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Takeaways I Learned From Lowering My Car

Robby DeGraff October 9, 2017 All Things Hoon 23 Comments


After years and years of having friends joking call my fourth-gen Chevrolet Camaro a monster truck, I decided to splurge on a whole bag of new, suspension goodies. The end goal was to lower the ride height close to two-inches all-way around. And do it entirely by myself. To draft a simple timeline before jumping into what happened, heavy cardboard boxes filled to brim with parts arrived at my doorstep back in May… and I finally twisted the handle left on my floor jack to bring the car down to the ground on Labor Day.

In a continuous effort and journey to learn all that I can about cars and how they work, I strive to do as much work on my own vehicles when things break, snap, burn out or pop. I’d rather spend the time struggling to master the solution behind a mechanical uh-oh than spend a fortune at a local repair shop. Though, for safety’s sake and if said task is precariously above my under-the-hood ability level- I’ll drop it off with my trusted mechanic. Key word, trusted.

In the eleven or so years of driving and being actively a car geek, I’ve built my way up through DIY-ing things. From oil changes and tire rotations, on to body work, installing new sway bars, taking a whole bumper off a car to replace an HID headlamp ballast (Curse you Subaru, grr), brakes and even throwing on a catback exhaust on a buddy’s WRX. Taking apart, tearing off all the old OEM suspension that rolled out from the factory back in 2000 and swapping in new struts, shocks, springs and bump stops was a whole different and new challenge. Here are a few take-aways that I reflect on now that the project is finished:

  1. Do Your Homework.
    There’s no real complete, step-by-step detailed instruction manual for lowering your car. I had to dig deep in the forums and Facebook groups for beta and resort to YouTube videos and Google Image searches for clarity and guidance. I’m incredibly grateful for the short how-to clips I watched underneath my car, the iPhone propped up in my socket case as I tried to replicate what I saw on that cracked dusty screen. I can’t even begin to imagine ten, twenty even longer back, years ago when the gift of the internet wasn’t available to aspiring DIY car enthusiasts. I pieced together and printed multiple discussions and threads I saw online and flipped through the pages during each step of the build. Before I started the build, I compiled all of my parts and made my first mistake. When browsing Rock Auto’s catalog, I ordered what I thought was the correct front strut. Life happened, distractions blossomed and I put-off my lowering project for a month or so. When time came to slide the cherry red spring over the front strut, nothing lined up. And I was well beyond my 30-day money back return grace period. There’s $200 down the drain I thought. Taking the web by storm, I looked up dozens of photos of new front struts on and off a similar year car, realizing Rock Auto actually listed the wrong part on their website. An exchange of emails later, I had replacement struts, the right ones, in my hands. New bump stops also needed to be ordered and fabricated to fit the car as well, who would’ve guessed that for half the cost and a little metal cutting, Jeep parts were compatible on a Camaro? Again, homework.
  2. Cheap Tools Suck and Sometimes The Pros Just Have To Do It.
    Springs are dangerous. Head to YouTube and literally type in “Car Spring Fail” and watch in horror. Every blip of information and testimonial I read about replacing the front suspension cautioned the removal of the front struts and attached springs. Suggestions flooded in about renting a spring compressor and judiciously adjusting it, bit by bit, and then slowly removing the assembly out from the car. I went to two different auto parts stores to rent spring compressors and well, both were missing parts and clearly hadn’t been inspected before being redistributed out to the public. One rentable spring compressor from Advanced AutoParts screamed “You’ll die using me, shut my case and go get your deposit back now.” Mmmmm that’s a risk I’d rather not take. I read you could by-pass having to use a compressor on this step and actually wore my motorcycle helmet when removing the old strut assembly out from the car. Safety first, right? I solicited my trusted my mechanic and his legitimate shop spring compressor to mount the new lowering spring onto the upgrade new strut. This ongoing project also constantly cued thoughts and desires to buy better quality tools, rather than the generic, basic starter tool packs you’d get with a cheapo tool box. I snapped multiple sockets, socket extensions and adapters in the finishing torque wrench adjusting. Let’s just say, my Christmas wish list for this year has grown. Air compressor and air tools I’m looking at you.
  3. Be Patient Because Nothing Ever Goes As Planned.
    After reading various how-to install guides and scrolling through pages on forums (wait, people still use these antiquities?), the anticipated time to install all the suspension parts called for about four hours. My general rule of thumb over all these years of tinkering around with cars, is multiple the given install time, by three. And in this case, maybe tack-on a few extra hours for good measure. Sure, maybe if all went well my aging Camaro could have been slammed down two-inches in an afternoon’s time frame but life happens and gets in the way, distracting us from our wrenching projects. So does the weather, like how for the course of three weeks it seemed like every time I had a precious window of free time to go and work on my car, it was shattered due to thunderstorms. Then you make multiple trips to the car parts store to get this or that tool or  things break and straight refuse to loosen up. Like one of the upper shock bolts that even after vicious coats of penetrating oil and a breaker bar- would not twist free. To make matters worse, of the eight upper shock bolts- two of them were torx bolts. Really GM? In a last minute effort to avoid stripping the bolt for eternity, I sawed a deep cut and found the biggest flat head screwdriver I could find. Nope, nothing. A friend came and after minutes of heating the bolt with a torch and more penetrating oil, a mighty impact wrench finally broke pulled it from the car’s engine bay. In anger and joy, I chucked that old torx bolt as fast as I could into the trash. That whole endeavor to remove one bolt took a few hours and multiple profanities. As this ongoing ‘car-on-jackstands fiasco’ continued, patience proved to be the key, king theme. Patience is the most important tool you have, don’t forget it.

