The Mustang brings about happy thoughts of motoring through the countryside-wind in your hair, smile on your face, and hands on the wheel to keep the Pony between the lines. You don't like to think about not being able to stop without a boat anchor or steering into a corner and wondering if you'll come out the other side in your lane or your neighbor's.
Ford won a Tiffany Award for great styling, not braking and handling. The suspension that Ford put under the first Mustangs was the same coilover, double A-arm stuff that was in vogue with the '60 Falcon. Today, we're used to rack-and-pinion steering even in our pickup trucks. And suspension/braking technology has blown past the days of single-action shocks, burly coil springs, and one-size-fits-all spindles and drum brakes. These days, even the cheapest econobox on wheels has a set of disc brakes up front. So rather than use the same old (and tired) suspension basics, Australia's RRS threw all of it out in favor of a more modern approach.
The RRS system is simple, dumping everything from the double A-arm and coil spring to the spindle that was designed when Eisenhower was president. With the old technology out of the way, you can install RRS's modern McPherson strut and brake kit as well as rack-and-pinion steering. RRS has also just released its new three-link coilover rear suspension to make an even bigger dent in the handling woes of the Mustang. Add RRS's bolt-on rear disc brakes and suddenly you are sitting pretty-and running fast and safe.
Of course, all of this is just words. RRS set out to prove the mettle of its products during the Mid America Performance Ford and Team Shelby Nationals last summer. On a hot and humid Oklahoma weekend, RRS put the rubber to the track to show just what could be done to a '65 Mustang in a 30-hour time period.
First Things First
When we arrived at Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, the team from RRS and Gateway Classic Mustang had set up their Mid America display and were waiting for their turn to run the car for baseline figures. While the track buzzed with everything from a '65 Falcon to a new Shelby Super Snake, fab guru Darell Johnston and Gateway co-owner Lonny Childress were busy applying gatewayelvis.com stickers to the flanks of the maroon '65 coupe belonging to Nick Branson, a 19-year-old shop hand at Gateway.
The Vintage Wheel Works' Vintage...
The Vintage Wheel Works' Vintage 45s needed some creative fender clearance work to make the tire and wheel package come together. This step is less critical on the RRS product because of the suspension's reaction under compression. In short, it will not rub like the stock stuff.
"I helped sponsor the car, so maybe I can get some return on the investment," quipped Darell, who happens to be an Elvis tribute artist in his off hours. Thankfully, he didn't curl his lip or strike a pose.
"The car was a six-cylinder," chimed in Jason Childress, Lonny's brother and also a Gateway co-owner. "Dad had a '67 289 with 67,000 miles and 15 years of barn time, so we dropped it in, broke the crud loose, and started it up." The engine still sports the original two-barrel carb, intake, and exhaust manifolds. The four-speed was one that Gateway mechanic Darrel Bloomner (we know there's a joke in there somewhere about Darell and his other brother Darrel, but as far as we know they aren't related) had "lying around." Somehow, V-8 suspension parts, bellhousing, clutch, and flywheel, as well as all the other tasty bits that make a V-8 conversion, found their way onto the car just one week prior to the event.
The Start Of The Show
Avid racer J Bittle of JBA is known as a hard charger. At Hallett, every time his group was called he was out on the track in his restored '68 Trans-Am Mustang. He never misses a chance to drive, and on top of that he's good. In short, we wanted J to pilot our Mustang because we knew that the wily business owner from San Diego would drive the wheels off. Of course, Nick was not so keen about the situation, but we were looking for unbiased results and J would provide that in spades.
Around 1:30 in the afternoon, J was given run of the track in order to be unhindered in his quest for the best lap time in the little coupe with its stock suspension. Jason handled the play-by-play from the announcer's booth while we found a great photo spot in the corner affectionately called "The Bitch"-so-named because the ess into a dog-leg corner trips up many seasoned drivers due to its rolling up and then downhill tight turn.
As we set up, J made his first run and we could tell that the car was as much fun to drive as a runaway stagecoach. The inside tire was nearly lifting off the ground coming out of The Bitch. The outside tire was smoking due to extreme compression of the suspension and wicked camber changes that caused the tire to whack the outer wheelwell. We witnessed J thrashing around in the cab trying to get the Pony under control; he met with limited success.
His second pass was little better. J was driving brilliantly in what we later discovered were terrible conditions-by Lap 2, the four-speed was trying to drop out of Second and Third gears. By Lap 3, the coupe was overheating. Still, J posted a best lap time of 1.52.
Inspecting the post-run footage, we were impressed with the speed-rated BFGoodrich ZR KD tires. Our hunch was that the KDs were about the only mechanical advantage J had on the track.
Still warm from its hot laps, the hardtop rolled into the Stephen Brothers Racing garage in preparation for its conversion to the RRS system. "The car ran really hot but seems OK," Darell mused. Dale Childress shook his head, still reeling from the beating his old "shed motor" took.
J looked the car over and laughed, "I could hardly keep it on the track. Between the four-speed and the suspension it was quite a ride."
As we looked on, the boys from Gateway went to work removing the old parts from the car. The goal was to completely dismantle the front suspension and get the new RRS system ready before 4 p.m.; it was now 2 p.m. "The track closes at 4 today," Jason said. "I don't see a track-side hotel and spa, and besides we want to hit the cruise tonight."
Darrel begins the front suspension...
Darrel begins the front suspension disassembly by loosening the strut rods and getting the front end ready to go away.
Bill Bufka begins to remove...
Bill Bufka begins to remove the 8-inch rear axle in preparation for the 9-inch that's part of the RRS three-link rear suspension.
