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Super Beetle Lowering Struts

By Ryan Ballou

The engine is finished, it's in the car and it's been running reliably for a little more than 10k miles now. With that out of the way I can now start focusing on some of the peripherals of the car, after all there is more to performance than just the engine. On tap this month is a front end lowering kit for the Super Beetle thanks to Mid America Motorworks.

Lowering the front of a car isn't something you do just for looks, it does in fact serve to enhance the handling characteristics of the car. This is accomplished through the lowering of the center of gravity as well as helping to disturb airflow under the car. Both of these are beneficial in making your car more agile through turns and feel more stable at speed.

The lowering kit supplied by Mid America comes in two versions, one for early Supers (1302s) and one for late model Supers (1303). Since my car is a '74 year-model I'll be using the late kit, though installation for both is relatively similar. The kit comes complete with new strut housings that use a moveable lower spring perch to set ride height, a new set of oil filled strut inserts and a new 7/8" sway bar for use in lowered cars complete with urethane sway bar bushings. I'll also be using a set of sport springs from Mid America with a stiffer spring rate for a more aggressive driving style.

Initial inspection shows the kit to be a quality piece, all heavy gauge steel, but that won't stop me from a little fine-tuning to meet my high standards. The inside of the strut housings need to be sprayed with a rust inhibitor, as they are still bare metal. You will also want to drill three small drain holes in the lower spring perches so that water will not collect there. All in all, about 5 minutes of work.Pre-assembly of the struts is easy and will help things go smoothly once you start work on the car itself. Set each of the strut cartridges in the strut housings and screw the caps on, cinch them down nice and tight so that the cartridges are held captive and don't move. I chose to use a few drops of blue Loctite here to keep vibration from loosening the caps.

Setting ride height is pretty straightforward. If you are going to use your stock springs then the highest setting is equal to the stock ride height. Since the circlip notches are spaced evenly at half-inch increments, choosing your desired drop is easy. Drop the lower spring perch one notch for each half-inch lower you want your front end. Here's the tricky part though. The sport springs I chose are designed to lower the front 1 ½" on their own with no other changes. Since I'm using them with the lowering struts I need to consider this 'built-in' drop when setting up the spring perch. My goal is to end up about 2" lower than when I started. Since the springs will give me a 1 ½" drop that means I should set my lower spring perch only one notch lower than stock. Adding the effects together should get me my 2".
Now that the struts are prepped and ready to go, I can begin disassembling the front end of the car. Something worth noting right now, lowering your car will affect your front-end alignment so plan accordingly. Make sure you give yourself time to get the car to a shop and have it aligned before you need to drive it again.

First order of business is to chock the rear wheels, safety first. Jack up the front of the car; placing the head of the jack right between the control arms on the frame head will give you plenty of room to work on both sides. Remove the wheels and set them out of the way. Remove the two bolts holding the strut to the spindle. You might want to tie the spindle to something secure on the car with some safety wire to prevent it from leaning out and damaging your brake lines. You may have to use a mallet to separate the strut from the spindle, but most of the cars I've done this on came apart pretty easily. Now remove the three nuts that secure the upper strut mount in the luggage compartment. Get a good grip on the strut before removing the last nut; at this point it should be free of the car. Carefully remove it from the wheel well making sure you don't catch the brake line and damage it.

With the strut removed from the car you can begin disassembling it. You will need a good set of springs compressors to do this, don't even attempt it without them. You must compress the springs to unload the tension before unscrewing the nut on the strut piston. These springs are under a few hundred pounds of pressure and can be extremely dangerous if they come free without being contained first.
Once you have compressed the spring so that it floats freely on the strut you can remove the top nut. Take care to note the order in which the parts of the strut mount come off, you'll need to put them all back the same way upon reassembly. Once the strut mount and upper spring cup have been removed you can remove the spring. Under the spring is a rubber cup of sorts that the spring sits in; you'll want to re-use these on the new strut housings.