But I couldn’t let any of these mishaps shake my confidence because this crazy, painstaking idea of lowering my car two inches was nothing short of a golden, primal learning experience. Sure, it took way longer than expected to finish and I may or may not have under-budgeted financially, but when I finally lowered it down and collected all my tools scattered all around- I stood back, looked at the car’s new stance and nodded my head proud. Now I feel like I can do anything mechanically on a car…well, not quite. Let’s slow it down a bit. Maybe I should attempt to fix the broken hatch latch on my Saab 9-2x for a second time before dropping in an LS1 V8 on my own.

  • needthatcar

    I feel like this post should have before and after photos.

    • Monkey10is

      Yep. We really need to see how much grey hair Robby has now, after this wrenching.

      • robbydegraff

        hahahaha! 🙂

    • robbydegraff

      I’m thinking about possibly writing up an ‘after’ post, which will probably be filled with ranting about why driving around in day-to-day driving with a lowered car sucks haha

  • Harry Callahan

    The objective? Appearance only, or were you seeking some sort of performance goal? How much did you spend? What parts were swapped in? Is there a part 2?

    • robbydegraff

      Both- wanted to improve the handling, which has since vastly been. Love how it sits lower too. Did new shocks, and struts

      • Harry Callahan

        Gaging handling performance improvement is a difficult thing to accomplish. The three stooges of Top Gear once poured LOTS of money into a used car…suspension, brakes, tires, etc in an effort to make it quicker…and mostly failed.

        https://youtu.be/iGRSgIaHQ0U

        • Rover 1

          I must get an Avantime.

          • Harry Callahan

            I too longed for one after watching that episode. They never came to CA however…

  • Dabidoh_Sambone

    I installed H&R lowering springs on my 1981 Mercedes 300sd as I’d had my fill of it looking like high-water pants & a dog cleaning its butt on the lawn. What I was not prepared for was the complete positive transformation it made: the progressive rate nature of the springs had zero impact on the comfort of my ride but it sure was much flatter and athletic in the turns and looked very modern on its 8 hole late model wheels tucked properly in the wheel wells. It was the single best upgrade I did to that hooptie.

    That said, I look fwd to your review of the ‘after’.

  • Steve Clark

    why do you use 6 font?

