Swinger Nova Gets Street Challenged by Air Ride

We’ve been hearing a lot of buzz on the forums about air suspension systems in recent months due in no small part to suspension pioneers like Air Ride. But like many people, we had always thought air suspension was for semi-trucks or super slammed low riders. After seeing several events where iconic muscle cars were equipped with Air Ride Technologies’ air suspension systems, our view has change dramatically. To err is human, after all. Now that we’ve gotten some firsthand experience, we are willing to admit; To ‘air’ is divine. As such, we chose Air Ride for our 1971 Nova Project, the “Swinger Nova.”

It’s no secret that we love our muscle cars here at PowerTV. It’s also well known that we love modern technology and upgrading our muscle cars with quality systems to improve performance. Our vintage muscle cars have seen their hi-tech prime pass them by years ago. These once-respected road warriors have been reduced to sloppy handling and worn out chassis that are technologically challenged.

When we decided to get serious about handling, there were a number of good suspension companies out there to consider. However, Air Ride Technology was one company that had a particular reputation as a “race what they sell” manufacturer. We had taken laps in an X-body Nova of theirs – and it flat out worked.

This is the story of our Project Swinger. Here you’ll read about how, using the Air Ride Technologies Street Challenge Package, we will be transforming our ill-handling, wheel-hopping 1971 Chevy Nova into an autocross-worthy street cruiser. To make this beast into a precision-cornering, aggressive autocrossing machine, we decided to take it down to the bare frame. Here is what we started with on Project Swinger; A broken down leaf-spring setup and a lousy, weak-knee’d 10-bolt rear end. Ick.

Who is Air Ride?

The brainchild of Bret Voelkel, Air Ride Technologies has been leading the charge in the advancement of air suspensions. As the story goes, one day in 1995, while driving on the freeway, Bret was stuck behind a tractor-trailer semi. Bret noticed the air bags under the truck and began to study the semi’s suspension system. The idea of engineering an air suspension system for street cars hit him as he watched the trailer handle the road conditions while supporting a load.

If heavy-duty vehicles could benefit from having air suspensions, couldn’t high performance street cars use that specialized technology to handle gravitational and g-force loads? Tony Bicknell, our man at Air Ride Technologies, tells us that to Bret, specialization means excellence. “Air suspensions are all we make. We’d better be good at it.”

Air Ride has developed into a large company, but one filled with enthusiasts that are as home on the autocross course or race track as they are behind their desks. And they are based in the US, and that makes us happy as well. They are a quality company that makes quality parts.

Today, Air Ride manufacturers not only air systems, but a variety of top-shelf components such as the new innovative Tiger Cage, Air Bar 4-link kits, and Strong Arm control arms.

What is the Street Challenge System?

To understand what Air Ride did, imagine a company putting together all of its top-of-the-line suspension components into one all-inclusive kit. That’s exactly what the Street Challenge Kit is. The kit includes drop spindles, upper and lower “Strong Arm” A-arms, their ShockWave air spring/shock combination, and 4-link conversion “Air Bar”. To complete the front end suspension system, Air Ride Technologies caps it off with the “MUSCLEbar” front sway bar. Air Ride Technologies currently has 55 different Street Challenge kits for cars and 23 for trucks.

This package includes:

2 Double Adjustable Upgrades from Standard Shocks
2 Chevy Camaro 67-69 ShockWaves
2 Ridetech Spindles
Chevy Nova 68-74 MUSCLEbar
RidePro e2 Remote control option
StrongArms for ShockWave Front (Upper & Lower)
Chevy Nova 68-74 AirBar w/Shockwaves
AirPod w/ 5 gallon tank, 2 compressors, and LevelPro control

REAR SUSPENSION:
Turning Over a New Leaf – the 4-Link Air Bar

The rear suspension setup in the Street Challenge kit is a major upgrade from ancient leaf-spring technology. Let’s face it; the Nova’s X-Body rear suspension, like most classic muscle cars from the 60’s and 70’s, needed a lot of help. What Air Ride Technologies has done for the rear end is more of a complete make-over than just a rebuild.

With the multi-leaf spring type suspension, the only way to get the wheel hop and axle wrap out was to stiffen up the springs to the point where the ride was harsh and unpredictable. Air Ride’s Tony Bicknell reminded us how a stiff suspension felt by saying, “You could run over a dime and tell if it was heads up or tails.”

What the crew at Air Ride has developed for the Nova Street Challenge kit is a four-bar conversion system. Tony explained that the old leaf spring suspension was asked to do too many functions. “First, it had to hold the car up, then it had to control the lateral axis, fore and aft axis, and the pinion angle movement. The best adjustment on that suspension was a compromise between those functions.” With the four-link system, each of these functions can be separated and controlled to where the ride is more precise and predictable.

