Handling can make the difference between an enjoyable car and an awful car.

Most vehicle manufacturers design their vehicles as a compromise - the car can handle most terrain, most conditions, most loads, most speeds, with the most comfort. That may work fine for Grandma's Delta 88, but comfort is not always on our highest priority. What we want here is maximum cornering ability. Many factors play out how a vehicle will or will not handle. The factory provides a good starting point, and they err on the side of safety. We should always consider safety in every modification we make. This is acting responsibly not only to ourselves, but those around us we could endanger. Suspension can be a very dangerous thing to mess with. The basic balance of the car is dependant on two things: Weight Distribution and Centre of Gravity. Weight Distribution (back to top) Many manufacturers and builders strive for a weight distribution that would have 50% of the vehicle's weight on the front wheels, and 50% on the vehicle's rear wheels. This is the ideal distribution, but it is not always attainable in production cars, and not easy to adjust (Some builders may try to have a bit more weight on the rear wheels to aid in corner exit - less wheel spin in a rear wheel drive). Most front engine vehicles are nose-heavy. A Rear Wheel Drive (RWD) will have its weight more evenly distributed than a Front Wheel Drive (FWD), because the drivetrain is spread throughout the car. A FWD has everything as one package in the front. By the way, swapping motors negatively upsets the balance, as you generally swap in a bigger, heavier engine. You can do things to alter the weight distribution that work for you. Fibreglass body panels remove weight. Aluminum engine components. Relocating the battery to the trunk. Removing any unnecessary components (such as Air Conditioning, Stereos, seats, etc.). Also, moving weight to the inside of the vehicle can do wonders to the vehicle's cornering ability. Imagine walking in a straight line with a long barbell on your shoulder, heavy weights on either end. If you need to make a sharp turn, it takes a lot of effort to get the bar to change with you. However, if you slide the weights to the middle, it takes much less effort to swing the bar around. In the same way, putting all the vehicle weight to the inside makes it much easier to get the car to change directions. Engineers call this the "polar moment of inertia." This, unfortunately, is not easy to do in a production car. Centre of Gravity (back to top) This is the "balance point" of your car. The place where the car can hang over the edge of a cliff without falling over. Think of a 5 ton cube van racing the Indy 500. The truck is so top-heavy you'd swear it would fall over. Now picture a go-kart doing the same thing. The car is so low, you couldn't roll it if you tried. The difference here is centre-of-gravity. The truck has it's centre of gravity very high. It has a "high centre of gravity." The opposite is true fro the Kart. This is difficult to change dramatically. One solution is to lower the car - but in this, there is a right way, and a wrong way. See lowering. The key is to get as much of the car's weight as close to the ground as possible. Honda has made some advances in their engineering to get the engine and suspension lower in the car, and this may be why they are often chosen for competition. Before you get into lowering, lets start down a wide path of modification first. Before you begin though, you must determine what it is you want to accomplish. Is the car going to be driven on the street? Be honest! Are you going to race it? If so, how often? Is this the car you use to drive to work or school everyday? Are you willing to sacrifice some comfort? (And you WILL sacrifice some comfort). Once you know what your plan is, then look at your budget. Increase your budget if your car is not a "mainstream" car that many others also modify. My '86 Civic is very hard to get performance parts for. A '96 isn't. Your 5.0 Mustang is a walk in the park.

