Written by Derek Putnam
Photography courtesy of the manufacturers
As the drag racing scene entered the 1960s and ’70s, muscle cars flooded the track and the streets in huge numbers. Most were lucky to find traction with the 7- to 8-inch-wide tires of the day, leading some to think the best way to achieve maximum traction was with bigger rear tires, and the aftermarket ladder bar or four-link suspensions that normally accompanied them.
Fast-forward two decades, and some small-tire, stock-suspension cars were producing single-digit timeslips in line with their big-tire counterparts. Now, it’s common to find just as many small-tire cars in the staging lanes at the track as big-tire rides. That’s because it’s become easier than ever to transform classic muscle cars into hard-hooking rocketships, and we put together an overview on some of the parts you can use to get your classic muscle machine to hook.
Although traction is important, getting a car to transfer weight from the front to the rear and doing it consistently is a critical step to hooking up. Whether it’s replacing stock control arms with brand new tubular hardware, or getting a vehicle’s stock arms upgraded with the right parts, here are some of the options you can employ on the front end.
Global West was one of the first companies to offer an improved version of the classic front control arm for GM and Ford applications. Combining a strong tubular design with its unique Del-A-Lum bushings, Global West arms added positive caster while reducing bumpsteer. The company has since added to drag race-specific arms to its arsenal, as well as offering polyurethane bushing versions to complement the Del-A-Lum offerings.
Hotchkis is another company that witnessed the initial move to tubular control arms, and they have expanded its offerings to include popular GM platforms, as well as Ford Mustang and the Dodge B and E platforms. Arms feature TIG-welded construction, Delrin bushings (where applicable) and improved caster and camber over stock to improve ride and control. The company’s newest offering is the “On Car Adjustable” arms for Dodge B and E-bodies, using high-articulation rod ends to allow the user to dial in the exact settings.
BMR Suspension is a name you might hear more in discussions of late-model vehicles, but the company also offers control arms for the classic GM A, F and X-body platforms. Featuring 1.25-inch DOM tubing and CNC-formed plate steel bracing, upper arms are finished with dual-offset cross-shafts while upper and lowers get polyurethane bump stops and greaseable bushings for quiet, bind-free operation.
QA1 might be known for its shocks, but the company expanded big-time in the suspension market, offering hundreds of individual parts, as well as complete suspension kits for handling and drag racing, to complement its vast shock offerings. The QA1 control arm is available for popular classic GM and Dodge vehicles, allowing the user to add strength to a vital point of vehicle control without adding weight. The tubular design features polyurethane bushings on street versions, while GM vehicles can also choose a high performance/race version with QA1’s Low Friction Ball Joints and low deflection pivot bushings.
TRZ Motorsports earned its stripes in small-tire racing, and that experience translates directly into the company’s products. TRZ’s control arms target the popular classic GM platforms, and start with TIG-welded chrome-moly tubing designed to incorporate additional positive caster, and feature a rod-end construction designed to eliminate shimming the upper control arm shafts. Available in stock coil spring or a coil-over version, these arms can save 20-40 pounds of weight over stock versions, and withstand the punishment from street and strip cars.
Smith Racecraft offers control arms for classic GM A and F-body vehicles, using lightweight chrome-moly tubing to reduce weight to a mere five pounds on an upper control arm. Complemented by a rod-end construction that allows for easy adjustment and no required shims, the Smith Racecraft arms provide five degrees of positive caster built-in for better handling and straighter runs.
Stock Can Still Rock
Although tubular control arms offer numerous improvements over their stock counterparts, jumping ship on 50-year-old parts isn’t the only way to make a classic suspension work. Energy Suspension offers polyurethane bushings for nearly every model of classic GM, Ford, and Mopar, providing less deflection and better control over stock rubber bushings. Global West Del-A-Lum bushings are not exclusive to the company’s control arms only, as the company also makes the unique components for stock arms. To upgrade your stock ball joints for lower friction designs, QA1 and AFCO Racing have the ticket. QA1 offers its Ultimate Ball Joint in press-in, screw-in and bolt-in versions, while AFCO Racing offers its low-friction ball joint as part of a package for classic GM platforms that also includes upper and lower control arm bushings. And if your classic provides for big wheelies, Global West now offers adjustable upper bump stops to dial in the correct amount of front-end travel.
