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How to Make Your Muscle Car Handle: Revised Edition

How to Make Your Muscle Car Handle: Revised Edition

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How to Make Your Muscle Car Handle: Revised Edition

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Aug 14, 2020


The photos in this edition are black and white.

When automotive manufacturers stuffed large V-8 engines into intermediate-size cars, the American muscle car was born. Built from 1964 on, the vast majority of these amazingly fast machines did not carry cutting-edge chassis and suspension systems, and now these cars are up to 50 years old. Today, owners do not have to settle for poor handling and ride quality.

Muscle car and suspension expert Mark Savitske has built his business, Savitske Classic and Custom, on making muscle cars handle and ride at their best. With this updated edition, Savitske shows you what it takes to transform the handling of these high-horsepower machines. He explains the front and rear suspension geometry so you understand how it functions, and in turn, you realize how to get the most from a particular system. He also reveals the important aspects of spring rates, shock dampening, and ride height so you select the best spring and shock package for your car and application. He discusses popular high-performance tubular suspension arms and sway bars, so you can find the right combination of performance and adjustability. The suspension system has to operate as an integrated part of the car, so you're shown how to select best suspension package for a well-balanced and responsive car. He also discusses how to extract maximum performance from popular GM, Ford, and Mopar muscle cars.

You can harness the performance potential of your muscle car and put much more power to the ground with critical chassis and suspension updates and products. A muscle car that carries modern suspension technology not only provides far better handling and ride comfort, but it is also much safer. How to Make Your Muscle Car Handle is the essential guide to unlocking the handling and performance potential of your muscle car. If you yearn for better handling, comfort, and performance for your muscle car, this is the book for you.

Aug 14, 2020

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How to Make Your Muscle Car Handle - Mark Savitske



The American Muscle Car—the term conjures images of tires smoking, the sound of gears banging, and the aura of raucous drag strips and neon-bathed cruise nights. They’re a true slice of Americana.

Their strengths are also their weaknesses, though. Basing them on regular family cars kept their prices low, so the common American could afford to buy one. But frequently it also meant that their basic designs were never intended to have big horsepower or to go fast.

Their big, simple engines and great aftermarket support make it very easy to build huge horsepower, but their antiquated chassis and brakes are hard pressed to deal with it. It’s all too easy to wind up with a very cool, very fast car that handles like a shopping cart. Today even the cheapest economy cars, minivans, and SUVs drive really nice and handle quite well, and we all take it for granted.

Like the old AM radios they came with, vintage muscle cars seemed just fine back in the day. Some even came with a handling package option which was pretty much the equivalent to adding reverb and an 8-track to your AM radio. But, after listening to the stereos in new cars with CD players, six speakers, and so on, those old AM radios sound really lame. Sure you can still listen to an old AM radio, but who wants to? Likewise, the drivability and handling qualities of traditional muscle cars are very poor compared to what you’re used to driving today. Sure, you can still drive them around, but now you know what you’re missing!

It’s quite common to upgrade from old AM radios to modern sound systems. You can do the same with the chassis to get modern performance out of older cars and the improvement can be even more dramatic.

Surprisingly, some of these older AM chassis designs lived on long after the first muscle-car era faded away and were produced into the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. Today they’d be called Heritage platforms. They can still benefit from the same kinds of improvements as the older cars they were derived from. In this book, I refer to some of those cars too.

I doubt that today’s typical muscle-car enthusiasts ever thought that their boring high school geometry classes would help them with their muscle cars. Don’t feel bad if this includes you; at the time I didn’t either! But when it comes to performance handling, geometry is where it all starts. It’s the foundation everything else is built upon and, if it’s a poor foundation, all the trick add-on parts in the world are just going to be stop-gap fixes. It’s like repairing a large rust hole with body filler and spray paint. The hole is fixed, but not the way it should be and the underlying problem is still there.

I doubt most classic-car guys have ever given geometry a thought. Why should they? After all, their cars were designed by teams of engineers who wanted to get the very best performance out of the cars they designed, right? Well, you’d think so, but the facts say different. The truth is, most of the muscle cars we all know and love weren’t originally designed for performance and have suspension geometry that (by today’s standards) is not just lackluster; it’s downright poor.

The spring rates, shocks, sway bars, and tires of the day also left a lot to be desired but at least they’re easy to change. I’ve never heard a good reason why Detroit and Dearborn designed much of the geometry the way they did—they certainly knew better. But if you want to make them drive and handle like modern performance cars, you need to make some changes!

The standard approach to improving handling in these cars has been to pretty much ignore the geometry issues and put bandages on the car. In other words, if the suspension does bad things when it moves, then don’t let it move so much. It’s a lot like the old joke that starts, Doc, it hurts when I do this—.

