Air Ride 101: Choosing an Air Ride System - Street Muscle (2023)

There are two things you need to know about RideTech. First, they were known as Air Ride Technologies until 2009. Second, although they are at the forefront of air spring design, they are about much more than just running frames, and the new name better reflects that fact. Whether it's an everyday driver, an autocrosser or open race car, a drag racer or even a show car, RideTech has a sophisticated suspension solution. Check your prejudices at the door and watch as we explore their impressive line of products.

Air Ride 101: Choosing an Air Ride System - Street Muscle (1)

On a '63 Impala you might associate "airbag" suspension with wire wheels and candy-apple green paint, but the myth that air springs don't work in performance applications has been dispelled thanks to RideTech. Ride height is just one aspect of suspension that can be changed “on the fly” with an air spring, and racers of all stripes can benefit from having stepless and instantly adjustable spring rates at all four corners. We consulted with Tony Bicknell, Specialist at RideTech, who shared his expertise on selecting an Air Ride system to suit just about any application.

Air Ride 101: Choosing an Air Ride System - Street Muscle (2)

What air suspension can do for your ride

Whether it's a hot street car, drag car, classic muscle car, race car hauler or open race car, RideTech has a system for you. Bicknell told us, “By far the greatest benefit is that air suspension gives you an adjustability that static suspension cannot. You can adjust the load, road conditions, ride quality and preferred handling.”

handling: Most air springs are progressive, meaning the more they are compressed, the stiffer they become. When you combine this progressive rate with in-car customization, you can see the potential for performance. Per Bicknell: “Again, with a tunable air suspension, you can adjust the spring rate of the car on the fly. If you're drag racing, you can preload one side against the other for more consistent starts. I've got guys drag racing our ShockWaves in Sportsman classes and Outlaw classes. One even tied the air suspension into its timing delay box and it changes the car's attitude as it passes on the track.”

Poll:Bicknell told us, “The spring rate of an air spring is the amount of air that is displaced in the spring. The more air, the higher the spring rate. You'll hear the common argument, "Well, I want to stiffen the suspension, but I don't want to raise the car". When the suspension is properly set up, you can actually make small PSI adjustments from your average ride height pressure, and you make spring rate changes without aesthetically affecting the vehicle's ride height. Now you will see changes in altitude with the vehicle for large changes in pressure. At this point, an adjustable damper needs to be used to start fine-tuning the suspension.”

ride height:"Most of our engineered systems are designed to lower a vehicle's ride height by 2 to 3 inches," Bicknell said. A lower ride height means a lower center of gravity and better handling, but unlike traditional lowering springs, an air system lets you raise the car back up with the push of a button. If you've ever attempted to get a lowered car onto a trailer or over a steep curb, you'll appreciate this aspect of air suspension.

Weight:It's widely believed that adding air suspension and its associated compressor and plumbing adds pounds to the vehicle, but according to Bicknell, nothing could be further from the truth. "I love this one! Air springs are actually lighter than coil springs or leaf springs all day long. We lost over 80 pounds in weight even with the supercharger system in one switch!”

Our '71 Nova project car features a RideTech Air Bar rear suspension system - perfect for street/strip applications.

Choosing the right system

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As with any performance part, finding the right air suspension system for your car or truck is easier when you take expert advice. RideTech has spent many hours developing standard systems for a variety of vehicles and even more helping with custom builds. When someone asks for help, Per Bicknell says, “The first thing I do is determine the exact customer's use case and tailor the suspension components to that vehicle and driver. What are you using it for? how do you drive it Is this a legitimate race car or a weekend warrior? Do you ride it cross country? Then start customizing the system to suit your needs. Someone who spends a lot of time driving would definitely see the benefits of a self-leveling system compared to someone airing it out to pack it in a trailer. When it comes to the optional components or the type of components, that will be determined by what you are using them for. For example, the Titanium Series ShockWaves are serious gear for track use. For 90% of the civilians out there they are beyond exaggeration. If it's a cruiser, we'll look at the Black Series ShockWaves or the CoolRide kits.”

The mix of components also varies depending on the weight of the vehicle. “On larger vehicles with larger springs, we typically try to use a larger compressor tank that gives us the extra volume of air,” explains Bicknell. "The more volume you have up to a certain point, the more efficiently a system works, and then there's overkill. At most you should never need more than a 5 gallon tank for an average system. Most midsize and smaller cars are more than fine with a 3 gallon tank.”

Air Ride 101: Choosing an Air Ride System - Street Muscle (4)

The type of air springs used is also determined by the physical layout of the car or truck's factory configuration. "The original suspension design can play a big role in what's available and practical to use," Bicknell said. “For example, the 63-87 C10 picks will use a CoolRide kit up front. Due to the layout of the OE suspension, it is not possible to mount a ShockWave there. Just like on a first generation Camaro, it's best to use a ShockWave. Due to the packaging limitations of a CoolRide kit and the use of an outboard mounted shock, the turning radius may be reduced compared to riding a Shockwave with the shock and air spring packaged together.

