On The Level – Truck Leveling FAQ
It used to be cool to have a rake. It still is in some circles, but not with 4x4s — especially on the West Coast where the prerunner look is still popular in some areas. As a result, the hottest truck suspension component these days is the leveling lift designed to lift the front end and level, or almost level, the truck. Installing one, along with a mild tire upgrade, is Job 1 on a lot of truck owner’s buildup list.
What is a leveling lift vs a “regular” lift? It’s really a matter of degree and that usually only the front end is raised. A leveling lift is usually only one to three inches, so as “lifts” go they are mild. The
mechanics of the lift will be according to the suspension type and the amount of lift. They are most common in pickups, many of which come with a factory rake. While you don’t often see the leveling kit marketed for Jeeps or SUVs because they don’t have the factory rake, a similar process is used to level a front end that has sagged slightly over time and wear or the loading of the suspension due to bumpers winches ect. The same issue could occur in the rear from the addition of accessories.
Raked for a Reason?
The first thing you need to know is that the pickup OEM puts the rake there for a reason. Unloaded, the rear of the pickup is higher than the front. Add a load and the truck goes level. With a lift leveled-truck, you add a load and the rear goes down, but the nose stays up — reverse rake. The main difference is the level truck with a load is carrying a little more weight on the front tires than the reverse-rake truck because some of the load is transferred to the “downhill” tires. It may not be a lot, but you need to understand the concept.
Leveling Coilover IFS
Because more and more modern trucks have independent front suspension (IFS) with coilovers (A.K.A. struts) the two most common and least expensive ways for a lift is to use spacers. These can be installed under the coil or between the strut and upper mount. Each of these methods deserve some discussion. We will use the terms coilover and strut interchangeably here.
The simplest and cheapest lift for trucks using a coilover is a spacer between the strut and upper mount. The vast majority of level lifts on struts are currently done this way. The downside is uptravel that will be limited by the amount of lift and downtravel is extended to the point where ball joints or axle CV joints may go into a bind. This point is variable according to the vehicles particular suspension design and is something a good lift kit manufacturer would check beforehand and it’s almost never an issue in the one
to three-inch range. The best part is that ride quality remains close to stock.
Not so long ago, it was more common to put preload spacers above or under the spring in the existing strut. These are a bit more difficult to install because you have to disassemble the strut. The upside is they limit downtravel more (total shock travel is reduced by the thickness of the spacer) and don’t have as much potential to bind the ball joints or CVs on down travel. Because the spacer preloads the spring to gain lift, it increases the perceived spring and ride quality is reduced. Sometimes significantly. This is the main reason you seldom see these type of lifts as often as a spacer above the strut.
The most expensive, and many say best, coilover lifts use a long travel shock assembly combined with relocation of the lower spring seat on the strut to increase lift. This addresses the downtravel/ride issues because the shock will be tuned for length/downtravel and for a good ride. Some OEs don’t use all the shock travel they have available in the strut, so the aftermarket can use that to deliver a longer travel shock. Some strut lifts, most notably the Pro Comp Pro Runner SS, offer the option of more than one ride height by allowing the lower spring seat to be moved.
Leveling Solid Axle Coilers and Non-Strut IFS
A spacer can be used in any coil pack to achieve lift. The danger is that the changes in geometry may affect ride quality and handling. With solid axle coil springs in the usual one to three-inch ranges, issues are few, but some vehicles are more affected than others. A vehicle with short suspension links will suffer a more adverse effect with less lift than one with longer links.
Of particular importance are suspensions with track rods, which locate the axle side to side. Any amount of lift will have adverse effects if not corrected. Without correction, lift will change the angularity if the track rod, effectively shortening the end-to end dimension and pulls the axle to one side. High track rod angularity also causes bump steer — which is when the wheels are steered by suspension movement. The answer is a track rod drop bracket, which puts the track rod back to its stock angularity, which should be as close to parallel to the ground as possible. Modified track rods are also used, if available.
Leveling Torsion Bar IFS
There are many ways to lift a torsion bar setup, but we’ll start with the easier stuff first. Ride height is adjustable on torsion bar suspensions. It isn’t usually enough to level the truck, so torsion bar keys were developed. These replace the existing “anchor” for the end of the torsion bar with one that is re-indexed to increase the ride height. Ride quality usually changes for the worse, but not by a lot.
Torsion bar keys can be challengeing to install sometimes due to rust and sometimes a special tool is required, but it’s a relatively simple operation. This lift puts more angularity on the ball joints and axle CV joints, so sowntravel must be considered. Usually, longer shocks can be installed concurrently if downtravel is assessed and addressed.
Though there are adjustment bolts on the keys, resist the urge to use them to gain extra lift without a lot of research first. In some cases, a quarter inch of adjustment on the bolt may gain you an inch of extra lift. That might be just enough to bind your CV joints, ball joints or create some other problem. Those adjustment bolts are there to level the truck, not to lift it. There may be some wiggle room when you need a tiny bit more lift to overcome a tire fitment issue, but it’s a fine line you only cross when you have fully assessed the whole picture.
Some torsion bar lifts are achieved by spacer brackets that move the whole suspension down. The advantages are that all the factory suspension angles are retained and ride quality remains stock. Cost and installation complexity become the major downsides and both are very significant, so for the usual one to three inches needed for leveling, some find the cost prohibitive.
Leveling Other Types of IFS
This could include Twin Traction Beam Ford (coil and leaf), Hummer H1, import coilers and any other odd balls. The coilers would be addressed by either spacers or taller springs and the issue would be the same as discussed above—changes in ball joint angularity and CV joint angles. The TTB coilers would be have the added issue with camber to deal with and so would need a drop bracket on the axle pivot. TTB leaf springs would be dealt with the same as a leaf spring truck as you can read below. In truth, most of the old, uncommon or obscure oddballs out there are not dealt with much by the aftermarket so your choices may well be nil, or very limited.
Leveling Leaf Spring Trucks
In the case of an old school leaf spring truck, a level lift is more expensive because you must replace or augment the front springs. Essentially, you would get springs with the amount of lift needed to bring the truck level. If you are willing to suffer a loss of some ride quality, you could go with an add-a-leaf product up front which can provide a small lift. If you truck happens to mount the axle under the springs up front, never, ever add lift blocks to the front springs. (Did we say never-ever?) Lift blocks on the steering end of the truck are dangerous due to the leverage involved. There are a lot of side angles and side loading stress on the front suspension that will work on the spring clamps and loosen them up. They get loose enough, the truck rolls off the lift blocks and the driver faces a total loss of steering control.
Any time you change the angularity of a control arm, you will change the ride characteristics. If an A-arm is operated and increased angularity, it tends to transmit more road shocks upward to the chassis rather than into the spring and shock. The same thing happens when the control arms if a coil spring suspension are operated at increased angularity. Even If you use the same springs and shocks, you may notice some change. At normal leveling lift values, it isn’t much, but if you are sensitive to such things you may notice it. Don’t flip out. It’s a normal part of the deal.
Beyond the mechanics of the lift, there are two things you need to do along with it. The first is an alignment. This is especially true for IFS trucks, but even a leaf-spring truck will need some tweaking on the drag link to bring the steering wheel back to center.
The other part of this is a headlight adjustment. When you raise the truck, you change the headlight aiming points. Suboptimal headlight aim adversely affects your night vision, but just as important, it adversely affects other drivers…. In this case by shining your headlights into their eyes. Not cool and could earn you a traffic ticket.