For whatever reason, the front end geometry of most classic muscle cars is just plain backward by modern standards. You can either bandage it or you can do it right and fix it.

Now this is a serious high-performance suspension. This one works the way it looks too. (Photo Courtesy Jamie Kimber)

For example, massive sway bars, larger than those on 180-mph road race cars, are a common fix to restrict individual wheel movement and control excessive body roll. Arms and bushings, which cause suspension binding, are another. Then, they’re usually finished off with performance alignment specifications, which offer improved performance over stock as well as firmer springs and shocks. Can you improve a car’s handling with these methods alone? Sure, but it’s an imperfect solution because you’re basically turning it into a 3,500-pound go-kart.

Many think that traditional muscle cars are so huge and heavy that they’ll never handle well no matter what you do to them. In truth, they’re much lighter and more svelte (in most cases) than modern muscle cars. You can easily see that in this photo of a Chevelle parked in front of a gray Charger SRT-8. Oh, wait … that’s an aircraft carrier, which is somewhat larger and heavier than a new Charger, but you get the idea. (Photo Courtesy Rich Bove)

Like a go-kart, it’s likely to be stiff, rough riding, and skittish—especially on bumpy roads. This fix also tends to make the vehicle feel heavy and unresponsive. The typical excuse for this is that these cars are big and heavy, so of course they don’t feel responsive and nimble. To the contrary, traditional muscle cars are often lighter and much less bulky than contemporary performance cars. Cars like the new Dodge Challenger and Chevy Camaro have great performance and looks to boot, but parked next to the originals, they’re big and bulky by comparison. Look up the curb weight of a new Pontiac G8, Charger SRT-8, Challenger, or Mercedes CLK/AMG, and you’ll be shocked. Some of them outweigh a typical old-school muscle car by 700 pounds or more! There’s no reason that older (and often lighter) cars can’t be just as (or more) responsive and nimble than their modern counterparts, if you do your homework and choose parts wisely. Geometry and physics determine how the car performs. These rules govern the universe, and will prevail no matter how old your car is.

A more progressive method for improving handling is to first analyze the cars’ design and geometry, look for problem areas, and then fix them. In my mind, a car with deeply flawed suspension geometry is broken, and it should be fixed before you proceed with any other suspension modifications.

To that end, I begin by going over some terms and suspension theory to give you a solid grip on the basics. I also look into the problem areas, various solutions, and review the selection of aftermarket suspension parts available for specific cars. This knowledge can be a powerful tool. You’ll soon be able to look at components and decide whether they’re likely to make an improvement in performance or not. Even if you’re not completely sure of how well a part will work, you’ll know exactly what questions to ask to find out.

A good understanding of general suspension technology benefits you whether your car is a mild Restomod or a hardcore road racer. (Photo Courtesy Total Control Products)

There are many potential performance levels to choose from. They range from simple, inexpensive tweaks to improve drivability and safety, to all-out road race packages with handling that rivals today’s best performance cars. Some of these parts and modifications are well suited to drag racing as well as cornering. Milder mods can be used on cars that retain a totally stock look, while the more extensive ones result in more of a Restomod, G-Machine, or Pro-Touring car. These cars are a blend of thoroughly modern performance and technology wrapped in classic style. It’s a compelling combination that’s become very popular, and for good reason. It combines the very best of both worlds.

Whether your idea of fun is open course road racing, beating up on Porsches at the local autocross, sprinting down some winding country roads on a Saturday afternoon, or just taking your muscle car out for a nice cruise, you’ll find this book full of useful information. If there’s anything better than a fast muscle car, it’s a fast muscle car that handles!



The first step is to go over some suspension terms and definitions so you can get a handle on things. Don’t panic—I’m not going to bore you to tears with an endless list of esoteric suspension terms. If you were building road race cars from scratch, you’d need to know every fine point of suspension design, but that’s not the goal of this book.

Standard Definitions

You probably know a lot of these terms already and some others ring a bell, but you may not be clear on their exact meaning. The following explanations are intended to be simple but useful. When you understand the concepts, you can start to apply them, then see how they relate to each other, and finally use that knowledge to improve your muscle car’s handling.

Pickup Points

Simply put, these are the pivoting points of the suspension. The pivot axis of each bushing, the center of the pivot ball in each ball joint, and the tie rod ends are all pickup points. Invisible lines connecting these points (and also the arcs they swing in) dictate the geometry of the suspension. This forms the foundation the rest of the suspension is built upon. Geometry determines much of the physics, and the physics determine how the car drives and handles. Later in this chapter, I discuss moving some of these pickup points to achieve some big performance gains.

