Keeping Things Level With Air Lift
AS 4X4 ENTHUSIASTS, we logically focus on off-road adventures and upgrades for our off-road rigs. But towing those rigs to the trailhead can sometimes turn into just as much of an adventure as scrambling over shale up a steep slope. If that trailer starts to bob up and down or swing like a pendulum because the tongue weight is wrong, your 4x4 could end up heading off the highway without you in it.
Giving all types of vehicles some extra suspension support has been the mission of Air Lift of Lansing, Michigan since it was founded by Claude Pemberton back in 1950. Today, the company is owned by Pemberton’s daughter, Dorie Scripsma, and it still keeps your vehicle riding right on the straight and narrow.
Early on, the need for the company’s air-spring suspension systems became evident every time the family sedan, or station wagon, bottomed out with a boat or travel trailer in tow. Problem was, trucks were work vehicles (or military surplus) and not part of the car-in-every-garage ethic of the day. So the job of towing fell to those big-finned, big-block V-8 family cars. You can see the need, right? Cars were expected to deliver smooth rides unloaded. But then we hitched up a lot of extra weight on the back and slammed the poor things.
Pemberton’s solution was an air spring — a tough rubber balloon filled with air that fitted in the coil spring for extra load support. When the vehicle resumed its family-hauling job, one let the air out and enjoyed the cushy factory ride.
If this “Ozzie & Harriet” image doesn’t send chills up your spine, how about the early days of stock car and drag racing? “Air Lift was used on the track in the 50s through the early 70s,” says Kevin Mehigh, company president. “The air bags improved the launch, equalized the thrust and kept both rear wheels on the ground.”
We take race sponsorships for granted today with cars covered bumper to bumper in decals. But in the 50s, it was a different story. Pemberton headed to Daytona, knowing the advertising value of having his product and company name on the sides of cars in the winner’s circle. He cut a deal with Bobby Griffin, owner of the legendary 1950 Olds 88, number 87: if he got disqualified because of the air bags, Pemberton would pay the driver the purse money. He didn’t have to. While Griffin’s Olds was sidelined for a faulty fuel pump at Daytona, at the inaugural Darlington Raceway Southern 500, number 87 became the first with a legally sanctioned adjustable suspension. The car went on to win three times at Darlington. Number 87 was retired in 1955, resurrected three years later, retired again in 1962, and now sits in the Joe Weatherly Stock Car Museum in Darlington.
During its second career on the track, number 87 was driven by Lee Petty (father of Richard), Buck Baker, Darel Dieringer and Jim Paschal, launching Air Lift into the public eye. They were one of the first sponsor names on race cars and you can see Air Lift on the back of pit signs in the photos of the early days of the Grand Nationals.”
The technology has evolved over the last five decades. First, Air Lift pioneered the use of air spring inserts in coil spring suspensions. Then, in the 1960s, it introduced the use of sleevetype air springs on pickup truck suspensions. During the 1980s air helper springs were added to motorhomes and ambulances. Street rods and lowered vehicles were the target in the 1990s. Today’s products are an evolution of breakthrough development programs applying the use of air springs in light truck and motorhome suspensions. Air Lift still provides load support for tow vehicles, specialized air suspension systems for ambulances, RVs and other heavy-duty applications, as well as lowering kits for sport trucks.
For off-roaders who tow their rigs, the application is obvious. Your pickup won’t have its nose pointed skyward and it’ll track down the road without the tail wagging the dog. If your 4x4 does double duty as a daily commuter, weekend toy and work truck, you’ve got a load assist system that you just dial in to the task at hand.
Air is, basically, preferable as a suspension component over steel.
The Air Lift 1000, 60000/80000 Series is the high-tech, 21st century version, of that first rubber air insert used back in the Fifties. Now it’s made of a tough, molded polyurethane resin, but the principle is the same. The air bag allows the driver to custom tune the ride required for the task — more air — more load support, less sway and roll around tight turns, no bottoming out and more control. Reduce the air and you’re back to the factory ride. (Note: The bags require some air at all times to maintain their shape.) This series fits open coil springs, front and rear, and exerts its considerable leveling capacity on loads up to 1,000 pounds.
For bigger trucks with bigger cargo, Air Lift offers the Ride Control 59500 Series for 1/2-ton vehicles with leaf springs. The air bags for leaf springs are rubber sleeves and bellows that fit on top of the leaf, between the factory suspension and the truck’s frame. The Ride Control levels loads up to 2,000 pounds and is air adjustable from 5 to 100 psi for a truly custom ride. The 59500 Series kit includes air springs, lines, brackets, fittings, hardware and full instructions — everything you need to install the air springs.
The Super Duty 57000 Series for 3/4- and 1-ton pick-ups with leaf springs — now, we’re up to 5,000 pound leveling capacity and construction materials as tough as the heavier load and towing capacities require. The two-ply fabricreinforced air springs are built like tires; the reinforced air bellows add durability and strength; plus, the end caps are manufactured from Zytel nylon with the strength of steel.
These three Air Lift air suspension series improve handling and ride control for light trucks when they’re closing in on maximum capacity. On the other hand, there is a class of super-towers/haulers that need help in the other direction. Vehicles like the Ford F-450 provide a more comfortable ride when at capacity but when empty, it’s another story. That heavy-duty suspension needs softening in light or no load mode. The Air Lift solution is the Road Tamer 39000 Series, a full rear air suspension system that replaces the steel leaf springs with sturdy steel trailing arm beams and a panhard rod, plus super-duty air bags just like those used on semis.
The Road Tamer supports loads up to the GVWR rating on 3/4- to 1-1/2-ton trucks without compromising ride quality when the beast is empty. The system offers options like a kneeling feature that dumps the air out of the springs and lowers the rear of the truck up to three inches for easier loading. There’s also an expansion tank that increases the volume of the air spring by over a third for smoother rides over bumpy roads. Plus a select-a-ride digital dampening system for the nine-position hydraulic Air Lift shocks is available separately.
Now, how do you get the air in the bags or springs? You can pull up to your local gas station’s air pump (if you can find one anymore) or get an Air Lift compressor system. The Load Controller II on-board system controls rear bags for front-to-rear leveling; the dual-path model controls the springs independently for side-to-side as well as front-to-rear leveling.
Both models include a Low Pressure Sensor, the idiot-proof way to make sure the air components maintain minimum air pressure. For more rapid air spring reaction, the Quick Shot moves air four times faster. It includes a heavyduty compressor and two-gallon reserve tank with enough air for the suspension, plus tire adjustments and filling air mattresses and toys.
The Sure Set throws digital technology into the mix with no air lines to the dash — just one, simple data cable — and a unit the size of a deck of cards that controls both side-to-side and front-to-back leveling. The system’s electronic control unit remembers your pressure settings and maintains it automatically.
The most intelligent of the on-board control systems, SmartAir, keeps your vehicle level, automatically. Before SmartAir, leveling systems relied on a lever between the vehicle’s frame and axle to determine level and ride height. Hard to mount and calibrate and prone to failure, the lever is now replaced by an electronic height sensing system with no contact arm. It keeps the truck level under the toughest road conditions and the heaviest loads.
Air Lift systems provide a better offroad ride under moderate conditions, but where they really shine is getting that rig to the trailhead while leveling out the ride of a 4x4 multi-tasker. There’s an Air Lift system for almost every suspension to smooth out your ride to your next off-road adventure.