Speaking of assembly, don't be put off by the extra lines and cables that come with an air spring. RideTech is all about making its systems as easy to install as possible, but there are a few areas that require special attention. Bicknell told us, “Anytime you're working with something that's under pressure, there's always a chance that there will be a leak. A little caution and time before installation go a long way in providing a leak-free system. First, always use D.O.T. Lines and fittings to a minimum. If you want to line the system tightly, use seamless stainless steel tubing. Always use a good quality sealant or Teflon tape when using tube fittings. When using Teflon tape, take extra precautions to ensure that no extra tape residue is left on the fitting to be fed into the system - this can easily clog a valve. Once everything is connected, pressurize the system and see if it is leaking down. If you have a few leaks, start by using the bubbles you get for little kids and a small brush and wipe down your fittings until you see bubbles.

Air Ride 101: Choosing an Air Ride System - Street Muscle (6)

At first glance it can be a little daunting to go through everything that is available on the RideTech website. Here is a brief overview of the categories of air suspension offered there.

Mature systems

These are available for the most popular GM, Ford and Mopar models including everything from Buick Regals, Ford and Chevy trucks to classic and Fox Mustangs; Over 30 models are currently covered. It's the easiest way, as RideTech has taken the guesswork out and created a fully adjustable 4WD suspension for your car that includes all the necessary hardware. Level 1 systems are typically offered in three levels and offer the most economical way to reap the benefits of air suspension. Level 2 systems offer more tuning with the addition of a ShockWave front kit and the upgraded RidePro e3 ride control system. Level 3 usually includes the built-in AirPod compressor.

The Level 2 system for Fox Body Mustangs even includes direct-fit upper and lower rear suspension arms with front AirStruts and rear Shockwaves.

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CoolRide - Independent airbag and shock absorber design

The CoolRide system is RideTech's original air suspension and the most budget-friendly option in their lineup. It usually comes with a separate standard shock absorber with associated mounting relocation brackets and the airbags. Separating the components and using a more fuel-efficient damper helps keep costs down in this package. On the front suspension, the shock absorber is typically relocated to the outside of the lower control arm. A welded bracket attaches the top of the damper to the frame rail. On the rear suspension, the air spring and shock absorber are usually installed in the stock locations as these are usually separate units in the OEM design. These kits lower the vehicle from stock by a few centimetres. With over 40 models covered, the CoolRide kits have the widest range of applications of any RideTech product.

The CoolRide is the most affordable system from RideTech. It uses a non-adjustable shock and separate air spring for height adjustability.

Shockwave - Integrated shock absorbers and struts

It looks a bit like coilovers wearing a Michelin man suit, but beneath the beautifully machined bodywork and large rubber airbag hides a relatively simple concept. Look inside and you'll find a conventional looking shock that's either single or dual adjustable for compression and rebound. There is an airbag that surrounds and seals it and acts as a spring. The amount of air that fills the bag controls the movement of the shock by changing the spring rate and ride height. The Shockwave is offered in a variety of air spring styles and shock lengths to suit almost any application. The 1000 Series is their larger air shock for vehicles weighing 1500-2500 pounds per axle with independent front/rear suspension. The smaller 7000 and 8000 series are designed for solid axle rear suspension and up to 2400 pounds per axle. The 7000 can also be used to complement a leaf spring rear suspension. RideTech has taken a lot of the guesswork out by offering over 30 pre-built car and truck applications. They offer bolt-on simplicity and are also available in universal styles for custom applications.

The Shockwave contains a spring and damper in one unit. They are offered in a variety of applications, with single or dual adjustable dampers and even external reservoirs.

Die Strut-Alternative – AirStruts

The MacPherson strut design, which combines the spring, damper and upper pivot in a single unit, is popular on everything from imports to Mustangs, and these air struts offer a complete bolt-and-go solution. They use the same concept as the standard Shockwave with an internal damper surrounded by an airbag in a billet strut. The kits come with crash guards in many applications and can lower the vehicle by up to 4 inches.

Air Ride has developed an AirStrut designed for McPherson equipped vehicles

AIRoverLeaf - An air spring strut for your vehicle with leaf springs

There are many trucks and classic muscle cars with leaf spring rear suspension, but converting them to air springs has always been difficult because the leaves also hold the axle in place and act as wishbones. The AIRoverLeaf system offers excellent ride quality and additional loading capacity without converting your vehicle. Lowering is achieved by removing one or two leaf springs (and their weight) from the rear leaf pack. This lowers the unsprung weight of the rear suspension. The air spring is then inflated to restore load capacity, ride height and spring rate. The AIRoverLeaf system is fully bolt-on and requires little or no modifications to your vehicle. The system improves handling and ride quality and comes with pre-engineered mounting hardware to maintain ride height, drivetrain angles, tire clearance and load capacities. Best of all, it's easy to install!

