How to Make Your Car Safer by Improving the Shock Absorbers

As an enthusiastic driver I really value my car being crisp and responsive in its’ handling, braking and road-holding behavior. The value I place on good handling is my top motoring priority and to that end I have had a ” love affair ” with shock absorbers, springs, rack and pinion steering, upgraded bushes and brakes, since I was a teenager. A soggy sloppy suspension is a major turnoff due to the lack of response one suffers. This passion for improved performance started when I was teenager in the days of the iconic Aussie car built by General Motors, the 48/215 or FJ model, from 1948 to 1953, and culminating in meeting the magnificent Bilstein Monotube Gas Pressure Shock Absorbers in the mid 1970’s when setting up a Peugot 504 Injection model for car club events. I believe the saying, when you find a good product, is ” Hooked For Life “. It’s about 35 years, so far!
My 48/215 or FJ Holden Story. It was one of the first large scale mass production cars in Australia and it seemed everyone wanted one. Even though they are now considered to be iconic and a rapidly appreciating asset, they were in reality only just OK in their original form, complete with a 132.5 cubic inch / 2.17 litre engine of 60 Brake Horsepower, skinny crossply tires, drum brakes, soft ride and horrible lever arm dampers which faded away to being useless after a few miles of enthusiastic driving. The Holden could be likened to a small version of a late 1940’s Chevrolet, which in our vernacular ” handled like a bucket of soup “
As I lived in the country there was not much local help available to cure my car’s handling dilemna until I found a local springs works owned by an ex racing mechanic named Keith who had some tricks up his sleeve whereby he altered the settings / strength of the springs by some black magic known as tempering which included adding an extra leaf to the rear springs. This stiffened the suspension quite dramatically and made a significant improvement to its’ load carrying ability, but only a small difference in the handling -it still didn’t behave in an acceptable way as it was let down by the aforementioned lever arm dampers – they allowed it to roll around and not respond to my commands, and it could not pass a bounce test. Keith saved the day when he told me of a company called Armstrong who were modifying and upgrading people’s dampers, had conversion kits to add heavy Car Servicing Guide duty telescopic shock absorbers to the rear of early models like mine, and seriously upgraded / modified lever arm units for the front. [Armstrong were the sponsor for the Armstrong 500 miles endurance race at Phillip Island in Victoria, Australia. After some years this race transferred to the Mount Panorama circuit at Bathurst, New South Wales, and in time became Australia’s most famous race The Bathurst 1000 of 1000 kilometres.] Now I was getting somewhere at last, and the good old 48/215 was really enjoyable to tear around in! Most of my “revhead” mates had gone from the original skinny crossply tires to the “New from Europe” Pirelli and Michelin radial ply tires so I followed suit and found the combination of all those alterations paid off in having a predictable and responsive car in my hands at last. Was it worth the expense? Bet your bottom dollar it was.
What Benefits come from upgrading your shock absorbers? First and foremost I better explain the job they do for your car. They contribute to the steering control, ride, handling, braking AND the safety of your vehicle by keeping your tyres in good contact with the road. Without shock absorbers or with tired worn out ones, the wheels bounce around uncontrollably and the poor driver has only minimal control over the vehicle and an absolute lack of communication with it. By simply fitting a premium brand of shocks such as my beloved Bilsteins, most cars are transformed into superior handling cars. A powerful side effect of such a change is to improve the life of your tyres by a significant amount – unless you decide the improved handling is a cause for some ” revhead ” fun behind the wheel!
Types of Shock Absorbers We have already spoken of the lever arm dampers in my Holden story above. They were standard equipment in most cars until the 1950’s and suffered from poor performance and the tendency to fade when worked hard, so it was a delight to see them superseded by tubular models which were a dramatic improvement. The conventional hydraulic twin tube shock absorber or McPherson strut insert is designed to protrude above the assembly and attaches to the sprung mass of the car where it has to cope with both rebound and compression loads AND severe side loads – to say it has a hard life is an understatement!
Innovation! August Bilstein founded his company in 1873 in Westphalia, Germany and established a successful high quality manufacturing business. His son Hans took over the company and entered the automotive trade in 1928 making various car components, until in 1954, BILSTEIN, Mercedes Benz Britax Convertible Car Seat and Prof. Bourcier de Carbon, a French scientist researching in the field of vibrations, cooperated in the development and patenting of a revolutionary new monotube high pressure gas shock absorber. Mercedes Benz have used this equipment on almost every model from 1954 to the present day.
The Bilstein principle is to manufacture the units with the rod pointing down into the strut tube, thereby utilizing the thicker, stouter body portion of the shock absorber to dissipate side loads. The increased diameter and surface area of the pressure tube is a major contributor of the Bilstein Gas Pressure Monotube unit’s ability to out-perform the conventional twin-tube shock absorber or strut/insert.
Copy Cats!!! Of course great ideas frequently receive the compliment of being copied – isn’t that a form of flattery? Other suspension manufacturers have since ‘borrowed’ this innovative design philosophy and have adapted it to their own products, but I’ll stay with Bilstein, as they are a premium product – not that I’m biased after 35 years, of course! Their Gas Pressure Monotube models have been strongly influenced by the continual development in the motorsport industry, with countless racing and rally successes continually serving to prove the quality and performance of the BILSTEIN brand which has other advantages besides rigidity and strength. It also provides greater stability, better handling, braking, response to control inputs, accurate steering and most of all greater SAFETY.
There must be thousands of motorists whose lives have been saved by these wonderful products, so I encourage you to improve the SAFETY of your vehicle by investigating a quality shock absorber upgrade – it may save your life.

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