The performance aftermarket is chock-full of parts designed to make your car look cooler, go faster, ride nicer, or sound better. At shows like the NSRA Nationals and SEMA, companies from all around the world show up to display their wares, and they all claim to be better than the guy in the next booth over. Here at R&C, we tend to ignore the glitz and glamour of the trailer queen scene and focus on real-world cars driven by real-world folks, and that means we not only work hard to buy the gear we put on our rides, we expect those parts to perform in real-world conditions, as well. With that in mind, we decided to make some of the companies in the hot rod business put their money where their mouths are. This story is the first in a series that will take common bolt-on aftermarket parts and perform "before and after" testing in simulated real-world conditions, using high-tech testing equipment to come up with solid numbers that will prove whether you're spending your dough on a true performance modification or a shiny but flaccid wannabe.
For our first test we decided to try out an easy bolt-on part that can be beneficial in several areas. QA1 Motorsports builds shock absorbers for just about every market in the automotive realm, from drag and Sprint Car racing to street rodding. With a vast catalog of different shock options for the rod and custom crowd they have parts available for every ride imaginable, and with their attractive billet aluminum exterior and adjustable-compression valve technology they ought to be a must-have for any road-going rod. We've heard the praises and seen literally thousands of these shocks (in both standard and coilover form) at shows all over the country, so they're obviously a popular choice. The trick was going to be finding out if there really is a difference between these and standard automotive gas shocks.
After calling QA1 and throwing down the gauntlet (they quickly agreed to the challenge), it was time to find a car. Looking for something representative of the overall street rod market, the car had to well-built, safe, and relatively fast but nothing too wild or exotic. Eventually we came across Pam McQueen and her gorgeous '38 Ford sedan. The car sits on a boxed frame and rides on Mustang II suspension with tubular control arms up front and parallel leaf springs supporting a 9-inch Ford in back. A stout small-block Chevy provides power. The final step of the equation was setting up the testing program, which we did with performance driving guru Andrew Schear, whom we borrowed from our sister magazine Super Chevy. Andrew brought us out to the California Speedway in Fontana, where he set up a slalom course and 200-foot skidpad. A Brower Timing System was used to record data for the performance tests. On top of the numbers gathered at the track we also decided to judge the product on ease of installation and real-world ride and handling characteristics.
When testing day finally arrived, we were greeted with perfect California weather and an empty racetrack. McQueen's hot rod looked and sounded great, and when Schear took it for a few laps around the skidpad, it seemed to handle fairly well, pulling down numbers comparable to a new family sedan. The car also performed admirably in the slalom, although it did have a fair amount of body roll. We then drove it over to Editor Rizzo's shop (he lives around the corner from the track), where he was waiting with tools in hand to help swap shocks. The ride over was pleasant, and the Mustang II front suspension combined with standard auto parts store gas shocks provided a slightly squishy but tolerable ride. Choppy California roads tossed things up a bit, but the car generally rode and handled as well as or better than most Mustang II-equipped hot rods we've driven. Admittedly, the four-door sedan's extra heft may also contribute to its nicer-than-normal ride.
Changing all four shocks was a simple matter, and with Rizzo and yours truly working, it only took about 15 minutes to complete the job. While we could have switched over to a coilover-type shock, we decided it would be best to keep the shocks as similar in style as possible. We ended up using a QA1 Street Star, which utilizes deflective disc valving, an advanced technology that makes this shock much more sensitive and adaptive to changes in road surface and driving conditions. The shock body is constructed out of anodized aluminum, which looks great, and a 12-position rebound adjustment valve makes the suspension completely adjustable with just a few turns of a knob. For initial setup purposes we set the front shocks at five clicks (clockwise from softest to firmest) and the rears at three clicks.
