When the engineers at Chevrolet designed the Camaro almost 50 years ago, they couldn’t have imagined the high performance conditions the F-body cars would be subjected to today. As the decades have rolled on, so has automotive technology. While the first-generation Camaro is still able to hold it’s own in the drag race arena, Chris Alston and his gang at Chris Alston’s Chassisworks thought it might be time to bring 2015 technology to 1960’s muscle. The result was a stunning lightweight and completely bolt-on tubular front clip for 1st Gen Camaros and 2nd Gen Novas. We were able to sit in with Chris Alston Sr. and his team for a peek into the design and manufacturing processes behind this front end.
Chris Alston Sr. explained, “Since we already build a similar front end for 1st Gen Novas, we already knew how to make a lightweight strut setup work for early model vehicles. After reviewing the project board at the shop, we decided it was time to provide a quality front end suspension for early Camaro racers.”
It Bolts In?
Due to the unibody design of early Camaros, Chassisworks was able to design the front clip as a complete bolt-in replacement piece. In simple terms, after removing the OE subframe, the aftermarket front clip is reattached using four 5/8-inch bolts.
Chassisworks also supplies the two forward strut bars, normally found in 12-point roll cage kits, to tie the front clip into the existing roll cage. Even though the front strut kit is a bolt-in replacement, Chassisworks considers it a drag-race only part, and doesn’t recommend using it without tying it into the roll cage with the strut bars. The installation demonstrated by Chassisworks in this story utilized an optional bolt-in front strut bar. The upper support strut-bar is included and can be installed as a continuous tube from the strut mount to the cage side, or as a two-piece support with a bolt flange at the firewall. We opted for the bolt-flange option, allowing easier removal of the clip if ever needed.
The kit’s bolt-in status is further bolstered with fabricated frame horns that accommodate the original core support and sheet metal. The horns and supporting bars are optional. The reasoning behind this is many racers today forgo the core support and mount composite body panels using custom fabricated mounts.
From the beginning of the project we wanted to meet several goals and nothing was going out the door until they were met.
What’s In The “Box”?
The kit as provided by Chassisworks, comes with everything required for the conversion, and includes the frame clip, double-adjustable billet VariStruts, tubular control arms with 4130 rod ends, a billet-aluminum drag-race rack with extended-travel, billet rack clamps, bumpsteer adjustable tie-rod ends, and a complete disc-brake set with billet hubs, lightweight rotors and aluminum calipers. As Alston noted, “It would be easy to break this kit up into many smaller kits to make it look cheaper, but we don’t like fine print or hidden costs. We want to make sure the customer is provided with everything they will need to get back on the strip after the conversion.” After installing the frame, the remaining components for installation include a steering column, brake lines, and the drivetrain.
Where It Started.
The project started with NMCA Outlaw Street racer DJ Reid’s, Vortech inspired, 1968 drag radial Camaro. The Camaro is a stout combo that is capable of running 4-second 1/8 mile, and 7-second 1/4 mile blasts. However, the conventional 412-inch small block it sported was not going to be enough to face proven competitors like Artis Houston, James Lawrence, Armen Maghdessian and Eric Gustafson. The team realized at the end of the 2013 season that changes had to be made. Those changes meant renovating the drivetrain with LSX hardware. The seasonal break-in racing provided a perfect window of opportunity to explore Chassisworks’ new front clip.
Design And Manufacturing
Designing a completely new front subframe and suspension from scratch is hard. Meeting the dimensions of a nearly 50-year-old vehicle is even harder. However, Chassisworks didn’t stop there. They worked to make their front end lighter and more performance oriented.
“It had to be light, it had to use top quality components like our in-house manufactured steering rack. Most of all, it needed to be a performance replacement that could bolt in to the OE location while accommodating all the OE panels and supports.”
Everything at Chassisworks, from design to manufacturing, is state of the art, and this project proved to be no different. As part of picking up a new front clip, Chassisworks provided a first hand account of how they designed, manufactured, and then assembled this kit.
As Sr. told us, “The first step in the process is to get everything digitized into the machine. From there we can map critical points that will allow us to design a prototype that will use OE mounts, while remaining unobstructed by the chassis.”
The Chassisworks R&D technique is unique, because the shop uses software to design their components prior to burning any tungsten or cutting steel. They digitize everything, and it is all done in house. This process allows them to scan and render vehicles for desktop design using their CAD software. Chassisworks scanned the exterior and interior portions of a stock 1969 Camaro, and then combined them in the software. Once completely rendered, Chassisworks digitally constructed the front clip in a virtual environment.
This process included designing the strut frame and associated suspension pieces, including lower A-arms and strut integrated spindles. In addition to providing a solid design environment, the software is also used to perform stress analysis, and check for potential clearance issues.
