Over our 43-year history, and now 500 issues, we have been witness to just about every suspension ever conceived. Ranging from simple modifications to make room for larger tires to too-tall show pickups sporting monster tires and chrome shocks, and now on to complex ways to get better ride, handling, and travel out of your IFS, or mega-travel from your solid-axle. Reading through countless past issues of Four Wheeler to get a feel for what suspension technology was like through the decades that we have been on the scene, here is a list of notable suspension innovations over the years.
When Four Wheeler magazine hit the newsstands back in 1962, leaf springs and solid axles were the name of the game. Poring through these original issues of Four Wheeler, the emphasis at that time was not on lifting your vehicle to make room for larger tires, but rather on controlling and smoothing the ride and cutting fenders to allow for "wide-base wheels" and agricultural tires. In those days, our aftermarket was in its infancy and most lifts were homemade spring-over conversions. Ford Bronco ads back in the day prominently advertised the benefits of coil springs with its "Easy Mono-Beam Ride" ads. In 1968, we featured a Jeepster with "interesting" tubeless tires by Goodyear.
By the mid-1970s, all-terrain tires were commonplace, and suspension technology had advanced to include mild and functional lift kits. A tech install of newfangled Four-Way Equalizer collared shocks (think of them as predecessor to coilovers) on a 211/42-inch lifted leaf-sprung CJ-5 on leaves was featured in our May 1976 issue. We were impressed by the new shocks and said, "The effect (of the shocks) has to be seen and felt to be believed. Priced at $29.50, Four-Ways are not cheap, but they will outlast cheaper shocks that will cost you more in the long run." These shocks proved to be a popular high-end upgrade in the mid-'70s.
Lift kits were standard items in the '80s, with many applications for all types of common vehicles available. Shock technology was no longer an oxymoron, and polyurethane bushings were starting to come on the scene, with one of the first applications being an adjustment for caster on Ford's notorious strut arms. Chevy even offered "Delco/Bilstein" monotube shocks from the factory on the S-10's optional off-road package in 1984. In addition to lift kits, giant show trucks started coming in to their own with feature trucks regularly sporting more shocks than cylinders, giant tires, and plenty of chrome. While IFS was starting to appear on factory 4x4 mini-trucks, the hard-core guys were swapping it out for solid axles and leaves.
In the '90s, more vehicle manufacturers were introducing IFS on high-volume vehicles, saving the solid axles for heavier-duty applications. A multitude of drop-bracket technologies came out in the aftermarket and answered the question of how to lift your IFS rig, giving you room for those big tires, while maintaining good ride and handling characteristics of IFS. There was also no shortage of wildly painted fullsizes sporting 44s and moon visors. On the functional side of things, tuned dual-shock technology was borrowed from racing and began showing up on top-of-the-line suspension kits.
The latest craze in 4x4 suspensions is long-travel IFS kits. Eliminating drop brackets from the equation, long-travel IFS kits gain their travel by using extreme-travel shocks and custom A-arms that move the wheels outboard (effectively widening the track). These kits were born in desert racing and tend to be much more expensive than a drop-bracket kit, but are superior in high-speed situations. Drop-bracket kits are still popular and a better choice than ever, with all of the research and engineering that goes into each kit now. New technologies recently introduced include beefy spindles, adjustable monotube shocks, and billet-aluminum upper arms. Solid axles have maintained their relevance with super-flexy coils; located by trick adjustable arms that use special spherical bearing ends, which allow for a greater range of movement without binding. There is no one type of kit out there that is perfect for everyone, but luckily, with so many quality choices on the market, anyone can find the right kit for him or her. Whether you drive a classic solid-axle truck, or a new independently suspended one, there has never been a better time to upgrade your rig's suspension than now.