Ridetech Teaches Our Wagon How To Float Like a Butterfly

Yes, our ’82 Caprice longing to see 11’s and still be nimble enough to master the autocross track, is still alive. Our ambitions are high, and to be honest, saying our wagon was a little weak in the knees would be like saying a Corvette is a little faster than the Prius – huge understatement. We needed a suspension system that could adapt to the different conditions encountered on the drag strip and autocross track, and still be livable on the street.

Ridetech produces a great line of both air suspension and traditional coil spring setups for many popular cars, but they also have the ability and technical knowledge to help fit their suspension into almost any build. Before we get to our way-gone wagon, let’s overview some of the technology and reasons you might consider an air suspension for your project.

Air Suspension – The Basics

If  you think that air suspension is only for low riders and big rigs, then maybe you’ve been living under a rock for the last 15 years. Ridetech has been designing and manufacturing performance air suspension during this time that’s offered a fresh breath of air for the suspension market, and people have taken notice. There are three main reasons to consider an air setup for your project.

From ick to sick: A set of American Racing "Salt Flat Specials" aluminum rims and some super grippy Mickey Thompsons turned this aged wagon into a cool-looking street sleeper. Well, sorta.

Ride Quality – Your ride quality is only as good as the setup under the car. What might be great on the street, could be garbage on the track, and typically a softer spring is preferred on the street, and a stiffer one on the track. With an air suspension, you have the adjust-ability a custom with an aftermarket suspension, but it is only a few button pushes away verses hours of swapping springs.

Handling – One of the most unique facts about an air suspension is the progressive spring rate. As an air spring compresses, pressure in the bag continues to rise, it stiffens the ride. That means as you roll your car into a corner, the normal body roll in the vehicle will transfer weight to one side and increase the spring rate, which helps reduce said body roll, providing better performance.

Customization – It’s what building YOUR project is all about! With an air suspension, you can set the ride height of a vehicle exactly where you want it. If you add more weight to the car, such as an extra buddy taking a lap with you around the track, you can adjust for it. Think you car looks a little better an inch lower? Adjust for it.

You can enjoy normal driving on the street, lay it in the weeds when you park at a car show, or raise it up to avoid that nasty driveway that is always tearing up your bumpers. All without setting foot out side the car.

How Ridetech Makes It Work

Air suspension has come a long way, and these days the guys over at Ridetech are pumping out new ideas all the time. By replacing the traditional coil spring with an air bag, you open the doors for a number of wonderful things such as added adjust-ability, and ease of adjustment. Ridetech took the simple air bag setup to the next level years ago with their now tried and true Shockwave.

This product combines a oil shock with an air bag meaning you have an all in one suspension beauty – think of it like a coil over, but instead of a coil spring it has an air bag. Gone we’re the headaches of mounting external shocks to a suspension. These are mainly common in front suspension setups, where real estate isn’t common and can come at a high price.

Of course, one of the major factors in any air suspension is the air supply. Ridetech offers kits that come complete with air tanks and compressors in plenty of sizes for all the different places to tuck them away on a vehicle.

The neat thing is, you only need as big as you want. The only advantage to using the larger tanks is the increase of speed in lifting the car.

Could you just fill up the air bags and not run an air tank? Well sure, but you’d be missing out on all the wonders of adjust-ability associated with an air suspension. To keep from having to manually add air, it is common to equip the system with on board compressors. These won’t add much weight to the car, and they make the system pretty turn key once they are installed.

Ridetech makes controlling all of these air bags, compressors, and tank pressures easy through one interface.

Their e3 Air Management systems has lots of neat features packed into it, adding the perks of a four-way adjustable (the ability to adjust each corner of the vehicle independently) with a controller that is smaller than most smart phones these days.

The display offers two connector positions to ease it into a multitude of places within the driver’s reach and has a well back-lit screen and buttons making it easy to read in the day and night.

In addition is manually changing each air springs pressure, Ridetech’s e3 also has the option to program three different ride heights.