  • outback_ute

    Before the internet there were workshop manuals, both from the manufacturer ($$$) or Haynes etc. Parts catalogues with exploded diagrams showing which part goes where can also help.

    Of course these are still available, and depending on how good the info on the net is, possibly more useful!

    As per robbydegraff’s comment it would be interesting to hear the difference the new ride height makes, 2″ is a big difference.

    • Troggy

      I had my ’94 Fairmont lowered about 2″ at the back and 1″ at the front by Pedders and it made a massive difference. I won’t say that it ever cornered like it was on rails or anything, but I could actually steer it with the wheel rather than the throttle all of the time.
      A few years later it suffered the dreaded Falcon bum sag as the springs collapsed. I probably should have gone for a self-leveling setup for towing, but I went the cheaper option.

      • outback_ute

        I imagine a 94 Fairmont has a bit more room for lowering than a Camaro, back then they had decent ground clearance.

        • Troggy

          It did before I dropped it. I lost a lot of ground clearance, but it eliminated the horrendous wallowing, body roll and wheel lifting. It was a typical Ford – no shortage of power, but pretty hopeless at putting it to the ground.

          • outback_ute

            Yes the non-XR’s were pretty soft in the suspension

  • Alff

    Before and after skidpad numbers and slalom times, if you please.

    • robbydegraff

      I’m hoping next year to do some more autocross again, did it years ago with the stock suspension.

  • Zentropy

    I’ve been there and done that on lowering, and I’m past it. I always enjoyed the new look, but with the modest measurable performance gains were subjectively unfavorable handling traits. Lowering typically killed the progressive nature of transitions, meaning my window of recognizing a hairy situation in cornering went from wide-open to razor-thin. It’s the one modification I’ll likely never again make on a car. I realize that lowering the CG technically improves handling metrics, but it has always– in my experience– resulted in a car that was less fun to drive.

    • Sjalabais

      I could actually imagine raising our cars. But that says more about our road conditions than anything about our preferences…aesthetic or otherwise.

      • Zentropy

        Road conditions aside, my issue is more with the transitions. I found that lowering the car resulted in (ultimately) greater stick, but at the expense of both feel and recoverability. Lowered, it would snap from tight cornering to tail-out much more quickly. I could ultimately corner harder, but my car was a very unforgiving partner in the dance. Aesthetically, I prefer the predictability in handling more than the absolute limits.

  • JayP

    I lowered my ’05 GT with FRPP springs which was enough that my exhaust would scrape the driveway.
    The ’12 was lowered using Eibachs – fronts were the same, the rears maybe an inch which makes a huge difference in the ability to traverse speedbumps.

  • cap’n fast

    i was intrigued by the simplicity of replacing the 98 mark VIII’s air spring suspension with coil springs. turns out to be a can of dead worms. yes a lot of others have done it. i even have priced the parts and seen the results, so no, i took the hard way.
    mark VIII’s are sprung soft and have huge anti roll bars, they corner flat and have a fairly rigid chassis. above 100kph(approx) they lower down a bit. also lowers a bit when parked. the system works well and problems are easy to troubleshoot when the appropriate test gear is available(which i have). pump is very quiet and there is not a receiver tank to freeze up in the cold. renewing the air springs was simple, the pump not so much. the most effective repair has been renewing the air valves at the springs. the controller, wiring,air lines, and sensors continue to be non-issues. there is a solid state relay for the air pump and it hasn’t failed in 20ish years. nice.
    a factory manual is so helpful to use. i have found the pneumatics bits to be well designed and robust. remembering that this is a 20ish year old car and with my complete distrust of things pneumatic, that is a bold statement. renewed the wearable components as necessary and i have found the system to be reliable and transparent when driving the car.
    adjusting the linear height sensors on the front and rear will yield any reasonable base height one would want. the system only knows the output of the sensors so re-positioning the sensors alters the height, i found this to be a safer and more flexible way of lowering and maintain good ride quality.