If the front is setup right, the focus now shifts to the rearend and keeping the tires planted to apply all the power you can. Whether it’s a leaf-spring vehicle or a coil-spring model, here are the ingredients to keep your tires hooked up.
The traction bar dates back to the 1960s as the way many racers employed to control wheel hop and maximize traction. Lakewood continues to offer this entry-level traction device in a bolt-on style for popular GM and Ford models, as well as a clamp-on style that can be universally adapted to fit hundreds of different vehicles. While the design may be considered dated when compared to modern offerings, lots of racers lay claim to single-digit runs with traction bars.
Improving on the initial traction bar design, Competition Engineering’s version extended the length to locate the snubber under the front eye of the leaf spring, maximizing traction and avoiding possible weakening of the leaf spring. Available for the popular F- and X-body GM platform, as well as 1965-1973 Ford Mustang models, the traction bar remains a popular choice for mild to medium-powered street/strip cars.
SouthSide Machine made some eye-opening changes to the traction bar, removing the front snubber and adding in a solid connection in the front, creating the “Lift Bar” that first enjoyed popularity in the 1990s. Employing a Delrin bushing for reduced twisting and bind, the boxed-steel design effectively moves the vehicle’s instant-center forward, creating an improved reaction for better reaction times and 60-foot clockings. These arms are available for Ford and GM vehicles.
Competition Engineering offers a second option on traction devices for leaf spring rides—the Slide-A-Link. The patented bolt-on incorporates a solid–mounted front plate with a urethane bushing combined with an adjustable link to allow for easy pinion angle and preload changes. Kits are available for popular GM, Ford, and Mopar platforms.
The creation of Stock Eliminator racer John Calvert, the Cal Tracs traction bars enjoy popularity across a wide range of power levels and racing series. From street/strip vehicles to some of the quickest small-tire cars, Cal Tracs are a big part of stock suspension racing. The system is anchored around a chrome-moly bar employing rod ends, allowing precise adjustment of pinion angle and suspension preload. The bar connects to solid mounting points on the leaf spring front eye and the rear axle perch, preventing axle rotation and keeping the set pinion angle maintained. Available for multiple car models, Cal Tracs are employed on Fastest Street Car’s Project Boulevard Boost ’70 Nova, moving the 3,800-pound car to multiple 1.2-second 60-foot times while maintaining street ability.
Smith Racecraft is responsible for what some consider being the ultimate bolt-on traction device, the Assassin Traction Bars. Designed to handle higher-horsepower loads, the Assassin Bars feature a chrome-moly bar with Teflon-lined rod ends, that combined with heavy-duty mounting points on the front and rear that offer multiple mounting points, create a traction device that can change with track conditions. The Assassin Bars are current available for popular GM and Mopar leaf-spring vehicles.
On the extreme side of bolt-on traction devices, BMR Suspension offers Camaro and Firebird models a fresh start with its torque-arm suspension conversion. Building on the company’s track record on late-model vehicles employing torque arm technology, BMR Suspension designed a system to bring the technology to classic models. The torque arm uses a unique front crossmember with the rear point centered on GM’s 10 and 12-bolt rearends, or the popular Ford 9-inch version. Add in BMR’s lower control arms, and you get a system with more adjustments for traction, handling, and ride height.
Muscle in the Middle
Although upgrades to the front and rear suspension can make a world of difference in how a vehicle performs, the space between shouldn’t be overlooked. Body bushings should be upgraded from soft rubber to a stiffer construction to allow the suspension to work correctly instead of introducing body flex into the equation.
Energy Suspension offers polyurethane bushings for most classic GM, Ford, and Mopar models, and for GM owners looking for something a little more solid, TRZ Motorsports offers aluminum body mounts for 1968-1972 GM A-body models, while Competition Engineering and Global West have solid aluminum mounts for GM’s F- and X-body models. BMR Suspension also offers a solid bushing kit, but based its on Delrin material for the 1967-1981 GM F-body. On models without a full frame, a subframe connector should be considered to also reduce flex. Boxed subframe connectors are available from BMR Suspension, Chassis Engineering, Competition Engineering and Hotchkis, while Global West offers tubular subframe connectors.
BMR Suspension offers multiple versions of upper and lower control arms for 1964-1972 GM A-body models. Available in adjustable and non-adjustable versions, as well as employing polyurethane bushings or spherical bearings, the tubular designs are available in pairs or in a complete kit.
