Project Respect – Ultimate Chassis Renovation

In previous installments, this 1991 Camaro, known as “Project Respect” has been treated to exhaust and tire upgrades as well as a 75-shot nitrous install and some ignition goodies. Each has had its due impact on the car’s quarter-mile performance, but now its time to update the two decade-old underpinnings of this F-body runner and improve on the archaic suspension pieces with some help from Spohn Performance and Lakewood.

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The 1991 RS Camaro was picked up for an initial outlay of a mere $1500, and a staged project plan was developed for it. None of the individual stages were to cost more than the purchase price, an approach most of us would be taking unless Aunt Millie had passed on and left us a pile of 1957 IBM stock certificates.

Now, regardless how we’ll be enjoying this Camaro in the final stages, the importance of a sturdy chassis is paramount. Drag, autocross, or street performance all rely on the suspension doing its job, and all those years on the road have taken their toll on our Camaro’s underpinnings. This time around, we’re actually going to take on both the front and rear suspension so the $1500 limit is going to be stretched somewhat, but you could easily break it into two installments to budget it over a few more paychecks.

Greater than the Sum of its Parts

Our objective was to increase traction and handling for both street driving and dragstrip duty. While it’s certainly possible to source everything a la carte, we wanted to put together a complete package from one supplier to make sure everything would work together, and that’s exactly what we found from Spohn Performance. From the farm country of Pennsylvania, this father and son operation has developed as solid reputation for quality high performance components.

The complete front suspension, including a tubular K-member and A-arms, manual steering rack, and a coilover conversion including Lakewood struts.

When we talked with Steve Spohn, he was knowledgeable and willing to jump on board with a couple of our project cars. This Camaro is going to benefit from a number of Spohn products, including:

Mild steel tubular K-member – Fitted with coilover upper mounts, motor mounts, and Pinto manual rack mounts, the weight savings available from this piece alone makes it worth doing. Is a tubular K-member for you? We posed this question to Steve Spohn, and he told us, “It depends on how the tubular K-member is built and designed. There are many tubular K-members out there that are built to be as lightweight as possible. That type of K-member is designed to be used a quarter mile at a time. We have built all of our tubular K-members for street-driven applications, as that is our biggest customer base. We use larger OD and thicker wall tubing, heavier gauge brackets and incorporate extensive gusseting throughout. We have never had any durability issues with our K-members. They may weigh 5 or so more pounds than some other units on the market, but they are built for long term durability.”

Manual steering rack kit – Using a Ford Pinto steering gear, the old steering box and Ackerman linkage can be eliminated. Improved response and road feel result from the change and reliability is increased. The weight and complexity of the power steering system are also gone. So, is this going too far for a streetable car? Again, Steve Spohn schooled us on the topic. “The Pinto manual rack is really for the drag-only car or the drag/limited street car. With skinny tires on the front, the steering is still fairly easy. With stock size or larger tires on the front the steering is pretty easy once rolling, but at low speed parking you’ll work a little harder for sure. As I said, it is really for the drag car looking to drop weight.”

Tubular A-arms with Delrin spherical joints – The lower front control arms are going tubular as well. Weight savings is only part of the deal here. Fitted, in this case, with Delrin spherical joints, the suspension will be much firmer and more predictable, without sacrificing too much comfort on the boulevards. Also being completely adjustable, we can adjust for camber with these.

F-body tubular subframe connectors – Solidly linking the car’s front and rear subframes helps to eliminate flex during hard launches and even provides a more confident ride going to and from the track. These Spohn components are welded into the Camaro’s body and feature triangulation for even better results with minimal weight gain.

Front coilover suspension system, with QA1 2.5″ x 12″, 300 lb/in coilover springs – The modern design of a coil over front suspension simplifies movement and provides easy adjustability of ride height. Coupled with the tubular lower arms, the overall arrangement is light, strong and amazingly durable. This will also allow us to set ride height virtually anywhere we want it to be.

The rear suspension incorporates a new torque arm, lower control arms, Panhard bar, and anti-sway bar.

