How to Lift Your Vehicle Cheaplyby Richard Rowe
Big lifts are big business these days, just like they've always been. Biologists noticed a long time ago that male animals fighting for dominance in the wild would often rear up as tall as they could to appear larger and more threatening to their adversaries. These days, a vehicle lift is the automotive equivalent of standing on one's toes to look down on a rival, a way of showing the world just how impressive and awesome you really are. However, it's worth remembering that lifting a vehicle is only the means to an end, and that doing it well and on the cheap means allowing form to follow function.
Measure the inner wheel wells from front to rear; this will be your maximum tire diameter with a given chassis. For instance, if the front-to-rear measurement of a Ford Expedition is 40 inches, then that is its maximum tire diameter. Don't worry about the vertical measurement -- we'll deal with that shortly.
Attempt to fit the tires onto your truck. We say "attempt" because they almost certainly won't fit past the sheetmetal, which is where your Sawz-All, grinder and welder come in. Start hacking at the sheet-metal fender lips until you can fit the tire into the opening, then weld the exposed seams back together. This "radiusing" procedure will allow you to get the maximum amount of lift from your increase in tire diameter (which is good) without lifting the body excessively (which is bad).
Screw on a set of plastic aftermarket fender extensions to give your truck a more finished appearance. Odds are good that no one will make a set of fender extensions to fit your newly radiused wheel wells, so you'll need to look around to find something that comes close. Take a look at the huge fender extensions offered for Ford Broncos and Jeeps, both of which have fairly large wheel openings and are commonly radiused for off-road duty.
Have a couple of heavy friends push down as hard as they can on the truck's fenders and check the clearance between the top of your tire and the wheel-well. Subtract one to two inches for any additional spring compression. Your adjusted figure should be no less than three inches. If the tire contacts your wheel-well, you'll need at least a four-inch lift.
Check under the vehicle to make sure that the suspension or axles aren't sitting on the bump stops. If it is, remove the bump stops and re-test.
Install a set of longer front springs and rear lift blocks that will give you the clearance that you'll need under full suspension compression, and check with your manufacturer to ensure that the new springs utilize the same spring rate as your old ones. Don't worry about overall vehicle height, since that will take care of itself. Focus only on tire clearance within the wheel well.
Reinstall your bump stops. The bump stops should do exactly that: stop the suspension travel just before the tire hits your inner wheel well. You may be able to cut down your stock bump stops to set them at the correct height, but odds are you won't need to unless your tire hit the wheel well during your suspension compression test.
- "The Off-Road 4-Wheel Drive Book"; Jack Jackson; 1999
- "Dirt Track Chassis and Suspension - Avanced Setup and Design Technology for Dirt Track Racing"; The Editors of Circle Track Magazine; 2007
- "Chassis Engineering"'; Herb Adams; 1992
- You may want to pick a set of fender extensions before trimming so that you don't leave yourself with a wheel opening that won't fit anything. However, bear in mind that wheel-wells themselves are almost always semi-circular once you cut the sheet-metal away; dozens of companies make universal-fit extensions to fit semi-circular openings of all diameters.
- A body lift kit may be a little cheaper than longer springs, but it's going to require a lot more work and you'll probably end up wishing you'd just paid a little more for the springs. The longer springs will pay dividends not only in increased ride height, but in suspension articulation -- and that's something that a body lift can't offer. That aside, you can probably keep the stock shocks with a relatively small 1- to 2-inch lift, so you shouldn't have to purchase an entire kit.
- Fitting huge tires and radiusing the wheel wells might seem like a slightly milquetoast approach compared to just jacking the thing sky-high with an aftermarket suspension, but there's no reason to let a little bit of sheet metal dictate where you put the truck's body. And you'll still get plenty of lift -- a 6-inch-taller tire and a 2-inch suspension lift comes out to a net gain of 5 inches in ride height -- but you'll have done it the right way by keeping your truck's mass as low to the ground as possible.
Richard Rowe has been writing professionally since 2007, specializing in automotive topics. He has worked as a tractor-trailer driver and mechanic, a rigger at a fire engine factory and as a race-car driver and builder. Rowe studied engineering, philosophy and American literature at Central Florida Community College.