Global West also makes several versions of rear control arms for 1964-1977 GM A-body models. Lowers are available in boxed and tubular style, with the latter available equipped with polyurethane bushings, their unique Del-A-Lum bushings, or a combination with spherical bearings. Upper arms are double-adjustable and feature spherical bearings.
Hotchkis offers improved versions of upper and lower control arms for GM’s A- and B-body platforms. Lowers are a boxed design with greaseable polyurethane bushings, while uppers are double-adjustable and feature Hotchkis Swivel-Max bushings that offer non-binding articulation. All arms feature black powder coating for a great finish, and are also available in a complete kit.
QA1 offers upper and lower control arms in tubular and boxed style for popular GM vehicles. They come with greaseable polyurethane bushings for less bind, and the upper arms are adjustable with a spherical ball or rod end assembly for easy pinion adjustment. They also offer an Anti-Hop bars for GM’s A-body models for even better traction.
Competition Engineering not only makes a traction bar for leaf spring models, but also for the coil spring-equipped GM A-body vehicles as well. A performance alternative to a non-adjustable factory four-link suspension, the traction bars and their boxed steel construction eliminate flex, while an adjustable threaded link allows for fine tuning.
Lakewood offers numerous traction upgrades for GM A-body models, with traction bars, bolt-on ladder bars, and lift bars available for 1964-1972 models. All are designed to reduce the wheel hop common to higher horsepower cars, and come in a black powdercoated finish for durability. Lakewood’s upper control arms, available in non-adjustable and adjustable versions, complement the traction bars nicely.
SouthSide Machine also makes a version of their “Lift Bar” traction bar for Ford and GM coil spring applications. These bars replace the lower factory control arms, and the boxed steel design combined with Delrin bushings reduces twisting and bind, planting the tires for better hook-up. SouthSide offers a non-adjustable upper arm to complete a rear suspension upgrade on 1964-1972 GM A-body models.
TRZ Motorsports offers some of the lightest control arms for popular GM and Ford coil spring rear suspensions. Upper are double-adjustable for ease of pinion angle changes, and feature double gussets and 1/4-inch thick material for strength. Lower arms are available in a single-adjustable version (using a Delrin bushing on one end and a moly rod end on the other), or double-adjustable (with a combination of Delrin and moly rod ends, or a race style with moly rod ends on both sides). More powerful cars can also utilize the company’s adjustable rear lower control arm mounts, featuring six holes to adjust bar angles for different tracks and conditions.
Bringing Up the Rear
Just like a vehicle’s front suspension, the rear suspension needs the right combination of parts to make it operate correctly. Polyurethane and solid bushings help to eliminate wheel hop and let the suspension operate without bind.
Energy Suspension offers polyurethane bushings for both leaf springs and rear control arms, as well as a complete shackle kit with thicker plates and better hardware over originals. Global West’s Del-A-Lum bushings are also available for leaf springs and control arms, as well as shackle kits with similar features to polyurethane ones. TRZ Motorsports makes a unique spherical bearing for the housing side of 1964-1972 GM A-body vehicles, allowing better movement. For a balanced rear suspension on higher horsepower rides, anti-roll bars are the ticket. They are available from Competition Engineering, Smith Racecraft and TRZ Motorsports.
Shocks are an important part of any suspension, whether it is stock or highly modified. Lots of choices abound, and we’ve listed some great upgrade possibilities here.
Competition Engineering’s three-way shocks allow GM, Mopar, and Ford models to dial-in their settings for various track and street conditions. Front shocks are adjustable between 90/10, 80/20 and 60/40 settings (with the first numbers representing extension force, the second being the compression), while rears can be adjusted to a 70/30, 60/40 or 50/50 setting. These are available for most Ford, GM, and Mopar vehicles.
Lakewood offers front and rear drag shocks as a bolt-in for classic GM platforms, as well as other makes and models based on attachment and length. The shocks are a fixed setting design, with front shocks available in 90/10 (extension/compression) or 70/30 varieties, while the rears are set at a 50/50 balance. Their twin-tube construction and multi-stage valving provides for a strong shock with greater stability.
Calvert Racing offers a 90/10 (extension/compression) front shock as well as a nine-way, single-adjustable rear shock. The company’s front shock features dual-rate compression and high speed valving to keep the front end from bottoming out under hard landings from wheelstands. The rear shock is a twin-tube design, with an external dial to allow for easy adjustments. Shocks are available for popular Ford, GM, and Mopar models.