After the installation we headed back to the track, and the change in ride and handling was immediately noticeable. All of the "squishiness" was gone; the sedan definitely took a firmer set, yet the overall ride was actually softer. Expansion joints in the freeway and other flaws in the road went unnoticed, and the car seemed more settled on its haunches, with less body roll in the turns and a much firmer feel in the steering. The Ford handled and felt more like a hot rod and less like a marshmallow, without the choppy ride one would expect from that type of change. Once at the track Schear put the car through its paces once more, and the numbers backed up what the seat of our pants already told us: the car was faster on the skidpad and through the slalom. After spending some time messing around with shock valve adjustments, we managed to eek out a few more miles per hour at the expense of ride quality, but we decided not to include those numbers in this test. Schear also noted that during slalom testing, the car felt more solid and controllable with the QA1 shocks installed, something to take note of if you ever need to quickly avoid an errant road hazard such as a kid chasing a ball into the street.
After a day of thrashing, wrenching, and testing we did manage to reach a few conclusions. While not everyone who drives a hot rod or custom is looking to build a road racer worthy of Laguna Seca or Pikes Peak, we all want our cars to ride and handle well. If they can be safer and look better, that's icing on the cake. The QA1 Street Star delivers on all counts. The shocks were ridiculously easy to install, proved solid performance gains on the skidpad and slalom course, provided a sporty yet comfortable ride that actually made driving the car more enjoyable, and on top of all that, look great. You can't ask for much more than that.
The first round of testing...
The first round of testing at California Speedway included running the car through a 420-foot slalom and around a 200-foot-diameter skidpad. With the stock gas shocks installed, the car posted respectable numbers, but as you can see here, hard cornering resulted in a fair amount of body roll.
We then took the '38 sedan...
We then took the '38 sedan to R&C Editor Jim Rizzo's shop, where we swapped on these Street Star shocks from QA1.
The sedan was built a few...
The sedan was built a few years ago and is fairly representative of your normal fat fender street rod. A set of reinforced rails was fitted with Heidt's Mustang II suspension in front and parallel leaf springs with a Ford rearend out back.
The nut on top of the spring...
The nut on top of the spring hat needs to be removed to release the top of the shock.
The beauty of QA1 shocks is...
The beauty of QA1 shocks is that they are fully adjustable by turning this 12-way knob found at the base. By changing the rebound valving, you can alter the ride quality and handling characteristics of your car with just a few clicks.
This application required...
This application required a stud, so we removed the standard aluminum eyelet with a wrench and a bench vise.
A Grade-8 bolt running through...
A Grade-8 bolt running through a tube in the bottom of the lower control arm holds the bottom of the shock, and it slid out easily after we used a floor jack placed underneath the arm to unload the suspension.
The new unit certainly looks...
The new unit certainly looks much more high-performance than the old gas shock, but testing at the track provided some real numbers.
The anodized aluminum Street...
The anodized aluminum Street Star looks nice even though it will be pretty hard to spot buried beneath the fenders of this '38. QA1 also offers shocks for open-wheel rods, including coilover and standard shocks for independent and dropped-axle-equipped cars.
The rear suspension was very...
The rear suspension was very straightforward. Parallel leaf springs and a hefty sway bar keep a 9-inch Ford in place.
It only took a few minutes...
It only took a few minutes to swap on the QA1 units, and we were careful to keep the adjustment knob pointed down for easy access.
As you can see by comparing...
As you can see by comparing this shot with picture number one, the new shocks radically reduced body roll. In fact, performance numbers improved all around and the car felt better on the road.
The overall stance of the...
The overall stance of the car didn't change a bit, but the stunning '38 now has handling abilities and road manners to match its killer looks.
|BY THE NUMBERS |
|Standard Gas Shocks ||QA1 Street Stars |
|Pass 1: 0.70 g ||Pass 1: 0.76 g |
|Pass 2: 0.74 g ||Pass 2: 0.77 g |
|Pass 3: 0.75 g ||Pass 3: 0.81 g |
|Standard Gas Shocks ||QA1 Street Stars |
|Pass 1: 39.8 mph ||Pass 1: 40.3 mph |
|Pass 2: 40.2 mph ||Pass 2: 41.5 mph |
|Pass 3: 40.2 mph ||Pass 3: 42.1 mph |