By SHAWN BRERETON JANUARY 18, 2019
I’ve got the mother of all scenarios for you. Let’s say you don’t have the time, money, or ability to do a complete restoration yourself. Instead, you go searching for a project that someone has already completed so you can start enjoying it right away. Maybe you buy it sight unseen or maybe you get to drive it a little, but either way it isn’t until it’s in your garage that you figure out things weren’t what they seemed. Now you’ve got to figure out how to fix it.
If it’s an original car or an original-style restoration, you can probably figure out most of the parts you need, even if they come from the aftermarket. Most websites allow you to do searches for the year, make, and model and come up with a replacement “kit” for whatever you are trying to fix. But, what do you do if the car you bought is a restomod where someone has replaced virtually everything on the car, more specifically the chassis, complete drivetrain, and suspension?
This is the scenario I recently found myself in when I bought my father’s 1966 Ford Fairlane. It wasn’t your average Fairlane though, it had the entire drivetrain from a 2009 GT500 in it! Even though my dad built it years ago, he didn’t keep any of the records of where he got parts, so obviously didn’t remember a lot of the particulars to help me fix it. It was like I bought it sight unseen.
Driving a Dump Truck
Here is the problem — the car drove like a dump truck! You could literally feel every bump in the road and it would bottom the shocks out on any little dip. Any bridge transition induced a tense butt-puckering reaction from me. Have you ever had a car so ill-handling that you had to pay attention to how close the cars behind you are in case you need to avoid something? That is how this car was. Because I bought it as a daily driver, I couldn’t deal with it for much longer; it was beating the crap out of me and wasn’t enjoyable to drive — at all.
The original ‘66 Fairlane was a unibody car, but my dad retrofitted it to essentially make it a full frame with a triangulated 4-link in the rear and a Mustang II-style front end. It has sway bars front and rear, but the adjustable coilover suspension had no markings on them whatsoever. To make matters worse, the knobs wouldn’t turn (not even after we took them off). By all outward appearances, this car should’ve driven like a new Mustang, but instead, it drove like a pig.
Getting Expert Help
I knew just who to turn to help fix the situation — the experts at QA1 in Lakeville, Minnesota. I bought QA1’s for my ‘55 Chevy back in 2008 and I absolutely love the way that car rides. The Fairlane has all the right ingredients in place to be a great handling car, so it doesn’t need a major overhaul, it just needs someone who knows what they are doing to instruct me on how to fix the issues at hand.
When I say QA1 are the experts, I truly mean that. It was founded by Jim Jordan in 1993, and at the time specialized in just rod ends and spherical bearings, quickly becoming a leader within the performance racing industry. It wasn’t until 1998 that it got into the shock market after purchasing Hal Shocks. In 1999, they introduced revalveable and rebuildable shocks for circle track racing and it took off from there.
Showing how dominant it had become in the shock world, in 2004, QA1 bought the number 1 manufacturer of performance racing shocks, Carrera Shocks. More recently in 2011, they acquired Edelbrock’s suspension line. This year, they introduced the MOD Shock, which is a revolutionary revalveable on-the-car shock that is sure to become a bestseller.
With that kind of pedigree, I knew they should be able to help me with my situation. I put in a call to Dave Kass, the marketing manager at QA1 to tell him about my situation. I had this car with unknown adjustable shocks (that wouldn’t adjust) and the car drove like a dump truck. Could QA1 help me fix it? He immediately knew what I was talking about.
“We get calls like this on a daily basis where someone has bought a car and is upset it drives so horribly,” Dave says. “A nice paint job and pretty wheels don’t mean the car is going to handle well. Our technical support team has been helping people with unique problems like these for years.” He got me in touch with Bill Foley in the technical sales and support department.
Doing My Homework
Bill called me and gave me some homework to do because there were so many unknowns about the car and it was so far from stock:
- I needed to measure each shock’s length at ride height from center-to-center on the mounts (not very easy to do without a 4-post lift).
- Check the diameter of the mounting holes.
- Weigh the car — preferably with corner scales (there are ways to scale the car without corner scales, check out the sidebar).
