Appearances can be deceiving. At a car show or just bopping down the boulevard, an airbag car is generally considered, at best, a cruiser, or worse, a poser. The line on airbag cars has always been a cushy ride with the emphasis strictly on image. But after we had a chance to abuse one of Air Ride Technologies' air-suspended machines through a few corners for an afternoon, we changed our tune.
The real fun began when Air Ride's owner, Bret Voelkel, was foolish enough to trust us with his Marina Blue '66 Chevelle for a few days. The car is actually a nice blend of aggressive handling and a gnarly stance, and it only took a few minutes behind the wheel to receive our first thumbs-up. Later, we were almost mugged at the local auto parts store when we spent half an hour running down the option list on the Chevelle in the parking lot for the small crowd it attracted.
But trips to the parts store rarely include aggressive handling maneuvers other than dodging errant shopping carts, so we decided on a quick road trip into the mountains. The Angeles Crest Highway in Southern California is a favorite for ninja bikers and devotees of the art of apex-shaving, so that was where we pointed the Chevelle.
When we started our climb up to the top of the mountain, the morning mist had burned off, the temperature was in the low 70s, and the conditions were springtime perfect. Our launch time occurred just after lunch, which meant we had only a couple of slow-moving mommy minivans to circumvent on our ascent. At first, we decided not to push the Chevelle too hard but quickly countermanded that decision when the Air Ride A-body took the first indicated 35-mph corner at closer to 50 with not even a hint of body roll or tire squeal. During our prelaunch inspection, we had noted the 275/45R17 BFGoodrich g-Force T/A's on the rear and were a little surprised at the smaller 225/40R17s on the front until we realized that with the 'bags' capacity to decapitate worms, the smaller front tires are necessary to maintain fender clearance.
After our run up the hill, we turned around to make gravity work for us on the more thrilling downhill run. As soon as we performed the 180, the rearview mirror was full of some monkey in a Toyota sizing us up for a double-yellow banzai pass. But before import boy could work up the steam to impress his female passenger, we out-braked the goofball going into the first corner, leaving his front-wheel driver desperately understeering, while the Chevelle merely picked up the apex and laid down a nice part-throttle exit as our underachiever lost more ground through each successive corner.
The best part of this adventure was that the BFGs never let out a yelp, nor did the Chevelle roll much more than what any well-suspended machine would exhibit. Clearly, Air Ride had dialed in the airbag pressures to optimize the Chevelle's stick in the corners. Combined with the Strong Arm suspension modifications, the adjustable shocks, and the confidence-inspiring Baer brakes, the total package made our rush down the hill conclude way too soon. We pulled over to take a photo just before the bottom of the hill, and import pretender took another minute or so to reel us in. He didn't look over as he went by, but the pleasure was all ours.
Back at base camp, we decided to take a closer look at exactly what Air Ride had tweaked on this Chevelle. Under the hood is a mild-mannered 383 built by Jasper Engines and backed by a Bowler-built 700-R4 overdrive automatic leading to the 4.11:1-geared 10-bolt out back. Even with the overdrive, the deeper gears spin that 383 pretty hard on the freeway at 70 mph, and because there's no tach, we did the math in Overdrive that told us the 383 is spinning right around 2,600 rpm.
Because we could, we also dusted off our angle finder and discovered that one reason this Chevelle holds the corners so well is that the Air Ride folks have dialed 3 degrees of negative camber into the alignment. Negative camber tilts the top of the tire inboard, drastically improving corner-holding power and lateral g numbers. The negative side to this race-oriented camber setting is that negative (or positive) camber is a serious tire wear angle. Tilting the top of the tire inboard increases the load on the inside edge of the front tires when the car is tracking straight down the road. While a set of tires like these BFGoodrich g-Force T/A's could easily last 20,000-plus miles of aggressive driving with 3 degrees of negative camber, it's possible that the inside edge of the front tires would be dead in less than 5,000 miles. When we quizzed Bret about the setting, he said the front is probably a bit too low since they normally shoot for a 1-degree negative camber setting on street-driven cars. One advantage of an adjustable front suspension is that lowering the car with the taller spindles tends to dial in more negative camber, which is a quick way to improve handling. Setting a 1-degree camber at normal ride height will then dial in more negative camber (perhaps another degree or so) when the ride height is lowered to a more aggressive posture.