You might have noticed that the piston diameter of the new strut cartridges are slightly smaller than the stock ones, these are a modified Rabbit cartridge. The modification is simple, but not something you can do yourself. If you need replacements in the future you can get them from Mid America or any other aircooled dealer. The smaller piston diameter does pose one slight problem; the old bump stops will not fit. An easy fix is to wrap the top of the piston in some electrical tape until it's thicker. My choice was to simply go and get a set of bump stops and dust covers for a Rabbit. You pretty much have to go to a dealer to get these, or if you're lucky you can find a good set in your local junkyard. Depending on how much you are lowering your car you may have to shorten the bump stops to compensate for the reduced travel. I cut the lower rib off mine, effectively shortening it by about ½". This means I should hit the stops just before my tires hit my fenders.

Slide the bump stop onto the piston of the new cartridge, and set the springs in place. Begin reassembling the upper strut mount by placing the large washer on the piston. Next is the upper spring cap followed by the bearing plate. On top of that is the rubber bushing and then the strut mount itself. Next is the little brass spacer sleeve that locates the piston in the strut bearing and finally the cap and nyloc nut. The torque spec for that nut is 50-61 ft*lbs. Since I don't have a torque wrench with a hollow shaft for locknut applications, I used a 45 degree offset box end and tightened it until my allen wrench started to twist. Don't worry about stripping the allen socket, the allen wrench itself will break in half long before that happens. Getting these tight is important because they will loosen up from road vibration if they aren't.
Now that the strut assembly is together you can place it back in the car, installation being the reverse of removal. I found it easiest to replace the top three nuts hand tight at first. This give you some range of motion to get the lower portion lined up with the spindle. The torque for the three mounting nuts is 14 ft*lbs and the two lower bolts to the spindle are 29 ft*lbs. Be sure to use a little anti-seize on the fasteners to aid in future removal.

Take note that the new strut bodies do not have mounts to hold the brake lines. If you're running disk brakes up front like I am then it doesn't matter, but if you're still running drums up front you may have to get creative. Something as simple as two zip ties would work nicely. One around the strut body and the other looping through first, and then around the brake line. All you need to do is keep it away from moving parts to protect it while driving.

Now that the struts have been replaced all that's left is to install the new sway bar. Removing the old sway bar is a straightforward procedure. Unscrew the bolts holding the clamps at the front and remove then remove the nuts on the sway bar ends. Pull the sway bar straight towards the front of the car and it should disengage from the control arms. You'll need to remove the bushings from the control arms so that the new urethane bushings can be installed. The easiest way to do this is to drill around the perimeter of the rubber and then cut them out. The bushing is in an hourglass shape so you just need to get one side off and then the other side will fall out.

Clean up the openings in the control arms with some solvent and smear some of the provided Prothane grease into the holes. Use another dab of grease and smear it on the metal sleeve that will pass through the bushings and finally smear a little on the faces of the large concave washers where they contact the bushings. The trick to long life and squeak free operation with urethane bushings is to make sure they have a film of this special grease at all contact points. Since the new bushings are a two-piece design installing them is a breeze. Place one on either side of the opening and slide the sleeve through to hold them together.
Take note that the sway bar ends are not perfectly inline with the main body of the bar, depending on which way you're holding it they either bend slightly upwards or downwards. This is to correct the orientation of the control arms as the castor changes with lowering. Lowered beyond a certain point you will want these ends to point downwards, that point is right around 1 ½"- 2". If you do it wrong you'll know right away when you lower the car back onto the ground, the control arms will look like they are twisted. So take the control arm and orient it the correct way. Hold the bar while facing the front end of the car and slide the ends through the sleeves in the new bushings. It will help to install the inner concave washer onto the bar first. Now place the second washer on the other side of the bushings and install the provided nyloc nuts hand tight for now. Grease up and set the front bushings into place on the bar and lift the bar up to the body. Install the clamps and bolts hand tight.