One extra measurement I added for myself was the measurement of the body (fender above the wheel hub) from the ground (24.5-inches front and 21.5-inches rear on both sides, respectively). I liked the stance of the car as it sat, so I didn’t want to change that up too much if possible.
I got to work on my homework right away that night and slithered under the car while it was on the ground to get the shock measurements. The diameter of all of the mounting holes was 1/2-inch. The front shocks were 10-inches center-to-center, while the rears were 13-3/4-inches center-to-center. It appeared the front shocks only had about 2.5 inches of travel until the shock was bottomed out and the rear only had about 3 inches — and both showed signs they had been there before. As a matter of fact, the first thing I did after I bought the car was take it to an alignment shop and the tech showed me the front shocks were leaking oil from bottoming out, he surmised.
Over the next weekend, I was able to get the car corner scaled at Racefab Performance who was building a rollcage for my Project CrossTime Miata. The weight surprised us all, coming in at a whopping 3,622 pounds minus the driver. That is pretty heavy for a Fairlane, but my dad had built that full frame to handle the stress from the 550-hp GT500 engine, so it wasn’t that shocking (no pun intended).
Figuring Out What Will Work
With those measurements in hand, I called Bill and gave him the news. He did some calculations and determined that the rear needed Proma Star Single-Adjustable Coilover shock (P/N DS501) with a 12-inch, 170-pound spring (P/N 12HT170). But, he asked if I could raise the ride height to 14 or 14.5 inches, which wasn’t a problem. The DS501 is 11.625-inches compressed and 16.875-inches extended, so 14- to 14.5-inches at ride height would be the sweet spot to allow more compression travel.
As expected, the front shocks were a bit more of a challenge. Because of the short travel, Bill decided that the best way to go was to use a Proma Star Single Adjustable Coilover (P/N DS301), which is 8.75-inches compressed and 11.125-inches extended. He chose a 7-inch, 650-pound spring (P/N 7HT650), which is the stiffest spring QA1 offers. This had me questioning his expertise, because I figured a stiffer spring meant more “dump truck driving” for me, but Bill put my mind at ease and told me to trust him. QA1 hadn’t let me down before, so I had no reason not to.
The last question from Bill was whether I preferred spherical bearings or polyurethane bushings. I chose spherical, seeing the four-link was attached with sphericals already. I also ordered the recommended Thrust Bearing Kit (P/N 7888-109), which would make turning the spanner wrenches easier to adjust the ride height. A few days later a big ol’ box arrived with everything inside ready to be assembled. On the weekend, I took the car over to my friend David Fulcher’s house who was generous enough to allow me to use his lift, making the job so much easier.
Swapping In New Coilovers
With David and my other friend Chris helping, the installation was easy. However, we did make one easy-to-make, critical error that made us do the whole install twice! It was a stupid, rookie mistake, which shows the importance of not only reading the directions thoroughly but understanding them thoroughly, as well. We put the thrust washers in between the spring seat adjuster nut and the jam nut — it needs to go on top of the adjuster, against the spring (duh!). We didn’t notice our guffaw until we went to turn the adjusters and had to take all four shocks back apart to fix it; they are harder to take apart than put together, so don’t make the same mistake.
Here is how it should be done. You spin the spring seat jam nut all the way down with the little shoulder pointing up, then you put the spring seat on (shoulder up). Next is one spring seat thrust washer, then the thrust bearing, then another thrust washer. The spring goes on top of that, then the spring cap goes on. If you don’t run the whole assembly all the way to the bottom, you will have a tough time getting the cap under the spherical bearing. Even then, it took a little bit of work to get the cap on the DS301’s with the 650-pound front springs.
The most important part of the assembly (which is mentioned several times in the instructions) is to use Permatex anti-seize lubricant on virtually everything. This stuff is very messy, but extremely important seeing we were working with different metals — including aluminum and stainless steel. We used it liberally!
Once the shocks were assembled (properly) it was an easy swap with eight total bolts to change out. Just so we had a decent starting point, we measured the number of threads on the old coilovers, set the QA1’s in the same position, and put the car on the ground. The rear fenders measured the same height (21.5 inches), while the fronts were about an inch lower than the 24.5 inches it was before. So, back up in the air it went to twist the front springs up a few more threads.