The Air Bar is a 4-link retro-fit that removes your leaf-springs and replaces them with a complete bolt-in cradle that allows you to use upper and lower control arms. Like the stock suspension in a Fox-body or SN95 Mustang, the length and geometry of the unequal-length control arms position the axle throughout its travel, rather than requiring leaf springs to support the weight of the car, prevent side-to-side movement of the axle, and still allow it to move vertically all at the same time. Essentially you are replacing 1970’s thinking with today’s modern suspension technology.

In order to make the “leaf spring” to 4-link conversion, you’ll need to start with Air Ride’s mounting cradle which bolts in (or welds in our case) to the stock rear frame and provides the mounting points for the upper and lower rear control arms.

Included in the Air Bar kit are double-shear upper link mounts that need to be welded onto the rear end housing. Intimidating as this may sound, it is not that difficult as long as you don’t rush the welding. Setting up the proper angle is extremely important when prepping these upper link mounts for welding. By installing the upper links into the chassis mounts, and lifting the rear end up to normal ride height, the aft end of the upper links will dictate where the link mounts need to be placed.

We recommend that you tack weld the mounts into place and move the rear end through the full range of motion to ensure that there is no binding. Once you are satisfied that the mounts are properly located, they can be welded permanently into place. Use care when welding these link mounts. The rear end housing and axle tubes can be overheated very quickly, and overheating the rear end will result in the metal warping and twisting. Thus, we strongly recommend that a stitch welding technique be used in this process.

Now that we had installed the cradle, it was time to get the control arms bolted up. We started with the lower arms, which utilized a nice stiff bushing to discourage body roll under the g-forces our Air Ride suspension was sure to create.

Once we had the lower Air Bar arms bolted in, it was time to get our Currie 9-inch rear end ready to go. Although we’ve got a complete install story on the Currie 9-inch coming in the next issue, we’ll give you a quick preview: Currie Bolt-in X-Body 9-inch, 3.50 gears, Eaton Posi-Diff, and Currie 31-spline Axles. Brakes are by SSBC – and they are very impressive.

For the upper arms, we needed to mock up the upper control arm mounts that Air Ride supplies. With some careful measuring, we aligned the upper control arms on the rear end with the upper control arm mounts on the Air Bar. Some careful welding, and our upper control arm brackets were in.

Finally, we would need to bolt on our lower Air Ride Air Bars, which attached to the Air Ride rear end bracket (which is bolted to the factory rear end leaf spring mount), and then the shocks bolt in using trick billet lower shock relocation brackets.

Taking the place of standard shock absorbers, the ShockWave air shocks are as easy to install as OEM replacement shocks but offer a greater degree of adjustability. Combined with the Air Bar, this system lowers the car’s stance by 2 inches. Because of the handling characteristics of the four-link system and air shocks, the Nova’s soft, rolling rear end was now a crisp and controlled suspension. The only item to watch out for here is to mount the shocks with the adjustment knob facing the rear of the car for ease of adjustment. Easy as that, our Air Ride rear end suspension was in place and waiting for our rear end assembly.

Here is the one side of the completed Air Bar rear suspension system. The upper control arms are bolted to the Currie 9-inch, and you can see how the double adjustable shocks bolt to the upper part of the Air Bar cradle.

The completed Currie 9-inch with the Air Ride Air Bar and shocks isn’t all pretty yet, but that’s because we’re more concerned with the bones than the skin, but rest assured our rear end and underside are going to be all swell and shiny when our Swinger comes back from the paint shop.

FRONT SUSPENSION:
Getting Strong-Armed

Front suspension systems for muscle cars are all pretty much the same design: a double-wishbone suspension with upper and lower triangular A-arms. It has been the industry standard for performance cars for decades. Over the years, the double wishbone system was refined from equal length upper and lower control arms to the current version with an upper control arm that is shorter than the lower control arm.

Using unequal length control arms gives better handling when cornering. As the wheel travels up, the top also moves in toward the vehicle’s center, adding negative camber. This is caused due to the upper arm swinging through a shorter arc than the lower, which pulls the top of the tire inward as the wheel travels upwards. This negative camber gain generated by the chassis rolling helps keep the outside wheel in full contact with the road surface. A larger tire contact patch means more cornering force.

Let’s take a look at the Air Ride front system:

It’s common knowledge that the pressed-steel lower A-arms on these vintage muscle cars lack in the performance arena. Greater deflection and often distortion occurs in these factory parts when the handling is pushed to the limits. Air Ride’s StrongArms are the perfect solution to these handling problems, and they match up well with the performance rear end of the Air Bar system.

The upper and lower StrongArms replace the stock A-arms, and are designed to account for the dropped stance by realigning the ball joint angles to prevent binding, with added caster adjustments for improved high speed handling. The StrongArms feature heavy-wall CNC-bent tubing (.219”-wall) that is jig welded for a precise fit.