We came away more than impressed with the Chevelle's overall street manners, ride quality, and excellent steering response from the Flaming River steering box. On the Car Craft attaboy scale of 1 to 10 lug nuts (10 lugs being best), we'd give the Air Ride Chevelle a solid 8.5.
Tech NotesWhat: '66 Chevrolet Chevelle
Owner: Air Ride Technologies
Where: Jasper, IndianaEngine: Jasper Engines is virtually in Air Ride's backyard, so it didn't take much thought to choose a Jasper Ultimate 383 small-block Chevy. The motor starts out with a good four-bolt main iron block and adds a forged-steel stroker crank, performance connecting rods, and a set of 10.3:1-compression hypereutectic pistons to complete the rotating assembly. The next step is a flat-tappet hydraulic cam with 234/244 degrees at 0.050-inch tappet lift that also generates 0.488/0.510 inch of valve lift with help from a set of roller rockers. For cylinder heads, most Jasper Ultimate engines use a set of iron Dart Eagle heads, but this particular engine takes off a little weight with a set of Edelbrock Performer RPM aluminum heads with 2.02/1.60-inch stainless valves. Bret then spec'd a Weiand Stealth dual-plane and a Holley 770-cfm Street Avenger carburetor tuned by Willy's Carburetors. According to the Air Ride techsheet, this engine dyno'd at 430 hp at 5,500 rpm with no less than 430 lb-ft of torque. All that is fired by an MSD billet distributor, plug wires, and an MSD6Al ignition box.
Exhaust: Headers and exhaust take a beating when the ground gets close, but the Hooker 13/4-inch headers don't seem to mind as with the Flowmaster 21/2-inch system that now sits on the car.
Transmission: Bowler Transmissions is another Midwest firm that builds quality stuff, and the 700-R4 behind this 383 is a bolt-in, complete with its Tru-Shift TV cable linkage system and lockup control module conversion. The combination of the 700's 3.06:1 First gear ratio and the 4.11s in the rear makes the overall First gear a stout 12.5:1. To put that in perspective, that's the same overall First gear ratio as a TH350 trans with a 4.96:1 rear gear. No wonder this Chevelle scoots off the light with only a touch of the throttle. Gear ratio is a wonderful thing as long as the overdrive can bail you out on the freeway. Connecting the 700-R4 trans to the engine is a Bowler 2,400-rpm lockup converter.
Rear: The third member is an 8.2-inch 10-bolt but fitted with the aforementioned 4.11 gears, a Posi-traction to plant both tires in the corners, and is strengthened with a set of Moser axles.
Brakes: It doesn't take long to learn that corner diving is no fun without reliable brakes. That's why there is a Baer 13-inch GT brake kit on the front with equally large rotors on the rear, demanding a minimum of a 17-inch wheel just so the calipers will clear. This includes a complete booster assembly up on the firewall with a dual-reservoir master cylinder and adjustable rear brake proportioning valve.
Suspension: Here's where it really gets interesting. Let's start with the frontend, using Air Ride's complete Street Challenge kit that includes Strong Arm tubular upper and lower control arms and an integrated ShockWave airbag with a double-adjustable shock absorber. This also includes 2-inch-taller Fatman G-Max forged spindles and a Muscle Bar 13/8-inch front sway bar connected with Posi-Link end links. The rear suspension is also completely changed over to separate airbags controlled with ShockWave double-adjustable shocks. The rear also gets a 1-inch-diameter sway bar that bolts to the tubular lower control arms that match the tubular upper arms all fitted with poly bushings. Then all four 'bags are controlled by the Air Pod module that sits in the trunk over the rear axle kickup that contains the air tank, electric air compressor, and all the solenoids. The RidePro e2 control box sits conveniently between the seats with the capacity for storing three different airbag pressure configurations. Flaming River supplied the 12.7:1 steering box and tilt steering column.
Wheels/Tires: Those are 17x8-inch Billet Specialties Outlaws on the front and 17x91/2 on the rear (with 6 inches of backspacing) with 225/45R17 front and 275/40R17 BFGoodrich g-Force tires on the four corners.
Interior: When you carve corners, you need a solid base for your butt, which called for Cerullo GT seats and Crow Enterprises five-point harnesses.
Air Ride Technologies
350 S. Charles St