Austin-Healey Front Suspension

by Norman Nock

Originally published in the Austin-Healey Magazine, November 1988


In this article, Norman Nock offers some tips on checking out your front suspension, correcting its problems, and maintaining it in good condition. The winter months may be a good time to do this checkout, perhaps the same weekend you do the tune-up outlined in last month's Tech Tips. Please take careful note: these tech tips aren't intended to replace or substitute for the mechanic's manual. Read the manual and follow it, using these tips to supplement that information.


The next time you drive over a railroad crossing, slow down and do a quick dynamic check of your front suspension. If the front suspension has been maintained correctly and is in good condition, the steering wheel won't move and you'll hear the muffled rubbery sound of a solid, well-cared-for front end.


If, on the other hand, your steering wheel rattles, wiggles, and jumps around even though you hold it tight, and the front end seems to have a mind of its own, rattling and rumbling as though big heavy things are loose, you have a problem.


This front end has not been maintained as recommended in the factory service manual under the heading "Lubrication, Regular Attention." If the specified maintenance is followed religiously, the wear will be minimal and the front end will last 200,000 miles or more without major suspension rebuilding, while the shocks will last at least 100,000 miles, unless they have undergone unusual wear due to unusual driving conditions.


So in the case of your car, why didn't they? I have worked and been involved with the servicing and maintenance of British cars since 1948. As a result, I can generalize from my personal experience how most cars have been maintained.


A Brief History of the Average Car


When the car was new, the recommended services were followed, and the car was returned to the dealer (yes, Virginia, once there were Austin-Healey dealers!) for its maintenance as specified in the owner's manual. The proud new owner was, to quote the manual, "protecting his investment." Usually he followed this procedure until the end of the warranty period.



At the end of the warranty, the owner stopped going to the new car dealer. Maybe it was a long way (there weren't that many AH dealers), he didn't have the time, or he wasn't that proud new car owner anymore. His car was used, and the value had gone down. What he did from that point on was to drop in to the local service station and say, "Give it a lube and oil change."


Once the car got a few years older, it was usually traded in and most were doomed to a downward path of no repairs, grease jobs were done once in awhile, the car was relegated to living outside, and if the weather was wet and snowy, the deterioration of the car increased (unless it lived in California). Rust, corrosion, lack of maintenance, and abuse took their toll.

So twenty-some years later, you are now the proud owner of this rattly-wiggily-rumbly Austin-Healey. Now what? I suggest you start with the following inspection, locate the problems and get them repaired and then follow the maintenance manual.


Inspecting the Front Suspension


The front shock absorbers are each held down by four bolts. Start by checking the tightness of these bolts. If any of the bolts continue turning without tightening, remove that bolt and inspect the threads. If they are damaged, the plate that is welded to the chassis below the shock absorber will have to be replaced. This job should be performed by a qualified mechanic.


Now, jack up the car and place jack stands under the front spring plates. Get a helper, perhaps your faithful wife, to move the steering wheel first clockwise then anti-clockwise, while you look at the steering lever that comes out of the bottom of the steering box. Have your helper reduce the movement of the steering wheel until the steering lever stops swinging. At this point, your helper should be moving the steering wheel less than 1/32". If it moves more than this, your steering box needs an adjustment. If the large cottered nut holding the steering lever is moving sideways and is oily, then you have a worn bushing inside the steering box and maybe no oil, problems that must be corrected.


While moving the steering wheel, inspect the steering 'idler arm' lever. If it moves up and down before it starts to swing, the bushing inside is worn. Because of a lack of oil, this idler arm can rust until the steering arm is very stiff — all because somebody didn't know it needed a little oil once in a while. This problem also must be corrected if present.


The tie rod ends can be inspected at this time by having your helper move the steering wheel as she did at the beginning of this inspection. Each tie rod end should move as a single positive and firm unit. It should not move up and down, wiggle, slop around, or whatever. If it has any wear you can see, it needs replacing.