I will not spend a long time on how to re-engineer your car's suspension. There are books on the subject already, and the information there is much more than I want to get into. I will, however, talk about some of the modifications you can do easily, and what you can expect. These are in my recommended order. Wheels and Tires (back to top) This can make the biggest all-time difference in the handling of your car. Width Wider tires have greater surface contact with the road, and they therefore require greater effort to break the contact. They are measured from sidewall to sidewall, and the dimension is listed right after the P in p-metric tires. For example, a P195/50HR15 tire is 195 millimetres from sidewall to sidewall. Wider tires are awesome on dry pavement. They suck in the rain. Your tires become boats, and you start singing "Ho, ho, blow the men down" as you float off into the ditch. Chose tires with good channels for water dispersion. Lots of vertical grooves, with paths to the edges. Be cautious in buying wider rims and tires. Make sure that there is clearance for them! My Civic has 15x7" rims, that are offset such that I had to trim the edge of the rear fender so that the tires wouldn't contact the body in bumps. Also, the offset is enough to make steering very difficult - it is Very Stiff, and does not return to centre after a turn. My 13" winters on stock rims are awesome, mind you they don't corner. Understanding Tire Sizes 195/50R15 195 = Section width in millimeters 50 = Sidewall height, a percentage of the width R = Radial construction 15 = Rim diameter Profile A shorter sidewall flexes less, so the tread responds sooner to steering input than a tall sidewall. The sidewall height is determined by the "aspect ratio," which is found after the width. A P195/50HR15 tire has a sidewall that is 50% of the width. They work like this: Think of running through a slalom course holding the bottom end of a 10 foot ladder. The ladder sways all over the place! Now try the same thing with a 3 foot ladder. Much easier to control! Mind you, they take getting used to, as the car turns "right now!" They are also much more harsh in ride. The sidewall is part of the bump-absorbing function of the suspension, and stiffening the sidewall removes that functionality. It also makes the rim more susceptible to damage from ruts or potholes. Plus Sizes If you buy lower profile tires, yet keep the same rim size (such as going from P175/80R13 to P175/60R13), the overall tire height is smaller. This can cause your car to lose some self-centering ability on turns, but gain acceleration as the effective final drive ratio is lower. The solution to this is in "Plus Sizes." This is where you run a larger rim and tire size, but the combination of width and aspect ratio produce the same overall height. As an example, my '86 Civic requires P175/70R13, which I run in winter, and I use P195/50R15 in summer. The difference in tire height is 0.1" which does not affect the acceleration or speedometer. There is a Plus One, which is the stock rim size plus 1". For the Civic, it would be P185/60R14 (which is .14" taller). Plus two is the stock rim size plus 2." This would be P195/50R15. Larger wheels are also usually heavier, and heavy wheels are more work for the suspension to control. This is usually why aluminum wheels are fitted, however if your original rims are aluminum, this isn't much of a savings. Sway Bars (back to top)

The next modification I recommend is the addition of sway bars. A sway bar is U-shaped bar of spring steel. Generally mounted solidly in the middle, with either end going to one side of the suspension, the bar responds so body sway, or lean. The bar effectively ties the two suspension halves together, so that as the outside wheel is pushed up into the fender due to body lean, the bar tries to also raise the inside wheel, thus leveling the car out. Sway bars generally do not make the ride any more harsh, except when traversing irregular road surfaces, where each wheel is following its own bump. Sway bars that are TOO big can cause the car to wander, as the suspension is less compliant with road irregularities. That is, the car may follow changes in the road surface. Generally, on a RWD vehicle, a larger sway bar is added to the front, and the rear sway bars is left alone or removed. This helps control body roll, yet allow the rear suspension compliance to reduce wheelspin on corner exit. Too much front sway bar can lift the inside wheel off the ground - this can hurt overall cornering ability. On a FWD vehicle, a larger sway bar is added to the rear, and the front sway bar is left alone or removed. The added compliance in front helps reduce wheel spin on corner exit, and the added roll resistance "lifts" the inside rear wheel off the ground, thus reducing traction and allowing the car to "rotate" more than normal.

Shocks (back to top) Shock absorbers are called Dampers in England, and that is probably a better term. They damp the oscillating action of a sprung suspension. They are generally tuned to the vehicle as a whole, and any changes you make may upset how the suspension oscillates, thus requiring re-tuning. Shocks come in many varieties, from soft to firm, and even adjustable. If your new wheels are heavier, they are harder for the springs to control, and therefore harder for the shocks to control the springs. Stiffer shocks may be needed. If you add sport lowering springs, they tend to be much stiffer. The stock shocks can not control the oscillation of such a stiff spring, and handling will suffer. Overly stiff shocks will over-damp factory springs, not allowing the springs to absorb the bumps in the road. Performance shocks, however, do work quite nicely with soft springs. They will firmup the response of the suspension, improving handling. Ideally, you want relatively soft damping on compression so the suspension absorbs bumps well. You want it fairly firm on rebound, to "stabilize" the vehicle after the bump. Tokico "blue" shocks and struts tend to be valved too high on compression and too soft on rebound - the ride quality is fairly harsh, giving the illusion of performance handling, but the car is very "floaty" on bumps and does not instill driver confidence.