The main wiring harness connects at the top of the ECU shown in the photo above, while on the bottom are the plugs for the optional ride height sensors. These would allow the computer to automatically make air pressure adjustments to maintain a set ride height by sensors that are installed at each suspension corner.

“This is truly the easiest kit to install we’ve made yet,” says Tony Bicknell of Ridetech. It only requires 12v power, an ignition-on 12v trigger wire, and a spot to mount the computer.

Thanks to the M12 style water-proof connectors and air tight case, it can be mounted anywhere, even outside the passenger compartment. Inside the ECU, which is no larger that many common late model engine computers, are the brains which simplifies the install and use.

Ridetech even decided to build the relays for the compressors inside the small box as well. That means there is minimal wiring that needs to be done on the install step. In fact, every power connection is already built into the wiring harness, and clearly noted in the instructions that are supplied. If you group all the similar wires, you only have to make three electrical tie-ins to your existing system.

If the ECU is the brains of this operation, then the valves are the muscle. Ridetech offers different options for valves, which control the inflation and deflation of the air bags, so you can choose the right one for your build. Two or four way is the first option, four-way is the preferred route to take as it allows adjustment on all four corners of the vehicle, verses just two.

Tony adds, “Normally two way is for trucks wanting to add some extra support in the rear while towing. If you’re performance minded, then four way is for you.” The other option available is the size of the actual air lines. “The bigger the line, the faster the vehicle can be lifted,” say Tony. This comes down to personal preference as the system can lift the same amount of weight regardless of air line size.

Our Project – A Beat Up Wagon

Our abused wagon was in desperate need of of major surgery to repair the crumbled  joints that were the shocks, control arms, and pretty much every suspension part on this car. If we were going to be able to claim this car a success, this is where we really needed to shine.

Thanks to help from Spohn Suspension and Energy Suspension, our wagon was outfitted with new rear control arms, front sway bar, and steering – plus we were able to completely rebuild the front control arms. You could say that the guys over at Currie Enterprises technically kicked off the Ridetech install. They built a big 35 spline 9-inch with an Eaton Detroit Locker, and were kind enough to weld on the necessary brackets where the rear air springs will attach.

Parts List:

  • RidePRO e3 Digital (4 way system) [Part #: 30334000]
  • Tapered sleeve rear air springs [Part #: 90009100]
  • Ridetech Shockwaves [Part #: 11312402]

But all the trick suspension in the world can’t compensate for a miserable lack of rolling gear. To keep our land yacht glued to the ground, we contacted Mickey Thompson who supplied us with a set of Sportman S/T tires for the rear. Now, this is obviously not the ideal rubber choice to autocrossing, but they are true to the old school looks of a muscle car, which we love. Next were a set of 255/60R15 fronts that are more than capable of keeping our nose planted.

All this rubber was wrapped around a set of Wheel Pros‘ American Racing-brand Hot Rod Custom Salt Flat Specials. These lightweight aluminum rims are gorgeous and definitely hearken back to those early days on the dried lake beds that birthed hot rodding, and while an ’82 Caprice wagon doesn’t exactly scream “classic hot rod” the idea of a sleeper is, and that’s pretty much what we were aiming at.

Air Suspension – Where to start your install?

We decided to start with giving the major components a solid place to mount inside the sheet medal of our wagon. These included the 22 gallon air tank, two high power compressors, a set of valves, along with the ECU and the LCD control unit. Being that the car is a wagon, we wanted to keep all those awesome wagon perks – like being able to seat 8 passengers or fold all the rear seats down. So mounting just in the middle of the trunk wasn’t an option. We took advantage of the large cavities hidden behind what is now brittle interior pieces.

On the driver side, the rear of the car had a small compartment with a latch where we decided to build a simple angle-iron box to mount to give the valves a sturdy and hidden place to mount that could be easily accessed. We had planned to also mount the ECU here as well, but after underestimating the length of our car, the ECU’s final mounting place ended up being around 11-inches forward of this to ensure we had the proper length of wire to reach to all the components in the system.