Drag rear sway bar – Power spent twisting the car on its suspension is power wasted, so the new Spohn sway bar uses hefty links and a large diameter bar to keep body roll under control. The axle tube brackets are also much beefier and come with brand new poly bushings.

Full length, adjustable torque arm – Replacing the factory original torque arm with a tubular version improves performance by increasing strength. The adjustability built into this piece gives you the ability to vary pinion angle to control the ‘bite’ of the rear tires.

Rear lower control arms, with Delrin spherical joints – Combined with the torque arm, the rear lower control arms form a three link structure to correctly maintain the axle position through its full suspension travel. Once again, the choice of Delrin spherical joints eliminates sloppy rubber bushings and improves control, but without sacrificing a kidney in the process thanks to a harsh ride. These are also adjustable for length.

Adjustable Panhard bar, with Delrin spherical joints – While the torque arm and control arms manage the fore/aft and up/down motion of the rear axle, side-to-side control is needed as well. The Panhard bar has only one purpose – managing lateral loads on the rear axle. That way, there is no compromise in geometry or performance. This piece also offers an adjustable joint for proper rear end alignment – something you won’t find in the stock version.

Lakewood Street/Strip Shocks

Also contributing to this stage of Project Respect’ development is the Lakewood division of Mr. Gasket. Lakewood shocks are the dampers of choice for many drag racers, having long established a reputation for performance and durability. Getting a solid balance between street and strip performance is important and this tried and true recipe does the trick. Up front, a set of Lakewood 70/30 Street/Strip struts will be pressed into service, while a pair of 50/50 shocks will look after the back end.

Since this is not a dedicated race car, the 50/50’s represent the best all-around choice with their ability to properly load the rear wheels to prevent over-reaction and wheel hop, while the 70/30’s promote rear wheel loading on launch. We asked Paul Grabowski, Marketing guru for Lakewood Shocks, about this arrangement.

“Lakewood Drag Shocks have been precisely tuned for superior weight transfer that remains consistent pass after pass. Additionally, the multistage valving provides more stability and control mid-track as well as reduced brake dive at the big end,” he told us. “90/10 front shocks and struts are intended for track use only and provide the maximum front to rear weight transfer, while 70/30 shocks and struts can be used for street/strip applications.” That’s just what we’re looking for.

Part 1 -Front Suspension Installation

Up on the hoist, you can see the potential weight savings that are available. There’s a lot of metal here, and cutting out the weight is like double-dipping. The car will go faster because it is lighter, plus the front end will be easier to bring up on launch, which gives better traction at the back tires. We might not be putting daylight under the front tires just yet, but weight transfer still helps make the most of the horsepower we already have.

Before going too far, the engine needs to be supported since the engine mounts are attached to the K-member. Once the engine is free of the mounts, wholesale removal of the front suspension can begin. The wheels and tires come off first, revealing the front struts bolted to the spindle assemblies, which also hold the brakes.

An impact gun and large wrench will make short work of this hardware, but you need to support the lower control arm with a floor jack first. This lets you safely drop the LCA when taking out the spring. Some people chain the spring first, in case it binds and pops out, which could be dangerous.

After disconnecting the sway bar link, the LCA can be dropped and the spring removed. Sometimes a little extra persuasion is needed to get it out of the seat. We’re going to take the LCA out entirely, so the brake hydraulic line has to be disconnected and a couple of large bolts removed where the arm connects to the K-member.

The OEM arms are thick stampings clearly designed to be inexpensive to produce in vast quantities, rather than with lightness as a priority. With both sides removed, it’s almost time to pull the factory K-member.

Because we’re upgrading this Camaro to rack and pinion steering, the current steering box and linkage are removed. Before finally unbolting the K-member, it has to be supported from underneath and a transmission jack comes in handy for that.

When all the stock components are off, you’ll have a pile that adds up to about 84 pounds. As you can see, working on an 18 year old car means dealing with fasteners rusted or seized – it’s all just part of working on an older vehicle.

