Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2007   by John G. Smith

Tough Trucks Tougher Parts

Light trucks are prime candidates for better-than-OE ride control and chassis parts options

Manufacturers of light trucks and SUVs spend millions of dollars telling consumers how tough their trucks are; consumers then spend countless hours putting them to the test. Sometimes they pass, sometimes they don’t. And that’s where the aftermarket comes in.

Aaron Shaffer, the marketing manager of KYB America, tends to group shock sales into three categories. Broken or leaking components dominate the need for most aftermarket installations; those who religiously follow recommended maintenance intervals fall into the next category. But the greatest opportunity to enhance sales may be found in a third group.

“That’s [the category] for people who want additional control, handling, and performance,” he says. “Trucks offer a big opportunity for upgrades.”

For this, you can thank a change in thinking about the role of the light-duty truck. The vehicles are still designed to provide some level of utility, but their owners are also just as likely to want something that rides–well, like a car.

“The basic platform design for virtually every half-ton-rated vehicle has changed dramatically over the past five years. They are all coil-on-shock [similar to a strut] on the front, and now have rack and pinion steering,” explains Bill Johnson, Rancho’s director of engineering. “While the pick-ups still incorporate [improved] rear leaf springs, the SUVs are all coil spring front and rear. The result is [a] more car-like ride and handling characteristics.”

Even trucks at the beefier end of the scale, such as the Ford F350, are designed to be more luxurious than they would have been a decade ago, leading to the demand for a comfortable ride as well as the related load-carrying capacity.

Carlo Falcigno, Gabriel’s North American training manager, suggests that today’s truck owners are also more aware of performance.

“Light truck is one of our [fastest-] growing markets, and a lot of it has to do with the demands light truck owners put on their vehicles,” he says. “You’re dealing with more of an educated audience. Because of that, they’re more in tune to what changing out components can do–whether for additional loads, or off-roading, or changing tire sizes.”

Because of that, many of today’s trucks are prime candidates for upgrades as soon as they leave the showroom floor.

“An awful lot of trucks still come with twin tubes from the factory,” Shaffer explains, referring to the opportunity to upgrade Ford and Dodge designs with monotubes. Even GM products that are factory-fitted with monotubes can benefit from upgrades to higher-pressure models that will improve handling, he says.

Yet the value of switching from twin-tube shocks to monotubes seems to be a matter of opinion. “You might be changing the vehicle’s spring rate, which could seriously degrade ride quality,” counters Bill Dennie, director, channel management for Tenneco’s Monroe shocks and struts.

Regardless, the aftermarket is in a position to offer something different-and something better.

Johnson explains that those who occasionally tow trailers will appreciate adjustable damping options that allow for more damping on the rear shocks, while leaving the front shocks set for comfort.

Other enhancements can be visible to the naked eye, and shops should be told about them so that technicians can point them out to consumers. A vehicle owner using his truck as a working vehicle, for example, may appreciate the durability of mounts that incorporate solid-metal sleeves rather than flat-rolled sleeves with a seam. A thick weld around an end mount also looks visibly stronger.

Shocks designed for trucks may also incorporate a larger reserve tube that will house more oil, to dissipate heat more quickly. Thicker rods will be especially important when rear shocks are mounted at severe angles, Dennie points out.

Still, jobbers need to be willing to ask a few probing questions if they want to convince shops to promote the best possible choices.

“The biggest thing a jobber can do is help identify the correct need,” Shaffer says. Is the F150 carrying little more than an extra-large coffee and a driver looking for a car-like ride? Or is it owned by a cash-strapped plumber who is loading the vehicle to the limit and beyond?

That’s the type of information that should drive the recommendation for a specific part.

“The modern half-ton [or smaller] pick-up is really aimed at very general use–an updated grocery-getter, if you will. They are meant to be very car-like in terms of ride and handling,” Johnson says. “Three-quarter- and one-ton-rated vehicles have retained most of their heavy-duty characteristics, but if they are used only as light-duty transportation, the replacement components should reflect that usage: shocks designed for ride quality, avoid ‘beefing up’ the springs,, AT tires versus commercial, are a few examples.”

It is also important to understand whether the offerings are suitable for a particular truck. Traditional lift kits designed to enhance the look of a vehicle and accommodate larger wheels, for example, are not well suited for today’s four-corner independent suspensions, Dennie says.

Then again, a greater challenge may emerge later on–after vehicle owners take a few too many trips switching between loads of passengers and heavier cargo.

The multi-purpose use, perhaps including the towing of an occasional trailer or trip through an unfinished job site, means original components such as ball joints and tie rod ends may be prime candidates for early failures.

“These vehicles are always in never-never land,” observes John Thody, president of XRF Auto Parts. “When it’s used as a car, it has certain requirements. When it’s used as a truck, it has a different set. Whatever people do with these vehicles is going to be wrong. We have to try to accommodate that.

“We have to build a part that takes up the slack from all the other worn components.”

Look no further than the track bars that run between the axle and body of a Dodge 4×4, he says. Any change to the height of the body adds to the tension on the ball stud. The solution comes through the aftermarket in the form of an adjustable track bar that can bring the stud back to the optimal centre position.

“Given truck manufacturers’ transition from more robust straight axles to passenger car-style short-arm/long-arm (SLA) suspensions and steering components, we’re seeing more trucks that are experiencing early failures of ball joints, tie rod ends, idler arms and pitman arms,” says Mark Baker, manager, product technical service for Federal-Mogul’s Moog Chassis Parts. “Many of these late-model light trucks and SUVs are also equipped with lightweight aluminum control arms and rack-and-pinion steering. This design trend helps reduce vehicle weight and delivers the car-type ride many consumers prefer, but it can also lead to increased failures of these automotive-style components.

“The sockets in many OEM-style steering and suspension parts are sealed, but once that seal is damaged–such as on a construction site or while driving off-road–the joint can fail prematurely due to contamination. Replacing these parts with similar, OEM-style joints will likely result in a repeat failure.”

“What we’re looking at is providing the best possible part to meet or exceed original equipment specifications,” adds Ron Strain, Affinia Canada. “So a lot of consideration is given to the bearing package, which is going to be determined by the vehicle application, specifically, and the load it’s carrying and what it’s intending to do. You’re looking at [the ball joint’s] bearing package to ensure that you’re maintaining the same ride control, the same smoothness and handling. The same could be said about tie rods or idler arms, certainly–that they meet or exceed the OE specifications.”

There are several products out there that do just that. Consider the ball joints on Dodge trucks that tend to fail because they incorporate two-piece ball studs, Thody says. The solution to those earl
y failures can come in the form of a single-piece ball stud that will keep the load centred.

Falcigno, however, offers one more reason to ask the right questions to select the right products.

“If they [jobbers] don’t sell the right product, the chances of a comeback are increased dramatically,” he says. “Ultimately, it can affect the reputation of the installer, and it goes up the food chain to the WD [wholesaler-distributor].”

The bottom line message is that, no matter how you dress it up, a truck is still and truck and that makes it a prime candidate for the best products on your shelf.

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