Not everything takes place on the computer, Chassisworks is a full-manufacturing facility with several CNC-operated machines. One of the most intricate parts of the frame building process is the core-supporting frame horn option.
“We’re really happy with how the frame horns turned out. We send 4130 sheet metal through a CNC laser, and then through a bender to make a highly articulated piece that meets OE mounting specifications. Stock core support? No problem.” Alston Sr. commented.
The frame horn starts as a flat sheet of 4130 steel that is cut on a laser CNC. The cut part is then placed in an extremely precise Amada press brake for bending. The machine is equipped with a digital gauge that transmits the measurement back to the control software where minor corrections in the bend program are made. This ensures subsequent parts are within tolerance. Once the bends are made, a completed part is ready for welding. After the plates are welded together, the frame horn is then welded to a reinforced tube that extends from the main clip. In keeping with their objective of 100-percent OE compatibility, the frame horns include OE core support holes and the OE bumper mount provisions.
The effort put into engineering and parts accuracy pays off by eliminating the need for fixtures in some operations while maintaining finished assembly accuracy.
Throughout the entire manufacturing process, the team at Chassisworks paid a great amount of attention to detail in regards to all of the supporting components. One such component was the adjustable-height upper strut mount. This upper mount is comprised of an intricately-machined boss that has been threaded, and then welded onto the frame assembly. To build this and most of their other intricate pieces, Chassisworks uses a Mazak Integrex 5-axis machine. After the boss is welded into the frame, the strut is then threaded into the upper mount. For most applications, the adjustable mount is not necessary, but Chassisworks wanted to provide racers with a mechanism to lower the vehicle that didn’t ultimately change the suspension’s geometry, or the strut’s spring rate.
We followed the manufacturing process from measuring the chassis, to welding plates, bending tube, and assembling the front end.
The front end is made to work with Chassisworks’ steering components. While many shops are comfortable building A-arms and miscellaneous components, not many are comfortable with harder components like steering racks. In the case of Chassisworks, they developed and manufacture the steering rack in-house.
“Unlike most shops, we use our own racks with our own gears made in house. A specialized device called a hobbling machine is required to build the gears. Most shops farm this work out due to costs.” Alston Sr. noted.
The steering rack-housing, gears, and column are all designed and manufactured by Chassisworks. As a result, each component is designed to work together, and is a direct bolt in for the Camaro.
Did Someone Say Struts?
One of the most prominent features of the Chassisworks’ first-gen Camaro package is the integrated strut conversion. The conversion starts with a 100-percent custom strut that features a completely integrated spindle, brake mount, steering arm, lower A-arm mount, and a billet strut body. Chassisworks was able to add a fully integrated strut, while keeping the build in-house. This is done by utilizing VariShock, which also happens to be a Chassisworks company. Having a strut manufacturing facility on hand made building the proper strut an easy task.
VariShock manufactures numerous struts and shocks, our package came with a high-rebound force, drag-specific strut, a piggyback reservoir body, and dual-adjustable mounts. VariShock had an existing line of drag-race oriented struts, but this strut, has been re-engineered for radial and outlaw-style drag racing applications.
Chassisworks promised to give us the full scoop behind the strut manufacturing processes in a coming feature, but we were able to talk them into giving us a sneak peek.
Once the front end is fully assembled, it is placed in a crate for transport with the supporting components. Also shipped with the assembly, components and hardware, is a fully detailed 28-page installation guide, complete with pictures.
With the instruction manual, installation is very straightforward, but requires patience–and at some times, an extra set of hands. The guys at Chassisworks took us step by step through a typical installation.
At first glance, Chassisworks’ new drag race clip is a solid front clip replacement that reduces weight and looks awesome doing it. Upon further examination, we found so much more. In addition to weight reduction, the people at Chassisworks worked hard to eliminate all the shortcomings of the OE front clip. They increased undercarriage clearance to allow for easy oil pan removal. They also increased front end safety and stability by improving suspension geometry.
They added versatility by dropping the double A-arm suspension and replacing it with a spring over strut configuration. The turning radius and steering responsiveness has been improved with a custom, in-house manufactured, rack and pinion steering system. In addition to all these improvements, Chassisworks made sure the front end would be fully compliant with SFI 25 series chassis certs as even the transmission crossmember has been engineered to the chassis crossmember specification.
When we spoke to Chassisworks at the time of this writing, they had already sold several front ends, and were hard at work rolling new front ends off the assembly line to keep up with demand. These packages can be found in multiple configurations at their site, http://www.cachassisworks.com. The front end can be found HERE.
In our next strut feature, we will take a trip to the VariShock factory where the billet struts for this kit are made. Once there, we’ll dive into the inner workings of a high caliber drag race strut. We’ll take a look at the materials and follow the manufacturing process from the factory bench and assembly to sitting under the race car.