This is expedience at work....
This is expedience at work. Lonny and Darrel dropped the suspension out by removing the upper control arm nuts and lifting the car off the blocks. They're crazy and from Missouri; we recommend the use of a spring compressor.
Darrel found the best way...
Darrel found the best way to get the old steering box out in one piece was to remove the exhaust manifold and valve cover. He also dismantled the steering column by taking off the wheel and removing the C-clip, thus allowing the shaft assembly to slide out. The front seat was removed for clearance as well; that was OK because it needed to come out for the three-link install.
The Gateway gang put their collective heads together and got to work. Soon parts were flying off the car. By 4:15, the stock suspension was history.
Friday came early. With bleary eyes, the lads from Gateway were off to the track at 6 a.m. amid rain clouds and threats of thunderstorms. But the troops, who had enjoyed the respite of Mid America's cruise night, were eager and ready for a long day's work. To be sure, they would have been dead in the water without the lift at Stephen Brothers. The lift wouldn't make much difference to a few friends working on a weekend project, but with time ebbing away, it was crucial. Track officials had two time slots, 1 and 3 p.m., available for testing the coupe with the RRS suspension. The boys from RRS and Gateway were shooting for the earliest slot.
The grind continued through lunch. Let's just say that it was tough to get the RRS suspension race-ready in the time allotted because you have to align the front end, bleed the brakes, and make sure everything is track-ready, from bolts to backing plates. For RRS and Gateway, there was no tomorrow-track time would end at 5 p.m. Though the clock showed some 16 total hours since the gang started, they really only had 10 hours to complete the task and run the car; by lunch time they had expended six. It was going to be tight.
In the midst of the madness,...
In the midst of the madness, Jeff Ford from RRS set up the RRS three-link for this photo. The assembly is available stripped (less axles and center chunk), with just the center chunk and axles, or complete as shown. The complete kit comes with the 31-spline axles and a center chunk packing 3.50, 3.73, or 3.89 locker rear gears. The brakes, when ordered, are 11-inch rotors.
The rack-and-pinion brackets...
The rack-and-pinion brackets mount in the stock steering box location on the driver side and the idler arm location on the passenger side.
RRS's bolt-in Watt's link...
RRS's bolt-in Watt's link is perfect for centering the axle and allowing full and correct range of motion. Panhard bars (a single bar that runs from one side of the chassis and connects to the axle tube on the opposite side) can skew the axle out of center alignment and lead to less than stellar handing. So the Watt's link, with its equal bars and propeller shaft either on the rear centerline of the axle or on a mount with the ends articulated off the rear end axles, offers a much better axle placement and greater lateral stability.
Lonny and Darrell finished...
Lonny and Darrell finished up the column, informing us that the column is cut where it comes out of the firewall. The cut is straight so the supplied bearing can be slipped in and seated with three Allen screws.
The manual rack-and-pinion...
The manual rack-and-pinion goes in without a hitch. RRS uses stock-style inner tie-rod ends to make replacement easier. Different from other racks, the RRS has built-in bumpsteer correction (for radically lowered cars) as well as a linear tracking system. This system stabilizes the rack on the long end of the tie-rod bar and thus offers better road feel, greater accuracy, and longevity.
It's The Little Things
Let it be said that we have the greatest confidence in Jason Childress and company. Otherwise, we wouldn't have stood in front of the car with our camera as Jason bedded the pads and checked the brakes. To our relief, the coupe stopped quickly and with little lock up. We were impressed with the KD BFGoodrich tires (again) and the King six-piston calipers and 13-inch slotted rotors.
While the RRS suspension installed smoothly, others things were causing problems; we were short one alignment machine. So the Gateway gang old-schooled it and used a tape measure. Crisis averted.
Note the water. The track was doused just before this run. Luckily, the vintage racers were able to get some of the dampness off the track before J went back out at 3 p.m.
Rain Doth Not A Run Stop
Rain hit the track off and on until about 2 p.m. Even so, the track was alive with activity; unlike drag racing, road racing goes on rain or shine. With the wet weather, the temperature had dropped from the previous day's high of 90-plus to a cool mid-'70s. Due to the wet track, we wondered if there would be much difference in the times at all.
By 3 p.m., enough activity had been applied to the track that it had gone from soggy to merely damp. Even so, the conditions were not nearly as favorable as they had been the day before.
In his first run with the RRS suspension and brakes, J looked fast, although not blindingly faster than the first series. But when we clicked our stopwatch, we saw that he was 11 seconds quicker than the first run on the original suspension. Then it occurred to us that the car didn't look fast because it wasn't a runaway stagecoach any longer; it was flat and sure-footed. Lap 2 was nearly as fast as Lap 1 (10 seconds faster than the original suspension) and this time we noted that the tires weren't smoking as J negotiated The Bitch. Lap 3 saw the same speed and vigor; this time, J hit 12 seconds quicker.
Later in the day, we were informed that the coupe's lap times were just 12 seconds off the lap times set by the competition cars. When we asked J about the suspension, he told us that it handled better than his '68 Trans-Am race car. With the right engine and tranny, he said, the car would be really fast. Being able to lop an average of 10 seconds off per lap is pretty huge in road racing; that equates to a minute every six laps.
To recap, the guys at RRS and Gateway did a complete suspension swap in two days, taking a lame Pony and making it into a fleet steed that was just 12 seconds slower than the fastest vintage racers at Hallett with a barn-find engine and a lame trans. With a stout powerplant and solid tranny, the little coupe may have been on race pace.
The track day proved that the RRS products are stout and sound in design as well as tough enough for the street. They are certainly tough enough for the track.