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The AIRoverLeaf system offers all the advantages of air suspension without the hassle of converting leaf springs to a four-link or ladder-rod rear suspension.

Compressor systems

The compressor and control system is the heart and brain of an air spring, and choosing the right one is critical to the performance of the entire setup. Luckily, RideTech offers configurations to suit every budget and level of control you want, from analog with manual adjustment to fully automatic ride height control

RidePro compressor system analogue 4-way

The RidePRO 4-way manual control supercharger systems are easy on the wallet while still offering plenty of features and room for future upgrades if your budget allows. The standard non-electronic RidePRO systems use the highest quality valve bodies, compressors and components to deliver reliable and repeatable manual control. Manual controls provide the ability to inflate or deflate the system. The control panel features dual needle air pressure gauges and 4 switches that activate the RidePRO air valves. This system can be upgraded to a full RidePRO e3 or LevelPRO system by adding these components at a later date.

The RidePRO Standard features an analogue system with four switches (one per wheel) with separate tank, valves and compressor.

Upgrade des RidePRO

Several upgrades are offered for the RidePRO system to increase capacity and speed. The standard system includes a 3 gallon air tank and a single compressor. If your system requires more volume, consider adding a larger 5 gallon air tank and an additional compressor, which allows for faster rise time due to the increased tank volume. This upgrade is recommended for all cars that have room for the extra compressor and larger tank as it allows the system to react to changes more quickly.

The standard package includes valves with 1/4" fittings and tubing. For even more speed, you can upgrade to the Big Red valves to increase flow to the air springs. The oversized opening of these valves allows for a much higher flow rate, reducing your vehicle's rise time. The standard RidePro valve takes about 5 seconds to raise the vehicle to ride height, while Big Red valves can do this in about a second. Not everyone needs the super fast action of Big Red valves. These valves are more expensive because a larger spool is required to operate the larger piston and orifice. Also, the fast action of the Big Red solenoids can sometimes make it difficult to sneak up on intended air pressure.

Fully digital and automated control - RidePRO e3

The RidePRO e3 features an electronic control unit with a digital display that includes three preset ride heights. It's an intelligent system that monitors the air pressure as you set it to these preset heights and inflates or deflates all four air springs to your presets at the touch of a button. For the ultimate in intelligent control, the LevelPRO upgrade adds digital ride height sensors to the package. Available as standalone units or internal shockwave sensors, the LevelPRO sensors allow the system to monitor vehicle height and air pressure. This allows for more accurate ride height adjustments, even as load conditions change.

An Airpod installed on our Nova with the top cover removed. This is an all-in-one unit that combines a compressor, tank and control solenoids.

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The RidePRO e3 comes with the standard 3 gallon air tank, a single compressor and valve bodies with 1/4" fittings and tubing. The speed upgrades offered are the larger 5-gallon air tank and dual superchargers, as well as Big Red valves and 3/8-inch lines.

You can upgrade to LevelPRO vehicle height sensors in two ways, either in two or four sensor packages. The two sensor pack allows you to use the internal Shockwave sensors on one end of the vehicle and two external sensors on the other end.

The RidePRO e3 is a fully computer controlled leveling and cushioning system that accurately measures each corner independently

All-in-one built-in compressor - AirPod

The ultimate upgrade for any RidePro compressor system is the AirPod. Both the RidePro and RidePRO e3 come with compressor, tank and valve kits that you assemble. Bicknell said: "With the AirPod system as simple as plugging in your four air lines, you provide power, ground and ignition wires. Plug in the control panel and you're done. It's that easy!"

Designed to save time during installation, AirPod features a fully integrated air compressor system that eliminates hours of installation time. Featuring simple 4-bolt assembly, pre-wired, pre-installed and pre-tested. Only four water and three cable connections need to be made. Its compact size allows for easy installation in most vehicles. It's also light, at just 24 pounds including the corrosion-resistant aluminum tank.

AirPod with four leveling sensors.

If you choose to upgrade to AirPod on your RidePro system, it will include the standard 3-gallon tank with a single compressor and standard 1/4-inch valves and fittings. The speed upgrades offered are the larger 5-gallon air tank and dual compressors, as well as Big Red valves and 3/8-inch lines.

Air Ride 101: Choosing an Air Ride System - Street Muscle (16)

A solution for every journey

No matter what you ride or how you ride it, RideTech has an air spring solution for you. Better still, many popular applications are ready to use right out of the box, with all the tech already worked out for easy installation. It's never been easier to reap the benefits of air suspension – adjustable ride height, tunable spring rates, automatic leveling, better handling and improved cargo capacity. Once you've experienced RideTech suspension, you'll wonder why you waited so long to ditch those steel springs to ride in the air.

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