Air Ride 101: How to Select an Air Ride System

There are two things you need to know about RideTech. First, up until 2009 they were known as Air Ride Technologies. Second, though they’re a leader in air suspension design, they’re about a lot more than just laying frame, and the new name better reflects that fact. Whether it’s a daily driver, autocrosser or open track car, drag racer, or yes, even a show car, RideTech has an engineered suspension solution. Check your preconceptions at the door and pay attention as we explore their impressive product line.

You might associate an “air bag” suspension with wire wheels and candy apple green paint on a ’63 Impala, but the myth that an air suspension doesn’t work in performance applications has been kicked to the curb thanks to RideTech. Ride height is just one suspension aspect that can be altered “on the fly” with an air suspension, and racers of all stripes can benefit from having what amounts to infinitely, instantly adjustable spring rates on all four corners. We consulted with Tony Bicknell, Specialist at RideTech, who shared his expertise on how to select an air ride system that’s appropriate for just about any application.

What an Air Suspensions Can Do for Your Ride

Whether it’s a hot street car, drag car, classic muscle car, race car hauler, or open track car, RideTech offers a system for you. Bicknell told us, “The biggest advantage by far is that the air suspension gives you adjustability that a static suspension cannot. You can adjust for load, road conditions, ride quality, and handling preference.”

Handling: Most air springs are progressive, meaning the more they compress, the stiffer they get. Combining this progressive rate with in-car adjustment and you can see the performance potential. Per Bicknell, “Again, with a tunable air suspension, you can adjust spring rate of the car on the fly. If you’re drag racing, you can preload one side versus the other for more consistent launches, I have guys drag racing in sportsman classes and outlaw classes with our ShockWaves. One even has the air suspension tied into his timing delay box, and it is changing the attitude of the car making a pass at the track.”

Tuning: Bicknell told us, “The spring rate of an ai rspring is derived from the amount of air that is displaced inside the spring. The more air, the higher the spring rate. You will hear the common argument, ‘well, I want to stiffen the suspension up but I don’t want to raise the car up’. If the suspension is set up properly, you can actually make small PSI adjustments from your average ride height pressure, and you are making changes in the spring rate without aesthetically affecting the height of the vehicle. Now, with large changes in pressure you will see altitude changes with the vehicle. It’s at that point where an adjustable shock needs to be used to start fine-tuning the suspension.”

Ride Height: “The majority of our engineered systems are designed to lower the ride height of a vehicle between 2-3 inches”, Bicknell said. Lowered ride height means a lower center of gravity and better handling, but unlike conventional lowering springs, an air system lets you raise the car up again at the touch of a button. If you’ve ever tried to get a lowered car onto a trailer or across a steep curb cut, you’ll really appreciate this aspect of air suspension.

Weight: It’s commonly assumed that adding an air suspension and the related compressor and plumbing adds pounds to the vehicle, but per Bicknell, nothing could be farther from the truth. “I love this one! Air springs are actually lighter than coil springs or leaf springs all day long. In one changeover we did, even with the addition of the compressor system, the car shed over 80 pounds!”

Our ’71 Nova project car features a RideTech Air Bar rear suspension system – perfect for street/strip applications.

Selecting the Right System

Like any performance part, getting the right air suspension system for your car or truck is easier when you take advantage of some expert advice. RideTech has spent a lot of hours engineering off-the-shelf systems for a vast range of vehicles, and even more helping with custom builds. Per Bicknell, when someone calls in looking for help, “The first thing I start out with is determining what exactly the customer’s intended use is, tailoring the suspension components to that vehicle and driver. What do you use it for? How do you drive it? Is this a legitimate track car or a weekend warrior? Are you driving it cross-country? Then you start tailoring the system to suit their needs. Someone that spends a lot of time driving would definitely see the benefits of a self leveling system versus someone that airs it up to put it in a trailer. When it comes down to the optional components or the type of components, that will be determined by what they use it for. For example, the Titanium Series ShockWaves are serious track-duty equipment. For 90% of the civilians out there, they are beyond overkill. If it’s a cruiser, we look at the Black Series ShockWaves or the CoolRide kits.”

The mix of components will also vary depending on the weight of the vehicle. “For bigger vehicles running larger springs, we will typically try to run a larger compressor tank set up to give us the extra air volume,” Bicknell explains. “The more volume you have to a point, the more efficient a system will operate, and then there is overkill. At most you should never need more than a 5 gallon tank for any average system. Most mid size and smaller cars are more than fine with a 3 gallon tank.”

Which type of air springs are used will also be determined by the physical layout of the car or truck’s factory setup. “The original suspension design can play a large role in what is available and practical to use,” said Bicknell. “For example, the ‘63-87 C10 picks will use a CoolRide kit in the front. It’s not feasible to try to mount a ShockWave in there because of the layout of the OE suspension. Just like a first generation Camaro, it is best to use a ShockWave. Due to the packaging constraints of a CoolRide kit and using an outboard mounted shock, you can run into a reduction in turning radius versus running a Shockwave where the shock and the air spring are packaged together.”

