Several weeks ago I was sitting in front of a hotel in Bakersfield, California, when I saw something I should have expected. I was in town for a wedding, which had taken place the previous day, and now we were rolling out of town. And there, at the light just ahead of us, was a whole pack of pickup trucks with Frankensuspension, hissing up and back to within an inch of the ground in their bright paint schemes as if fidgeting while the red light took its sweet time. My favorite among them was an old orange Datsun, dragging its tail but beautifully restored nonetheless.
It was just one of the automotive subcultures I witnessed on my sojourn, but one that brings up a point. There seems to be a common misconception among the gearhead community that dropping your ride like it’s hot is merely an aesthetic improvement. Though it does look cool to have a wheel arch gap into which you’d have trouble sliding a quarter, lowering your car can actually improve your performance.
It starts with a very scientific term known as inertia. And since I’d have to don my white lab coat and horrible sweater to explain it properly, I’ll keep it simple by saying that inertia is the force that keeps an object moving in a certain direction once it’s already heading that way. Inertia is what causes body roll, that heavy leaning your car does around the corners. And body roll disrupts weight balance, which in turn hampers steering and braking.
To get rid of body roll, you need a force to resist that inertia. That’s where a performance suspension system will gladly volunteer. Tighter springs push against your chassis as they attempt body roll, keeping your car level and your weight more evenly distributed.
So couldn’t they just make stiffer springs of the same height? It would, after all, improve ground clearance, which can be nice if your autocross racer is also your daily tourer. But lower springs mean a lower center of gravity, and that helps reduce inertia overall.
There’s another advantage to lowering that I made an honest effort of explaining in my last pseudoscientific article about aerodynamics. The lower your car is, the more difficulty air has getting under it. At high speeds, this creates a rough vacuum, tugging your vehicle closer to the pavement. This is a form of downforce, the principle most voraciously hunted by supercar manufacturers, and it makes sure you don’t leave the ground like a Cessna when you’re driving fast enough to pace one at takeoff.
We’ve all seen F1 cars riding low enough to spark against the pavement with the slightest adjustment, and NASCAR racers run so low they could mow your lawn. But even in lightly modified production races, suspension is one of the first modifications teams implement. Most production cars are designed to float you along in comfort, but for your performance machine, you don’t really care to be lulled to sleep atop a pillow-soft set of springs.
If you want a practical way to improve your handling, braking, and high-speed stability, a lowered, high performance suspension should be among your earliest choices. And yes, Rocco, it will also look cool.
Image courtesy of eibach.com.