By David Bellm
Attitude is everything. And no, I’m not talking about your outlook on life, your personal motivation quotient, or any other touchy-feely TED-Talk crap. I’m referring to how a car sits — its stance.
Stance has always been a crucial ingredient of building a hot rod or street machine. But what’s considered the righteous race-car attitude is a matter of fashion, and therefore it drifts like the wind.
From the late 1960s through the entire 1970s, the tail-high, stinkbug stance was the way to go. This was partially because guys wanted to fit the widest, most ridiculous tires under the rear fenders. That look was born out of early ‘70s doorslammers, which, although they generally didn’t have tires sticking out of the fenderwells, and they sure as hell didn’t use air shocks, they nonetheless tended to have a definite tail-high rake.
But most home car builders around that time weren’t yet sophisticated enough to narrow the rear end and do the sheet metal work to bring everything under the car. And anyway, your typical high school kid doing burnouts in the parking lot with his clapped out Nova didn’t care about all that stuff anyway. He was looking for shortcuts.
And that’s when air shocks were discovered.
Air shocks work like any other shock absorber, except that instead of using hydraulic fluid in a cylinder to dampen movement, air shocks use air (duh?) They have a Schrader valve that lets you fill them up to whatever stiffness you wanted. Put more air in, the shocks got stiffer and the ride height increased.
Air shocks were originally designed for leveling overloaded station wagons, burdened with the full onslaught of the Brady Bunch two-month vacation from hell. But guys in the 1970s quickly found they were completely boss for lifting the ass end of cars up enough to stuff steamroller sized meats under them.
Manufacturers of air shocks then pumped a bunch of air into their marketing and branding to sweeten their way into these young dudes’ wallets. Kitschy, cartoony logos abounded.
It was a pretty straightforward deal to make a crappy heap of a car into a high-school hero using air shocks, and a few other easily obtainable staples back then. Here’s how it typically went down, circa 1975:
Purchase your pile-of-crap victim of a car. It could be almost anything. Anything with a V8 that is. A wheezy slant six was NOT going to earn you street cred, no matter how awesomely it sat. This heap should also preferably be a two door, but a four-door would work too.
If you had a little extra money — and by that I mean a grand, tops — you coulda’ picked up an actual, bona fide muscle car. After two gas crises, lots of ‘60s muscle-car owners were totally over the thrill of pumping 17 gallons of high-priced Premium into a car just to go to work. A nine-year-old ’66 GTO was just a worn out old gas guzzler by 1975, an 800 dollar beater regardless of the “42” on its VIN tag.
It would be perfect for this transformation. Hell, it might even have the air shocks and other “racing equipment” already on it!
But for this lesson, let’s just say it didn’t. Maybe it was owned by a little old lady that only used if for laying sick rubber patches at the charity bake sale.
Lope your newly purchased heap home. Gather your shirtless, sideburned friends. Pick up a six of Schlitz Malt Liquor.
Pile into your heap and head to your local cheezy department store — Zayre, Wards, Sears, Venture, K-Mart … any of ‘em would do. Most of them had an “Auto Center.” Pick up the following items: Gabriel Hijackers air shocks; Ten-inch-wide Cragar SS wheels; one pair of big-ass 50-profile Mickey Thompson tires.
Kick Mom’s Datsun B210 out of the garage. Finish off the six of malt liquor with your motley assistants. Bolt on the air shocks. Start on another six of Schlitz. Pump shocks up until the car’s rear fenders are somewhere up around your shoulders. Slap on your Cragar SS wheels with the massive meats.
At sundown, rumble your way down to the local Burger Chef parking lot. Soak in all the admiring, slack-jawed stares from your pimply-faced posse — some of whom really, actually believe that you might be the next Dyno Don Nicholson (or whatever pro-stock hero your fantasy calls for)
And just like that, you’re a street-machine hero. A couple hours and a few bucks out of your Taco Bell paycheck, and you’re a badass on the scene. It really was that easy. Thank you air shocks!
Of course, there was a drawback to this method of achieving street righteousness. (isn’t there always?) Truth is, the stinkbug, air-shock stance tended to make cars handle pretty crappy and that’s a lot of the reason why people stopped using it.
For one thing, the ass-high attitude makes for a Mount Everest level center of gravity. It also stiffens up the rear suspension way out of whack with the front, compounding the already weird handling.
And as far as making the car go faster, a steep rake actually tosses aerodynamics into the dumpster, by presenting a lot more frontal area to the oncoming air. (Think about it — with enough rake, the hood and roof actually become part of the car’s frontal area. That’s why real, genuine race cars now sit as flat as possible.)
Regardless of the drawbacks, air shocks were a popular accessory until car builders wised up and just started going the extra mile to narrow the rear end and get the tires completely under the fender wells.
And with that, greater sophistication once again killed yet another fad. Just like electronic fuel injection for hot rodders pretty much kicked the crap out of tri-power, three deuces, six-pack, dual quads and whatever other wheezy multiple-carburetion fad was living the good life. It’s inevitable.
Surprisingly, you can still get air shocks. Heck you can even get ‘em through Amazon if you want. Yeah, it’s not the same as going to Zayre or Wards. But the end effect is the same.
“PSSSSSHHHHHT” — fill ‘er up and wave that tail high!