line. “Customer service, tech, and sales are all the same people here – you’re not going to get sent to a call center somewhere. Whether you have questions about what you need for your project, or concerns when installing the product, we’re here to work with you from the start of the build to the finish.”

Contact Detroit Speed now


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