Installing the Spohn/Lakewood Front Suspension Components

Though our Camaro is a California car and didn’t have multiple layers of undercoating or rust stalactites hanging off, we still took the opportunity to clean things up a bit before we started putting our new suspension back on.

This test fitting of the Spohn K-member went perfectly. Here you can see the new Pinto-style rack and pinion gear already installed. The durable powder coating will keep this hardware looking good for years, and because the K-member is designed to bolt up just like the factory piece, it’s actually a very simple swap.

Getting the front suspension together starts with assembling the front coil-over units. The Lakewood struts need a slight modification at the top of their housing in order to allow the threaded coilover spring perches to slip over the body. A moment with a die grinder is all it takes.

With the adjustable spring perch fitted to the strut, the spring goes on and we’re ready to fit it to the replacement upper strut mount.

At this point, the new lower control arm can be installed and the original spindle assembly mounted to the strut on top and to the ball joint on the lower control arm.

The work that remains up front is to repeat the same steps on the other side, then connect the steering rack’s input shaft to the column and the rack’s tie rod ends to the spindles.

Part 2 – The Rear Suspension

Out back, our primary goal is to trade the heavy, nonadjustable rear components for lighter, stronger pieces that will let us dial in the suspension. The combination of the torque arm and the lower control arms make for an unequal-length suspension like the kind you’ll find in the front of some cars, but in this case it’s turned sideways. The three arms provide longitudinal location of the rear axle, as well as controlling the vertical movement to minimize pinion angle changes on the axle.

The sole function of the Panhard bar is to control lateral movement of the axle. Having an adjustable bar allows us to center the axle housing in the car for a given ride height, because the axle will shift slightly from side to side with changes in ride height.

With the car up on the hoist and the rear axle supported, it takes just a few fasteners to remove the factory torque arm, which is bolted to the differential housing and pivots in a bushing attached to the tail of the transmission.

The original torque arm pivot mounted to the transmission housing has been replaced with a heavy duty Spohn unit. The OEM clam shell mount gets reused, though you will need to remove the old rubber bushing and backing to make room for the new polyurethane piece. The replacement torque arm is set in place and connected to the existing bracket on the axle housing, re-using the stock bolts.

The Spohn torque arm has a turnbuckle-style adjuster that allows you to set pinion angle without removing the torque arm from the car.

The lower control arms are just as straightforward to replace as the torque arm. Getting the old fasteners apart is likely to be the most time consuming part. Before we installed them, we set them to the same length as the stock pieces to have the proper baseline for alignment. Because they’re adjustable, it’s easy to square the axle to the car.

Before tightening down the front ends of the lower control arms, we have to connect one end of the tubular subframe connectors. These are going to add a lot of chassis structure and reduce twisting of the unit body during hard launches.

After preparing both the braces and the Camaro’s body metal, the connectors are welded into place. If you’ve never felt the difference subframe connectors can make, you’ll be hugely surprised at the result. The next step is to install the rear lower control arms and put the suspension back together.

What remains is mostly bolt-together work which includes installing the springs, shocks and rear sway bar. Everything’s designed to be easy to install using the stock mounting points, and to be easy to maintain for longevity in season after season of racing use.

Outside, you can see that we set the car to the same ride height as stock for the time being. This helps aid in our sleeper look.

A quick road manners check confirms that this Camaro is ready for just about anything. The Camaro is now lighter and stiffer thanks to Spohn and Lakewood. It not only rides better, but there is also a night-and-day difference in the reaction from a stop. The Camaro now transfers weight over the rear wheels and hooks solidly. Keep an eye out for future installments when we take our F-body to the track to show exactly how much these pieces helped.

About the author

Kevin Shaw

Kevin Shaw is a self-proclaimed "muscle car purist," preferring solid-lifter camshafts and mechanical double-pumpers over computer-controlled fuel injection and force-feeding power-adders. If you like dirt-under-your-fingernails tech and real street driven content, this is your guy.
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