Yes, it looks a little crude here, but a quick spray of good-old rattle can will have this looking like a factory piece when installed.

On the opposite side of the car sat the spare tire. With no need for the 30 year old rubber, we built another mount using some angle-iron and round tubing to mount it’s place. After some carefully placed bolts were welded on, we were able to mount both compressors underneath the air tank, and keep it all hidden behind the factory dress up.

Here’s what is all looks like installed in the car.

We then turned out attention to running the wiring for the kit. Make sure to mock up the components beforehand to ensure the supplied length of wire will work for your set up. Ridetech includes plenty of wire with the e3 kit, even enough to stretch to the far sides of our big B-Body boat. Almost all the work done in this step is plug and play.

After attaching the brass fittings to the various ports on the valve block and air tank, we wired in 12-volt power and a trigger wire coming from ignition-on from under the dash. Then, plugged in all the wire connectors and air lines. Routing the air lines throughout the car is simple, just avoid hot components such as compressors and exhaust tubing. Sharp bends that will kink the air line, and sharp edges should be avoided as well.

Installing the Shockwaves was easy as pulling the old shock and spring out of the car, and doing a little clearance work around the spring bucket.

We elected to use our Cornwell Plasma Cutter to do the dirty work of removing a small amount of material in the spring bucket to provide enough clearance for the air bag to fit when fully deflated. You could also use an angle grinder, cut off wheel, or whatever your favorite fabrication tool is.

We noted the position of both the air inlet, and the two shock adjustment knobs. To give us the option to adjust the shock while it is installed in the car, we mounted it so the knobs were facing toward the center of the car and could be reached without removing the tire.

Under the rear of the car, a little more welding was needed to give the air springs a place to mount. Thankfully, Ridetech included the necessary brackets for the top of the springs, just like the lower mounts already welded on the rear end. For our application, we found the best way to mount the springs would be to modify the mount slightly, by altering the gussets to match the curve of the frame rail.

One trick to consider when installing a mount for your air bag mount is to use a piece of scrap tubing to mock the system up. We based our mount off of the lower mount with the suspension compressed all the way up and our scrap medal trimmed to the compressed height the bag would support.

When using an air spring and not Ridetech’s Shockwave, the use of an external gas shock is required. Ridetech offers a full line of external single and double adjustable gas shock to complement their air systems. This shock is a double adjustable shock just like the front which will give us a wide range of adaptability to changes in type of driving.

Driving Impressions

We fired up the engine and the Ridetech system came alive filling the air tank. Within minutes we were rolling down the road on air. Right out of the gate, we noticed a huge improvement just in the overall ride quality.

The bumps in the back of the shop didn’t seem that bad any more as we rolled over them. But this suspension was designed with performance in mind, so we found ourselves some corners to bomb this wagon through. That, combined with our lightweight aluminum American Racing rims and hard-biting Mickey Thompson rubber, our two-ton wagon has no problem staying glued to the asphalt.

Charging through some of the local twisty roads in a 1982 Caprice might seem like it would be similar to sailing a boat through rough waters, and before tackling the job of improving the suspension, it was. Now we had confidence and adjustability to boot.

We found the seemingly endless amount of options to be fantastic, and spent most of the drive adjusting the pressures to move weight around on the car, adjusting body roll and weight transfer. This adjustability is going to really come in handy transitioning between the autocross and drag strip.

About the author

Tom Bobolts

Tom started working for Power Automedia in early 2008 at the young age of 20. Starting off as an intern spinning wrenches in the PowerTV garage, Tom cut his teeth helping us build the very project cars we feature. Since moving inside the office, most of his time is spent writing and shooting installs - but he still finds time to get out in the shop. Outside of work, Tom enjoys a variety of different motorsports from Street Bikes, Muscle Cars and just about anything that demands high amounts of horsepower.
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