One other error we made here — we should’ve also measured the shocks themselves before we raised the car back up to see if we were within the recommended ride height for the shock. Instead, we were measuring the fenders, which really didn’t matter as much, as far as ride quality was concerned. The front fender came out right at 24.5 inches, so we decided to take it for a drive with the shocks on full-soft.
Getting It Dialed In
As I pulled out of the driveway, I was careful to make sure we didn’t have any clearance issues anywhere by turning the wheels back and forth then proceeded down the street trying to hit every bump along the way. The first few were small and the suspension showed promise — it was already light years better than before, but as I hit some of the larger bumps, I found the front end too bouncy and the rear seemed kind of harsh, possibly bottoming out. This is when I remembered Bill saying the DS501s liked 14 to 14.5 inches at ride height, so I returned to the shop.
When we measured the shock lengths at the shop, they were about 13 inches, so we jacked it up and cranked in another two or three threads and set it back down. Surprisingly the fender height only went up about a 1/2 inch to 22 inches, but it brought the shock height up to about 14.25 inches. Before the next test drive, I set all four shocks up two clicks from full-soft and went for another spin.
It was a noticeable difference as I covered the same route, but still seemed a little bouncy to me, so I returned one last time and set the shocks at four clicks above full-soft. I grabbed up all my old parts, thanked David for the help, and set off toward home. On four clicks I couldn’t believe this was the same car. It was night-and-day difference and light-years away from what I drove into the shop. I still had some experimentation to go, but things were promising.
Over the next few weeks, I kept turning up the knobs until I got to nine clicks all the way around. Surprisingly, the front felt great at nine clicks. I figured the higher you went on the damping, the rougher the ride would get — especially running that heavy spring — but it needed to be up that high to keep the spring from bouncing. The rear felt pretty stiff at nine clicks and I was experiencing an almost see-saw motion where the rear seemed to be sending signals to the front. I decided to call Dave at QA1 to ask for some direction on what I should do to get these dialed in.
“Oftentimes, people install a set of adjustable shocks with them adjusted in the middle of the valving,” Dave began. “In many cases, this is substantially better than what was on the car previously, so, the user leaves the shocks set that way and carry on. Adjustable shocks have the potential to greatly improve the ride, over marginal improvements. Keep adjusting the shocks stiffer and stiffer until you’ve gone too far. It’s not until you’ve seen what both ends of the spectrum feel like you know what’s best for you.
“These shocks come with baseline starting points for valving, but every car is different. It’s common these days to see large 18-plus-inch wheels and thin wall tires. This drastically impacts how feedback through the road transfers into the cockpit of the car. It will often be harsher than if you had a large sidewall with a 15-inch wheel. As such, softening the compression valving while having a slightly firmer rebound will provide the control you need without the jarring effect from sharp impacts in the road.”
I took his advice and kept cranking them up just to see what it’s like. Let’s just say, I don’t recommend full-firm for street use, that’s for sure. I ended up backing down the front shocks to twelve clicks and went all the way back to four clicks for the rear. That is definitely the sweet spot for this car for daily usage. The car is so much more civil now. I can drive down any street and not have to pay attention to any little indention in the road. I still haven’t experimented above these settings because the car drives so well, but I do plan to autocross the car in the future, so I’m sure I will be playing around with the settings in due time.
In the end, here is the point of my story: you don’t have to settle for an ill-riding car. For anyone out there who has a car you have no idea about and are experiencing similar problems, give the folks at QA1 a call and tell them what you are experiencing and see if they can help. Chances are, unless you have a severe problem, they can get your restomod riding like you always hoped it would.
All in, it only cost me $1,019.60 to change out the suspension and completely change the manners of my car. That is not much more than you might pay for four OE-style replacement shocks — which most likely won’t fix your problem. And, those won’t be adjustable if you plan to do anything more than regular daily driving. I can’t wait to go have some fun with this thing — although maybe I shouldn’t — I’ve already gotten one speeding ticket while out “testing.”