Speaking of mounting, don’t let the extra plumbing and wiring involved in an air suspension setup put you off. RideTech is all about making their systems as easy to install as possible, but there are a few areas that need special attention. Bicknell told us, “Any time you are working with anything pressurized you always have the possibility of getting leaks. A little precaution and time taken before the installation will go a long way into providing a leak free system. First off, always use D.O.T. lines and fittings at a minimum. If you want to hard-line the system, use seamless stainless tubing. When using pipe thread fittings always use a good quality sealant or Teflon tape. If you use Teflon tape, take extra precautions to make sure you don’t have any addition tape remnants left on the fitting that can be passed inside the system – these can easily clog a valve. Once everything is plumbed up, pressurize the system up and see if it leaks down. If you have some leaks, start out by using those bubbles you get for little kids and a small paint brush and start wiping down your fittings until you see bubbles.”

At first glance, going through everything that’s available on the RideTech website can be a little daunting. Here’s a quick overview of the different categories of air suspensions offered there.

Fully Engineered Systems

These are available for the most popular GM, Ford, and Mopar models, including everything from Buick Regals, Ford and Chevy trucks to classic and Fox Mustangs; over 30 models are currently covered. This is the simplest way to go, as RideTech has taken all of the guesswork out and engineered a four wheel fully-adjustable suspension for your car that includes all the hardware you need. Typically offered in three levels, Level 1 systems offer the most economical way to get the advantages of an air suspension. Level 2 systems provide more tuning with the addition of a ShockWave front kit and the enhanced RidePro e3 ride control system. Level 3 typically includes the AirPod integrated compressor.

The Level 2 system for Fox Body Mustangs even includes direct-fit upper and lower control arms for the rear axle, with front AirStruts and rear Shockwaves.

CoolRide – Independent Air Bag and Shock Design

The CoolRide system is RideTech’s original air ride suspension, and is the most budget-friendly option in their lineup. It usually comes with a separate, standard shock with accompanying mounting relocation brackets, and the air bags. Keeping the components separate and using a more economical damper is what helps reduce the cost in this package. On the front suspension, the shock is typically relocated to the outboard side of the lower control arm. A weld-on bracket mounts the top of the shock to the frame rail. On the rear suspension, the air spring and shock will normally go in the stock locations, since those are typically separate units in the OEM design. These kits lower the vehicle a few inches from stock. The CoolRide kits have the widest range of applications out of any RideTech product, with over 40 models covered.

The CoolRide is the most affordable system from RideTech. It uses a non-adjustable shock and a separate air spring for height adjustability.

Shockwave – Integrated Shocks and Struts

It looks kind of like a coil-over wearing a Michelin Man suit, but beneath the beautifully machined body and large rubber air bag lies a relatively simple concept. Look inside and you will find a conventional-looking shock that is either single- or double-adjustable for compression and rebound. There is an airbag that surrounds and seals to it, acting as the spring. The amount of air filling the bag controls the movement of the shock by altering the spring rate and ride height. The Shockwave is offered in a variety of air spring styles and shock lengths to fit nearly any application. The 1000 series is their larger air shock for vehicles weighing 1500-2500 pounds per axle, and independent front/rear suspensions. The smaller 7000 and 8000 series are designed for solid axle rear suspensions and up to 2400 pounds per axle. The 7000 can also be used to supplement a leaf spring rear suspension. RideTech has taken a lot of the guess work out by offering over 30 pre-engineered car and truck applications. They offer bolt-on simplicity and they’re also available in universal styles for custom applications.

The Shockwave incorporates a spring and shock in one unit. They are offered in a variety of applications, with single- or double-adjustable dampers and even external reservoirs.

The Strut Alternative – AirStruts

The MacPherson strut design, which combines the spring, damper, and upper steering pivot into a single unit, is popular on everything from imports to Mustangs, and these air struts give a complete bolt-and-go solution. They use the same concept behind the standard Shockwave with an internal damper that is surrounded by an air bag in a billet strut. The kits come with camber plates in many applications and can lower the vehicle by up to 4 inches.

Air Ride has developed an AirStrut that is designed for McPherson-equipped vehicles

AIRoverLeaf – An Air Strut for Your Leaf Spring Equipped Vehicle

There are a lot of trucks and classic musclecars with leaf spring rear suspensions, but they’ve always been challenging to convert to air springs because the leafs also locate the axle and act as suspension arms. The AIRoverLeaf system offers a great ride quality and extra load capacity without reengineering your vehicle. Lowering is accomplished by removing one or two leaf springs (and their weight) from the rear leaf package. This lowers the unsprung weight of the rear suspension. The air spring is then inflated to restore load capacity, ride height and spring rate. The AIRoverLeaf system is completely bolt-on and requires little or no modification to your vehicle. The system improves handling and ride quality, and comes with pre-engineered mounting hardware to maintain ground clearance, driveline angles, tire clearance and load capacities. Best of all, it’s easy to install!

The AIRoverLeaf system gives all the advantages of an air suspension without the hassle of converting from leaf springs to a four-link or ladder bar rear suspension.