Strut Tower Brace (back to top) When I first saw these, I thought they were hokey. The theory behind it is that in hard cornering, the sheet metal in the front clip (or the whole car, for that matter) flexes as the vehicle is subjected to the cornering force. By linking the left and right strut towers together, the force applied to the outside strut can be supported as well by the inside strut tower. Apparantly the steering becomes more precise and stable, and turn-in is improved. Turn-in is the way the vehicle sets itself into a turn (often followed closely by vicious oversteer). Will they turn a boring car into a racer? No, but they do make a relatively small improvement. Probably not worth the $150+ they cost. Mind you, some cars respond very well to the addition of a strut bar. Especially if you have already upgraded the springs, shocks and tires. More grip means more load on the chassis, which can cause more flex. An upper bar made little to no difference on my Sentra, but a lower one made a phenominal difference. It all depends on the shortcomings of the chassis design. Lowering (back to top)

As I've mentioned before, there are right ways and wrong ways to do this. First I'll start with the right way. Lowering Tips 1. 2. 3. 4. Don't get greedy Dropped spindles are the best if you can get them Shortened Struts are good Shorter Springs are least best

5. Lowering blocks on the back (for leaf springs) are acceptable. The things you mess up in lowering your car are substantial. The biggest concern is bump-steer. This is because the tie rods are now at angles, since the lower control arms are no longer horizontal as they should be. When the vehicle negotiates a bump, the tie rod moves further on its arc (thus shortening its distance between the steering knuckle and the rack), which will turn the wheel out (or in, if the tie rods are in front). The same thing happens to the lower control arms, except now your tires are dragged sideways through every bump - ever wonder why the tires didn't last? Now the wrong way to do things: Don't cut coils. Those springs were designed to travel a certain distance. If you've shortened that distance, they don't know that the distance is shorter, and you WILL bottom out - a very unpleasant and unsafe experience. You should be watching the roads for cars, kids and deer, not pot holes. Don't heat anything. This includes springs. If you take the temper out of the springs by heating them,

you have ruined them, and they will sag lower and lower and lower. They will also handle like a dead cow in a fish basket. Or something like that. Dropped Control arms are the same as cutting coils. You may gain suspension travel, but it's butchery and you still mess up the geometry. Don't cut the frame. The frame is structural, and therefore important. This includes C-notches and channeling. This may disappoint you, but if you're going to this extreme, see #1 above. And be prepared to lose some serious resale value, and the ease of getting rid of the vehicle. "Stock" cars sell. A "custom" car says that you've driven the snot out of it, and therefore on its last legs. Reasonable lowering: 1 - 2." I'm not a big fan of lowering springs. They are generally stiffer than factory, which may not be too much of a problem for some, but there are two schools of thought on springs. Some people believe that you should run the stiffest spring possible in order to be competitive. Others feel you should use the softest spring possible, without bottoming out. Since the primary purpose of the spring is to keep the tire in contact with the road at all times, it stands to reason that the softest spring would follow the road more closely than the stiffest spring, which would bounce all over the place (ever see a back hoe drive? NO suspension - Infinitely stiff). This is not to say that stiff springs don't improve handling - they do, greatly! But only on a smooth road surface, and remember, the smoothest road is rougher than the roughest race track. Allowing your suspension to bottom out abruptly changes the way your vehicle is following the road. This is extremely dangerous since the car may not be in contact with the road anymore! If you have lowered your car such that the frame contacts the ground, you are inviting a disastrous skid. Roll Bars (back to top) This is the best thing you can do for structural rigidity. It is also something you probably can't do yourself. The best is a roll cage, which has a main hoop behind the driver and passenger, with angled braces behind, and both a horizontal and diagonal cross brace from side to side, joined to a front hoop going to the top of the windshield, again with braces to the main hoop, and diagonals from shoulder to foot. A smart cookie would tie in the suspension points to the bar as well. A simple roll bar should include the main hoop with front and back braces. Notice that with either bar or cage, the back seat is inaccessible. Might as well remove it for the weight savings. It is important to note that a roll cage is unsafe on the street. Should you get into an accident, the bars are much closer to your un-helmeted head than the original body was. Contacting these bars with your melon would be disasterous. On My Shelf

Tune to Win - Caroll Smith

Engineer to Win - Caroll Smith

Race Car Vehicle Dynamics - Milliken & Milliken Allan Staniforth

Competition Car Suspension -

Chassis Engineering - Herb Adams

How to Make Your Car Handle - Fred Puhn

Performance Handling - Don Alexander Don Alexander

High Performance Handling Handbook -

Beyond This (back to top) In the past few years of racing production-based vehicles, I have learned that it is just not worth trying to make a pig fly. Joe Cheng ("Phantom" and "Vancouver Special" builder/driver) once told me "there are only two classes: Stock and Modified. Anything else is a compromise." And he's right. I have since learned a lot about chassis engineering, vehicle dynamics, geometry and more. I have also learned that I am but a grasshopper in this area. Things to Consider Roll center height Centre of gravity Scrub radius Trail Steering Axis Ackerman Spindle height Control arm length Anti-dive/squat Ride height Spring frequency Motion ratio Sprung and unsprung weight Polar moment Camber curve Bump steer And more.....

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