Now that the bar is suspended and in place you can torque down the two large nylocs. Spec is 22 ft*lbs for the original castellated nuts. Since we are using nylocs I prefer to increase that value to about 35 ft*lbs to ensure it won't back off. Before tightening the clamps up front, try to center the bar on the body of the car. Just get it as close as you can, an alignment shop familiar with Supers will relocate the bar anyways. Now you can torque the clamp bolts to spec at 14 ft*lbs.

Give everything a once over and make sure all your fasteners have been properly torqued. Replace the wheels and snug up the lug bolts/nuts before lowering the jack. With the car back on the ground torque the wheel bolts to 90 ft*lbs in a crisscross pattern. You might want to roll the car up and down the driveway a few times so that the suspension settles back down from being jacked up. Take a quick peak at tire to fender clearance and make sure you won't have any problems before driving. Also check under the car to ensure the brake lines are out of the way of anything that might damage them.

If using new springs, expect them to settle down a half inch, give or take a quarter. Just keep an eye on them over then next month or two and make sure you don't start rubbing your tires on your fenders. If it comes down too much then you'll have to pull the struts and raise the spring perch up to compensate.

After getting your front end re-aligned you should notice right away how different it feels. A good combination up front will still ride like stock without looking that way. Our thanks go out to Mid America Motorworks for helping to make the project happen. Keep a look out for my next article where I will be installing a rear disk brake kit from Mid America to complement my disks up front.

1-Here we have the strut housings, cartridges, caps and sport springs, all ready to go.

2-New 7/8" heavy-duty sway bar.

3-A new set of urethane sway bar bushing are provided complete with Prothane grease.

4-Before pic. Ground to fender lip started at 25 7/8".

5-A profile shot for comparison later.

6-This is one of three holes I drilled in each of the two lower spring cups. The originals had holes like this as well so water would not collect here.

7-Here we have the partial strut assemblies ready for springs and upper strut mounts.

8-With the two bolts removed the strut usually comes free with little effort, but keep a rubber mallet around just incase.

9-Here I have my spring compressors installed and I'm ready to disassemble the strut. Notice the small clamps holding two coils together. This is a less than desirable way to lower your front end. These were already accounting for a three quarter inch drop.

10-It's tough to read the yard stick with the camera flash, but you can see that the new springs are in fact shorter than the stock springs, about 3 ½" overall. The new springs have a higher spring rate (approx 10 lbs heavier than stock) meaning that even though they are 3" shorter, they will only account for about 1 ½" of lowering.

11-Side by side of a stock strut and a lowering strut. The housing is shorter to accommodate the shorter Rabbit cartridge, this allows for front ends to be lowered beyond what a stock cartridge can handle.

12-Take look at the previous pic and you see the bottom mounting flange of the new strut is square where the original is rounded. In this picture you can see why, you will need to round off the corner on a bench grinder to provide clearance to the spindle or the boltholes will not line up.

13-The new strut re-uses your existing upper mount assembly and is ready to go once the clamps are removed.

14-Here we see the strut assembly mounted in the car and looking much cleaner than what was just replaced.

15-My disk brake kit came with new clamps to hold the brake lines in place. If you don't have something like this then you can do the zip tie trick I used here to hold the speedometer cable.

16-See the air gap in the middle of the sway bar arm? That means the end is pointing up in this picture. The bend is very small but really makes a difference in control arm alignment.

17-Here we have the sway bar going in. With the bushings installed you just set the ends into the control arms, secure with the provided nuts, and then lift the bar into place and install the clamps.

18-Everything is bolted up and ready to go here. Just need to put the wheels back on and lower the jack.

19-Right after finishing I drove the car around the block to get things to settle in and then took this measurement. The front end is now about 1 ½" lower than when I started.

20-This picture was taken about 3 weeks after installing the lowering kit. No changes have been made and you can see the springs have settled down about ½", right at 2" lower, my goal.

21-Finally, a profile shot with the lowered front end, quite a difference from the before pic. The wheel/tire combo fills the fender well much better now.

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