Air Ride RideTech Spindle:
Air Ride Technologies has amplified the potential for maximum cornering by adding a 1 or 2 inch dropped spindle that lowers the vehicle’s roll center. Lowering the roll center helps in handling and predictability when cornering. The drop spindles are designed for the increase in camber gain from the unequal length A-arms and the change in the arc due to the drop.

Finishing up the front suspension by installing the MUSCLEbar.

Many times enthusiasts will lower a vehicle without understanding the effect of that positive camber gain. What they end up with is a car that is lower but does not handle as well as it did at the stock ride height. Adding the drop spindles to their tubular control arms gives the enthusiast a lowered stance and better high-speed handling. Lastly, the oversized and soft rubber pieces that were used as stock pivot bushings in the 60’s and 70’s lend themselves to serious suspension slop. Air Ride uses firmer polyurethane bushings that provide smooth movement without losing suspension precision.

The front ShockWaves are very much like the rears in the fact that they are designed to take advantage of stock suspension mounting points as much as possible. There were some clearance issues on our project car that were identified in the Air Ride installation manual.

Due to the larger circumference of the air shock compared to the old steel springs, part of the spring tower had to be cut away so that the air bag part of the ShockWaves did not rub or get pinched as the suspension moved up and down in its travel. Cutting the spring bucket can be easily achieved with a torch, cutoff wheel, or as in our case, a Cornwell plasma cutter. Keeping in mind that the spring buckets are very visible, the quality of your work will show up here. We recommend taking the time to grind the areas smooth and test-fit often when performing this task. Not only will you prevent accidental early failure of your ShockWave, but the care and fine details will show up in the appearance of the system when completed.

RideTech Spindles

Once the spring buckets have been clearanced for the ShockWaves, the next logical step is to mount the RideTech spindles. When upgrading the front suspension, we highly recommend not bypassing the RideTech Spindles in favor of the stock spindles. The RideTech spindle is purposely designed with a taller overall length with a drop spindle design and increased caster gain built into the steering geometry when these parts are used together. The OEM cast spindles are likely to have experienced a degree of metal fatigue over the years, so replacing them with the RideTech spindle from Air Ride was a “no-brainer” for us.

Putting it all together by attaching the RideTech spindles to the StrongArms.

Front MUSCLEbar and mounting kit

Honestly, sway bars don’t get the credit that they deserve. Because they have a simple-looking design, sway bars are often overlooked as a true performance part. Air Ride’s MUSCLEbar also has a deceivingly simple look on the surface. Beyond the appearance however, is a well-designed sway bar developed to work with a dropped front suspension to enhance the cornering performance of your project car. The upgraded design of the MUSCLEbar includes an increased bar diameter, polyurethane bushings, and the correct-sized attachment links that work with the rest of the lowered Street Challenge system for a complete front suspension designed for aggressive cornering.

Compressor & Controls

Finally, in our mock up assembly, all that was left was to test-fit and mount the Air Pod. With no other electrical lines in the chassis at all, the installation of these items was strictly for test-fit purposes only. The Air Pod is an “integrated” air compressor system which is pre-wired, pre-plumbed, and pre-tested, so there is very little to do during the instalation.

According to Air Ride, it takes 4 plumbing connections (one to each shock) and 3 wiring connections to install the Air Pod, and using it instead of separate components will save about 10 hours of installation. The best part is it weighs less than 25 pounds and is easy to mount.

Since Air Ride offers several different Air Control systems, we are going to do another complete article on choosing an Air Ride compressor system. Briefly, there are 4 different systems available:

  1. RidePRO – “Good” – A standard, non-electronic system that uses valve bodies and compressors. It has a manual control system. It’s for a bare bones install.
  2. RidePRO-E2 ” Better” – A system with air-pressure sensors and three height presets with an electronic controller. Good for cars that don’t see frequent changes in loads.
  3. LevelPRO – “Best” – Adds ride height sensors to the RidePRO-E2 system to provide automatic pressure adjustments. Perfect for the customer that wants to “set it and forget it,” according to Air Ride.
  4. AirPod – Available in “RidePro-E2” or “LevelPRO” trims – this places the tank, compressor, and controls in an easy to install unit. This is the top of the line.

For the most part, the Air Ride is one of the easier installations we’ve done, considering that we have changed the entire suspension system from the OEM-designed economy car setup into a prime road race performer. Air Ride Technologies has taken a very difficult task and turned it into a weekend project using common hand tools. The only additions that we found to Air Ride’s tool list was a set of spring compressors that come in handy for taking off the old coil springs, and our Cornwell plasma cutter for trimming the spring bucket.

We’ll be looking forward to bringing you Part 2 of the Air Ride Swinger Nova suspension article and video – once we get our baby rolling!

Article Sources

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
Read My Articles

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