Problems with Wheels, Hubs, and King Pins


With the jack stands still under the spring plates, the shock arm will not be touching the rubber mount and the kingpin will not be locked by hanging up on the tie rod arm. We can now check for wear of the kingpin bushes, loose wheel bearings, loose wheels on the hubs, loose spokes, fulcrum pin, and trunnion rubbers.


Place one hand on the top of the tyre and one hand on the bottom of the wheel. Push in at the bottom and pull out at the top, then alternate. Any movement of the wheel is too much movement. It will take a little practice to get the rhythm, but when your helper gets it, you can look behind the wheel to see where the movement is coming from.

  1. Loose spokes. This can be seen from the outside of the wheel. Change to a good wheel and then try it again.

  2. Place your fingers touching the lower part of the brake drum (or rotor) and the swivel-axle body. If they do not move equally together as one unit, the wear is coming from the wheel bearings. This could be as simple as an adjustment of the wheel bearings, or a major problem like a worn spindle.

  3. Now place your hand with fingers touching the lower part of the kingpin and swivel-axle body. Any movement between these two is caused by worn kingpin bushings. Installing new bushings requires a special reamer only available at specialty shops that work on these cars.

  4. Movement between the lower kingpin and lower wishbone arms. Rust in this area will crack the lower wishbone arm right next to the wishbone. This is a very common problem with the Sprites and it is all because of no grease coming into the joints at regular intervals.

  5. Worn upper trunnion rubber bushes. This is also a very common problem in the Sprite that can be bad enough to cause the top of the wheel to lean at a strange angle.

  6. Oil leaking from the shock spindle is a direct indication you have a worn-out shock. It also explains that small puddle of oil outside the range of the drip pan. Replace your shock with a new one. If you go the rebuilt route and yours are not acceptable as an exchange, the price is very close to new. And isn't new always better?


There is always the possibility that you will have wear in more than one place. These movements overlap one another and give conflicting symptoms. Check what you can see and feel, then think about it and check it again.


Other Notes on the Suspension


It is a fallacy to think that when your car is lower than is correct for your model, it is caused by weak shocks. This is not true. It is the springs that hold up the car to its correct height. The shock serves as an aid to wheel alignment by furnishing a dampening effect that protects the springs from overloading or unloading too quickly and stops bouncing down the road after hitting a small bump or rise.


Front end alignment has to be performed by specialty shops to obtain the best balance and alignment for your Austin-Healey. I suggest finding a shop in your area that performs only front end repairs.


Lubrication: The Grease Job


The grease fittings shown in diagram D should be lubricated with thick oil (140 E.P.) In hot climates, use grease. When a grease gun is clipped onto a clean grease fitting and pressure is applied, the grease should not come out past the side of the grease fitting. It should be forced into the joint and come out at another place a few inches away from the fitting after it has lubricated its appropriate parts.


Many times "grease monkeys" will clip the grease gun to a grease fitting and then apply the pressure, stopping when grease oozes from alongside the grease fitting, then just go on to the next fitting. This isn't accomplishing anything. Instead, it shows that grease is not passing through the fitting. If it did pass through to the bushing, it would ooze out next to the bushing. If grease is leaking from along side the fitting, then the fitting is bad and needs to be replaced

The small hand-held grease gun is more than ample to get grease into a fitting on a well-maintained Austin-Healey. If any of your joints will not pass grease, use the type of grease gun that has a long arm on the side of its cylindrical body and requires both hands to work it.


Now, following the factory repair manual's instructions, go grease the car, making sure you get all the grease points. Don't forget the clutch linkage (on the 100/4), the fitting on the hand-brake cable and fulcrum pin, the rear of the rear springs on early Healeys, the three fittings on the drive shaft, and the grease cap on the distributor body (on late model cars only).


Not what you were looking for? Don't forget you can check our back issues using the AHCUSA Magazine Index.

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