Compressor Systems

The compressor and control system is the heart and brain of an air suspension, and choosing the right one is critical to the performance of the entire setup. Fortunately, RideTech offers configurations to match any budget and level of desired control, from analog with manual adjustment to fully automated ride height control

RidePro Compressor System Analog 4-way

The RidePRO manual-control 4 way compressor systems are easy on the wallet, while still offering a lot of features and room for upgrading later on as your budget allows. The standard, non-electronic RidePRO systems use the highest quality valve bodies, compressors, and components to deliver dependable and repeatable manual control. Manual controls provide the ability to inflate or deflate system. The control panel has dual needle air pressure gauges and 4 switches that activate the RidePRO air valves. This system can be upgraded to a full RidePRO e3 or LevelPRO system by adding on those components at a later time.

The RidePRO Standard features a four switch analog system (one per wheel) with separate tank, valves, and compressor.

Upgrading the RidePRO

There are several upgrades offered to the RidePRO system for increasing capacity and speed. The standard system includes a 3 gallon air tank and single compressor. If your system needs more volume, consider adding a larger 5 gallon air tank and an additional compressor, which will allow faster rise time due to the increased tank volume. This upgrade is recommended for all cars that have the space for the additional compressor and larger tank as the system can react faster to changes.

The standard package includes valves with 1/4-inch fittings and lines. To increase the speed a bit more, you can upgrade to the Big Red valves to increase flow to the air springs. The oversized orifice of these valves allows much higher flow, which decreases the rise time of your vehicle. The standard RidePro valve takes about 5 seconds to raise the vehicle to ride height, while Big Red valves can accomplish this in about a second. Not everyone needs the super-fast action of the Big Red valves. These valves are more expensive because a larger coil is required to operate the larger plunger and orifice. Also, the fast action of the Big Red solenoids can sometimes make it difficult to sneak up on your intended air pressure.

Full digital & automated control – RidePRO e3

The RidePRO e3 features an electronic control unit with a digital display that includes three preset ride heights. It’s a smart system, monitoring air pressures when adjusting to these preset heights and inflates or deflates all four air springs to your presets at the touch of a button. For the ultimate in intelligent control, the LevelPRO upgrade adds digital ride height sensors to the package. Available in stand-alone units or internal Shockwave sensors, LevelPRO sensors allows the system to monitor vehicle height as well as air pressure. This provides more accurate ride height settings, even when load conditions change.

An Airpod installed on our Nova with the top cover removed. This is an all-in-one unit that combines a compressor, tank, and control solenoids.

The RidePRO e3 comes with the standard 3 gallon air tank, single compressor, and valve bodies with 1/4-inch fittings and lines. Speed upgrades offered are the larger 5 gallon air tank and dual compressors, and The Big Red valves and the 3/8” lines.

You can upgrade to LevelPRO vehicle height sensors two ways, either in two- or four-sensor packages. The two-sensor package allows you to use the internal Shockwave sensors at one end of the car and two external sensors at the other end.

The RidePRO e3 is a fully computerized leveling and dampening system that accurately measures each corner independently

Integrated, all-in-one compressor -AirPod

The ultimate upgrade to any RidePro compressor system is the AirPod. Both the RidePro and RidePRO e3 come with compressor, tank, and valve kits that you assemble. Bicknell said, “Using the AirPod system which is as easy as plugging in your four air lines, provide power, ground, and ignition wiring. Plug in the control panel and you’re done. It doesn’t get any easier than that!”

Designed to save time at install, the AirPod offers a completely integrated air compressor system that eliminates hours of installation time. With easy 4-bolt mounting, it comes pre-wired, pre-plumbed, and pre-tested. There are only four plumbing and three wiring connections to make. Its compact size allows easy installation into most vehicles. It’s lightweight too, at only 24 pounds including the corrosion proof aluminum tank.

AirPod with four leveling sensors.

When you choose to upgrade to AirPod on your RidePro system, it includes the standard 3 gallon tank with single compressor and the standard 1/4-inch valves and fittings. Speed upgrades offered are the larger 5 gallon air tank and dual compressors, and Big Red valves and 3/8-inch lines.

A Solution for Every Ride

No matter what you’re driving or how you’re driving it, RideTech has an air spring solution for you. Better yet, many popular applications are fully bolt-and-go, with all the engineering already worked out for easy installation. Gaining the advantages of an air suspension – adjustable ride height, tunable spring rates, automatic leveling, better handling, and improved load capacity – has never been easier. Once you’ve experienced a RideTech suspension, you’ll wonder why you waited so long to ditch those steel springs in order to ride on air.

About the author

Mark Gearhart

In 1995 Mark started photographing drag races at his once local track, Bradenton Motorsports Park. He became hooked and shot virtually every series at the track until 2007 until he moved to California and began working as a writer for Power Automedia. He was the founding editor for its first online magazines, and transitioned into the role of editorial director role in 2014. Retiring from the company in 2016, Mark continues to expand his career as a car builder, automotive enthusiast, and freelance journalist to provide featured content and technical expertise.
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