Inside every ball joint is a pivot ball. The ball-joint’s pivot or pickup point is at the center of that pivot ball.


This is the vertical angle of a tire in relation to the ground. Zero degrees means perpendicular to the ground, or straight up and down. One degree of positive camber means the top of the tire is leaning outward by 1 degree from vertical. One degree of negative camber means the top of the tire is leaning inward toward the centerline of the car by 1 degree. The two main aspects of camber are static and dynamic. Static refers to the settings when you align the front end. Dynamic camber changes when the suspension moves as a result of the suspension geometry and vehicle movement. Since tires tend to have the best adhesion when their tread is flat on the road (at lower speeds and slip angles) or at negative camber (at high speeds and extreme slip angles), properly setting and controlling camber is very important.

The pickup points for an A-arm are at the center of each pivot bushing and the one inside the ball joint.

Here are the pickup points seen from the front, as the arm would be mounted on a car. The curvature of the arm has no effect on the geometry; it is determined solely by the pickup point locations.

One of the best tuning aids you can buy is a good, portable caster/camber gauge. This SPC Performance Fastrax unit has been a staple at race tracks for years, but is just as quick and easy to use at home. This one is fitted with optional adapters to make accurate toe measurements easier and faster. SPC makes these to fit everything from go-karts to monster trucks. (Photo Courtesy SPC Performance)

For our purposes, positive camber (either static or dynamic) is generally not a good thing. You’ll see why in later chapters.


The tilt of the spindle, more correctly called the steering knuckle or upright, toward the front or rear of the car in relation to the ground is its caster angle. If the top of the spindle is tilted toward the front of the car, it’s called negative caster. If it’s tilted toward the rear of the car, it’s positive caster. Mild or negative caster settings tend to make manual steering cars easier to steer, but more positive caster provides better on-center feel, more steering feedback, and much better straight-line and high-speed stability. Guess which one you want to shoot for in your performance car? Note that since caster is measured in relation to the ground, changes in the car’s rake or ride height from front to rear alters the caster. Modern cars tend to run a lot of positive caster, with 7 degrees being common and some cars running as much as 12 degrees. Only specifically designed suspensions work well with such high numbers, but older cars can still benefit greatly from higher-than-stock positive caster settings.

Roll Center (RC)

This one is a little harder to explain because you can’t see it or easily demonstrate it. But it’s still very important. When any car corners, it grips the road with the tires at ground level, but the body and weight of the car are much higher off the road. There is a certain amount of lean (or roll) caused by centrifugal force. Think of the leaning car as an upside-down pendulum. The roll center is the pivot point of that pendulum.

Every car has both a front and rear roll center and they are seldom the same height. In traditional front-engine cars with solid rear axles, the rear roll center is usually higher. A line drawn between these two points is referred to as the roll axis. Think of this as if the car’s body is put on a rotisserie and the roll axis is a shaft going through the car that it pivots on. Why do you care about this? Because the height of the roll centers and roll axis partially determine how much spring rate and roll rate the car requires to handle well. They also determine how body roll affects suspension loading.

This diagram displays extreme negative camber. The top of the tire is angled inward toward the centerline of the vehicle.

Here you see extreme positive camber; the top of the tire is angled out and away from the centerline of the car.

This diagram shows zero camber. The tire is straight up and down.

Zero caster is when the pivot axis of the spindle is straight up and down in side view.

Negative caster promotes directional instability whch makes it undesirable.

In many cars (and traditional muscle cars certainly fall into this category) the roll centers actually move around quite a bit while you drive. If you’re thinking that sounds like a bad thing, you are right! It means that the spring rate and roll rate requirements of the car can change dramatically mid turn. Since it’s rather difficult to swap out your springs or sway bars while your car is moving, you want to have the roll centers in a favorable location and keep them there if possible. Roll center movement is called migration, and it can move vertically and laterally.

When you’re talking to your car buddies about your suspension improvements, mention that you’ve minimized lateral roll center migration and you’ll instantly become the new local suspension guru. Just make sure you read the rest of the book before you say it because lots of questions are sure to follow.

Positive caster is when the top of the spindle is tilted rearward toward the fire wall in side view. Positive caster is always desirable in performance suspensions.

It’s generally difficult to alter roll center locations on a factory-built car, but advancements in aftermarket suspension parts have made it much easier, and I address how and why to change them later on. Note that some race car books have said that moving the roll centers to tune the suspension isn’t the best idea due to its complex repercussions on other aspects of the suspension geometry (such as the camber curves). That’s true in a way, as it is complex and it shouldn’t be toyed with casually. But, they’re assuming you have a very competent suspension design to start with and that it only needs fine tuning.

