Replacing a chassis on a vintage cruiser or classic muscle car is neither cheap nor easy. But the nimble ride that results leaves enthusiasts with a newfound passion for driving.
When it comes to vehicle restorations, the frame is a foundation upon which all is rebuilt. Two area experts, Phil Gerber and Jeff Schwartz, know all about this largely unseen -- but nonetheless vital -- part of the process.
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Gerber is vice president of sales and marketing for Roadster Shop in Mundelein. Schwartz owns Schwartz Performance in Woodstock. While both shops do a variety of repair and restoration work, much of their businesses involves fabricating new chassis' to update tired rides.
"We're spoiled by modern cars, even the basic family sedan," Schwartz said. "They ride and handle amazingly well. Many people miss their favorite cars from days gone by, but after purchasing one, they realize the driving isn't how they remembered."
Truth be told, no amount of teary nostalgia can hide the spongy behind-the-wheel experience on yesteryear's cars. This poor ride originates with antiquated chassis designs.
"Even when new, the frame rails had tremendous chassis flex," Schwartz said. This structural weakness is readily seen with the vehicle's body removed. Push down on one corner of the chassis, he said, and you'll see the opposite corner twisting.
Aftermarket bracing and supports can help add firmness but also add weight, Gerber said.
"Many of the older vehicles relied on stamped, C-channel frames with just a cross member up front and in the rear. This setup is very prone to flexing and is a poor foundation."
Chassis engineering aside, another issue lingers. "Even on rust-free cars, the materials consist of decades-old metal, suffering fatigue," said Schwartz.
"Enthusiasts seek out more horsepower, bigger brakes and stiffer suspension components -- but stock chassis were never designed to handle the output from these kinds of loads. Even modern tires can be problematic, as the technology has advanced so far from decades ago," he said.
For hobbyists who demand the most from their vehicles, a new chassis is in order. The from-scratch units both shops assemble significantly increase strength and stiffness. Schwartz uses mandrel bent tubing.
"The final product has 200-percent stronger rigidity (torsional flex). Total weight is 125-pounds lighter than stock."
Schwartz Performance then adds other features to the chassis', like adjustable coilover shocks with ultralong control arms with greaseable needle bearings, a full-floating rear end, power rack-and-pinion steering and six-piston disc brakes.
The Roadster Shop uses a computer-controlled cutting machine to cut its square-shaped frame rails and then welds them together for a rock-solid, fully boxed final product. "They contour to the shape of the floor pan and have a flowing look instead of choppy and bent," Gerber said.
Their highly styled chassis' also come equipped with Penske Racing shocks and optional CNC-cut billet control arms and spindles. "They're much stronger than tubular control arms and look like pieces of jewelry hanging off the front suspension," he said. Triangulated bracing keeps everything solid.
A stable platform with limited movement allows the vehicle's suspension to be dialed in for maximum accuracy and load distribution, which nixes body roll, cowl shake and vibration.
With a new chassis costing from $9,000 to more than $30,000 depending on components and configurations, the assumption may be that this type of intense modification is limited to hard-core performance junkies. But not so, the men said.
"The majority of our customers never take their completed vehicles on a racetrack," said Schwartz. "They merely want a quality piece for normal street use.
"If you could close your eyes while driving, you wouldn't realize you're in an old car. It would rival the feel of a modern Mercedes or BMW -- that 'light-on-its-feet,' sports car sensation."
Gerber says Roadster Shop customers want that same result.
"I relate it to the average Porsche or Ferrari owner. There's only a small percentage (of buyers) who maximize the full potential, but they buy it because of what it can do. Our final cars go into super, muscle-car performance territory, and many like to have that capability."
Both shops readily are able to make a chassis for any car -- a diverse group that includes vintage pickup trucks, muscle cars and custom street rods. In many instances, cars can be reassembled utilizing factory mounts that don't require any additional cutting of body or floor pan.
It can take six to 12 weeks to fill an order, but with models they get most often, they keep templates and can fabricate a chassis pretty quickly. The most common requests for both shops come from owners of 1967-69 Camaros, 1964-70 Mustangs, GTOs and Chevelles.
If you watch the collector car auctions, ones with an aftermarket chassis almost always bring more money, they said. Resale price is much higher because buyers recognize this modification is valuable and they are willing to pay more for a car that has one.
So whether you push your ride to the limit or simply putter down the freeway, replacing the chassis will breathe new life into your motoring experience.