Floating Out of the Factory

When we think of air suspension, we picture either massive semi trucks and trailers, city busses kneeling politely, or customized sedans and trucks–usually slathered in orange or green paint–bouncing around on the curb to the beat of eardrum shredding bass.
But not every air suspension system was installed in the aftermarket.  A select few came loaded from the factory.  The factory air suspension has often been a textbook example of Good Intentions, though it is not without its supporters.  We thought we’d present a few examples and see what side of the debate you take.  Have you owned any of these?

 1985-87 Lincoln Continental Mark VII

Lincoln cut no corners with the Mark VII.  It was available with two engines, both of them interesting, the first because it was the same five-oh V8 shoehorned into the Mustang GT, the second because it was a BMW-sourced diesel straight six.  It was the first American car with four-channel ABS, and the dashboard was among the first to look like the cockpit of a space shuttle, with the obvious exception of Knight Industries Two Thousand.

And since they were gorging the Mark VII on features, behaving rather like this author with a plate at the Golden Corral, they also added four wheel air suspension.  It must have been a hit, too, because Lincoln renewed the idea for the whole life of the Mark VII, up to 1987, and then carried it over to the Mark VIII and the Continental until 1994.

That’s probably when people began to realize that the air suspension system wasn’t coping well with getting older.  Like all creatures who don’t age well, the Continental’s rear end began to droop in its older models, which is why there are still several on the road today that look as if they’re angling for liftoff.  The Continental’s air suspension system ended up lowering its resale value, and though air springs reappeared briefly for the 1997 model year, they haven’t returned since.

1992-Present Land Rover Range Rover

Unlike Lincoln’s air suspension experience, the British must have “gotten it sorted,” as they say, because the Land Rover Range Rover introduced air suspension for the 1992 model year and has kept it ever since.  Though the luxury Land Rover, known today as the “Range Rover Classic,” was first introduced in 1970, the Rangey made the perfect home for air suspension in 1992.

By then, despite publicity and special editions to the contrary, the Range Rover had begun its migration from the rutted mud of international backroads to the suburban driveways of Hollywood actors and upscale soccer moms.  A nice, soft air suspension made the British hulk more comfortable and manageable to drive, and in 1994, they introduced EAS, or Electronic Air Suspension, which automatically adjusted ride height depending on the speed.  It could also raise one side of the Rangey when it wasn’t parked levelly, and though this feature did nothing for your spilled coffee, it kept the fluids in their place under the hood.

But like the Lincoln, many of the Range Rovers of the 1994-2001 Second Generation had air suspension problems, leading to owner-tweaking and a plethora of aftermarket solutions.

1932-1935 Stout Scarab

Though this post is about factory cars with air suspension, the Stout Scarab might be the exception.  Its factory was a corner workshop in Dearborn, Michigan, and only nine hand-built examples were ever produced.  One of them had air suspension.

The Scarab’s story begins with a man named William Bushnell Stout, perhaps best described as a professional limit-pusher.  Stout was a journalist, but it’s easy to find things to write about when you’re also a pilot, automotive engineer, and the designer of something you call the “Torpedo Plane.”  He also drafted the ubiquitous Ford Tri-Motor and some of the early Packards.

Stout set out to create an over-the-road office, and ended up, according to some, inventing the minivan.  The Scarab was a long-wheel-base, fiberglass bodied MPV, and its Ford V8 was mounted in the rear, a design virtually unprecedented in 1932.

The Scarab’s interior was modular, meaning the owner could rearrange at will the middle bench seat, a captain’s chair, and even a card table.  No, Chrysler didn’t come up with that feature for the 2008 Town and Country.  Stout also used the Scarab to pioneer the unibody frame, then unheard of, which is standard issue for most cars and SUVs today.

The example with air suspension featured an individual air compressor for each wheel, driving up the cost.  Notable about this system, however, was that it was Firestone’s very first foray into air suspension systems.  By then Firestone had nearly 40 years of pneumatic and rubber experience under their belts, making them the perfect choice for a rubber-based air spring source.  Today air suspension is a major component of Firestone’s operation.

Unfortunately, the $5,000 price tag was a little too salty for the Depression era American auto market, especially when a brand new Chrysler Imperial with every option cost under $1,400.  So you might consider the Scarab the Bugatti Veyron of the day.

Stout owned and drove a Scarab himself, crisscrossing America several times in his mobile office and racking up an impressive 250,000 miles on its odometer, which is Toyota truck range today, and back then would have been baffling.  Five examples survive today.

For trucks and curb-jumping crowd pleasers, air suspension is a great solution.  Its history in the car department, however, has largely struggled to get off the ground (pardon the pun).  But it stuck for Range Rover, and that a genius like William Stout would include it in a car that broke terra nova in so many other ways, certainly says something.

What other notable examples of factory air suspension are out there?  Do you think it’s a viable solution for the mainstream car market, or should automakers leave it for the trucks?

Stout Scarab image provided courtesy of autos.aol.com.

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