This diagram shows the roll center (black dot). Notice that in dive and roll the RC has migrated about 6 inches laterally. You can also see the instant center (blue dot), which is at the convergence point of the upper and lower A-arms.

Read on to see that it’s often very beneficial to change more than just the roll center on some muscle cars, so this can really work in your favor.

Center of Gravity (CG)

This is the top-to-bottom, side-toside, and front-to-back balance point of the car. In other words, if you could hang the car from a chain at this single point, it would be perfectly balanced. That may not seem important, but this point determines the car’s front-to-rear weight bias and also affects how much the car rolls in the turns. The vertical distance between the CG and roll center (RC) forms a moment arm. In physics, a moment is loosely defined as torque caused by load applied some distance from a pivot point. In this case, it’s basically an invisible lever, like a pry bar that causes the car to roll in the turns. The upper end of the moment arm is pushed on by the mass of the vehicle and centrifugal force. Shortening this lever reduces its leverage and reduces body roll. This can be done by lowering the CG, raising the RC, or both. All else being equal, a lower CG is generally a good thing. Lowering the ride height of a car is the easiest way to do it. It can also be done by situating heavy components, such as the engine and transmission, lower into the chassis.

Here you see the rear instant center (or IC) of a 4-link rear suspension in side view. By moving the pickup points of the rear trailing arms the location of the IC can be moved to obtain the desired performance from the rear suspension.

Instant Center (IC)

This is another one you can’t see, but it’s pretty easy to visualize. If you draw an imaginary line through the pickup points of two suspension arms, the instant center is the point where those lines converge. There can be a lot more to it, but that’s as complicated as we need to get for now. This is a handy piece of information for everything from helping to determine tie rod location (for minimizing bump steer) to making a car hook better at the drags.

Roll Stiffness

Plain and simple, roll stiffness is defined as the car’s resistance to body roll. It’s determined mainly by the rate of the springs and anti-roll bars (sway bars), and it plays a big part in determining how many degrees the car rolls on its roll axis when cornering.

Spring Rate

Spring rate is a measure of stiffness and is generally expressed in the number of pounds it takes to compress a given spring 1 inch. This measurement is then multiplied by the number of inches the spring is compressed. So, a 500-pound-per-inch (lb/in) spring requires 500 pounds to compress it 1 inch, 1,000 pounds to compress it 2 inches, 1,500 pounds to compress it 3 inches, and so on.

Some springs have a progressive rate. It’s very common on multi-leaf springs, but some coil springs are of the progressive-rate type as well. If a coil spring has its coils spaced much closer together on one end when compared to the other, it’s a sure sign that its rate is progressive. For example, a progressive-rate spring may start out at 500 lbs/in, but the next inch of compression may increase the rate by 550 pounds, the next by 600 pounds, and so on. At 3 inches of compression, this spring’s rate would be 1,650 lbs/in. This is often touted as an advantage, but it has its pitfalls as well. (See Chapter 3 for more details.)

Shock Rate

Shock rate is a way to express the amount of dampening provided by a shock absorber. Shock rates aren’t as easy to express as spring rates because, like progressive-rate springs, shock dampening rates vary throughout their travel. Shocks also have different rates in jounce (compression) and rebound (extension). Additionally, these rates can vary with shock piston speed. As a result, accurate shock data is generally expressed in charted curves. Adjustable shocks have different curves for each setting or combination of settings.

Tire Slip Angles

Due to cornering forces and tire distortion under load, the actual direction that a car travels in and the direction the tires are pointed in are different during cornering. The difference between these directions is called the slip angle. Equal slip angles, front and rear, yields a neutral-steering car. Higher slip angles in the front cause understeer. Higher slip angles in the rear cause oversteer.

Shock dampening can’t be expressed in a single number like spring rates; it has to be charted in curves. This chart shows the 16 different curves available on a VariShock externally adjustable shock. (Photo Courtesy VariShock)

This is a progressive-rate coil spring. They’re easy to identify due to the different spacing between the coils. Progressive-rate springs are generally reserved for certain specific applications. (Photo Courtesy Total Control Products)


When a car exhibits understeer, the front end of the car demonstrates some resistance to turning. In other words, the car feels like it wants to go straight when you want it to turn. This is often referred to as push. Understeer is present in most factory cars because people seem to react to it naturally. If the car’s not turning enough they just turn the wheel some more. Understeer can be increased by dynamic positive camber gain and tire sidewall deformation. In general, more front spring rate or front sway bar rate increases understeer. Excessive understeer tends to make a car feel heavy and unresponsive.

As lateral load is applied to a tire it starts to slip sideways. As long as the tire still maintains some grip it continues to function in the usual manner but it moves at an angle to its centerline. This is the tire’s slip angle. If the

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