QA1 offers multiple versions of shocks for the street and racing market. From the standard aluminum-body, non-adjustable design to single- and double-adjustable designs, QA1 has hundreds of part numbers to serve the classic market in standard and coil-over applications. The newest shock from QA1 is the MOD Series Shocks, a double-adjustable design that allows the user to re-valve the shock on the vehicle—a first in the industry.
AFCO Racing has been in the shock game for more than two decades, offering single- and double-adjustable shocks to fit GM, Mopar and Ford vehicles. One of its newest shocks is the Big Gun X, a twin-tube, low-pressure gas shock that features a large range of settings for extension and compression designed to handle more powerful drag radial runners.
Viking Performance is unique in the shock market by offering a double-adjustable shock as the base design. The shocks are available to fit GM, Ford, and Mopar models in Warrior and Crusader valving. Based on an aluminum twin-tube design, the valving is based on power and vehicle use, with the Warrior designed for mostly street use with occasional track use. The Crusader is a digressive/progressive valving, specifically designed for each application. Viking also offers its Berserker Active Shock Management damper, a self-adjusting “smart” shock.
Strange Engineering offers shocks for Ford, Mopar, and GM models, with models designed specifically for the street and drag racing market. Double-adjustable shocks are based on an aluminum body, and can be ordered with custom valving to accommodate different horsepower and suspension setups.
Menscer Motorsports offers custom-built shocks for street and track use. The company’s team travels to several races a year, and use their experience to design shocks that hold up to the higher horsepower vehicles. Menscer can tune up a customer’s existing shocks to their specifications, and offer consulting and data analysis as well.
Santhuff’s Suspension Specialties builds custom shocks for track-only use. Based on aluminum or steel body construction, these double-adjustable shocks are employed by hundreds of Stock Eliminator and heads-up racers, including X275 racer and small-block leaf-spring record holder Ron Rhodes.
Spring Into Action
A coil-over shock isn’t a requirement for the best weight transfer and planting the tires. GM vehicles have employed Moroso Trick Springs for a couple decades to aid in weight transfer, since Moroso uses thinner coil springs wire and a taller design versus stock counterparts, allowing the front end to rise easier. Trick Springs are also available for the rear of 1968-1972 GM A-body models, allowing the rear end to launch more evenly and handle the repeated abuse of launches better than stock versions. For leaf spring rides, Calvert Racing’s Split Mono Leaf is the ticket for better control of body separation and planting the rear tires better without the suspension unloading.
Speaking From Experience
After thousands of laps on a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro that still utilizes the stock-style leaf spring rear suspension, Ron Rhodes made a name for himself in the small-tire racing world. Cracking off a 4.32 at 162mph pass with a nitrous-infused small-block in the popular X275 class shows he pays attention to the details, which has carried over to his business that does everything from paint and body to selling parts and setting up a chassis. What are some of his tips for making a muscle car suspension work?
“Start with a good-quality car that has a solid platform,” said Rhodes. “The frame needs to be right, and if it has a roll cage, it needs to be square. Once you’ve selected the parts you want to use, it’s more than just bolting them on. You need to make sure everything moves without binding, because that will allow the suspension to work. Scaling the car is important too.”
At the track, Rhodes looks to two things: shock adjustments and videotaping runs.
“You can’t replay your eyeballs or what you think you felt on a run,” said Rhodes. “Dataloggers can help as well, but I can normally do more for a chassis setup with a video.”
“Shocks are also important, and buying a good quality one does a lot,” Rhodes continued. “Ninety percent of the time, I only touch the front shocks on my car from run to run.”
AFCO Racing Products
800 | 632 | 2320
813 | 986 | 9302
661 | 728 | 9600
561 | 863 | 2188
Competition Engineering (a division of Moroso Performance Products)
203 | 453 | 6571
949 | 361 | 3935
877 | 470 | 2975
Hotchkis Sport Suspension
877 | 466 | 7655
Lakewood (a division of Holley Performance Products)
866 | 464 | 6553
910 | 491 | 2798
Moroso Performance Products
203 | 453 | 6571
952 | 985 | 5675
Rhodes Custom Auto
302 | 378 | 1701
Santhuff’s Suspension Specialties
361 | 364 | 3169
214 | 330 | 0660
SouthSide Machine (a division of Advanced Resources, LLC)
330 | 753 | 5300
800 | 328 | 3850
407 | 933 | 7385
952 | 469 | 4130