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Out of Line: At-Home Alignment

Align Lead

Wiping the sweat from your forehead, you hop into your ride after finishing a complete suspension rebuild. Ball joints, springs, shocks, tie rods, all the good stuff that keeps your wheels pointed straight are all new. It’s time to cruise down to the local watering hole and enjoy the fruits of your labor. As you back out of the driveway, things seem good, but then as you approach 40 MPH, you notice that the car is pulling to the left and tires are scrubbing. You need to turn around to go back home because your ride needs an alignment.

Any time that any mods are performed on the suspension, you need an alignment. The slightest adjustment to the caster, camber, or toe can wreak havoc on your vehicle’s handling, and will also destroy your tires at the same time. While most of us take our cars to the alignment shop to get this done, you can do it at home with the QuickTrick Alignment system. Before we get into the kit, let’s talk a little about what an alignment does.

There are three main settings in alignments: camber, caster, and toe. Each has its own handling characteristics. Every vehicle requires different settings for each and your driving style affects the setting as well if you are aligning for performance driving.

Camber

Simply put, this is the angle of the vertical side of the tire. Negative camber tips the top of the tire inward towards the engine, where positive camber tips the top outward. This spec is noted in degrees, positive or negative. Most vehicles use negative camber settings. This tips the tire in slightly at the top. The more aggressive the driving, the more negative camber you want—to a point. Too much negative camber wears out the inside of the tires faster and can yield camber thrust, where bumps in the road can cause the vehicle to move across the road as one tire loses grip, the opposite pushes toward the loss in traction. Another drawback of aggressive negative camber is reduced straight line traction for stopping and acceleration. Positive camber is sometimes used in front-wheel drive vehicles, which are usually non-adjustable in terms of camber.

Camber adjustments are usually made at the top of the upper control arm or strut mount, moving the upper position inward or outward. This is most often accomplished with shims.

Caster

Caster, measured in degrees, is a little harder to explain, mainly because you can’t really see it on the car itself, which is why we are using a bike for visualization. The pivot point on a bike is behind the roll center of the wheel, if you drew a line through the center of the pivot point, it would run from the top rear to the front bottom, this is negative caster. Negative caster keeps the wheels pointing straight and stabilizes the vehicle. If the caster was neutral, the wheels would not be stable, the car would wander on the road, especially above 50-60 MPH, and the steering wheel would not return to center after a turn.

Caster allows the suspension tuner to balance stability, cornering, and turning effort. Positive caster yields better straight line tracking and high-speed stability, but at the cost of very high turning effort. Even with power steering, positive caster makes turning the steering wheel more difficult. For this reason, most older vehicles use negative caster.

Caster adjustment is typically made at the upper control arm or upper strut mount, fore and aft.

Toe

The toe is the direction of the tires, running front to back. Toe-in points the tires together in the front, toe-out points the front of the tires away from each other. Toe does several things- It stabilizes the vehicle in straight line driving, and compensates for the vehicle’s tendency for over or understeer. Measured in either degrees or inches, toe is critical for tire wear. Too much toe scrubs the tires, wearing them out quickly and kills straight line speed. Not enough toe can make the car wander around the road. Toe adjustments are very small, often just 1/32 of an inch per side.

Toe-in is most common on rear-wheel drive vehicles, where the rear wheels push the car. The toe-in helps counter the natural oversteer in RWD vehicles. Because the rear tires push the front of the car, the front suspension bushings tend to walk outward at the front. The toe-in manages this tendency, keeping the car on track.

Front-wheel drive vehicles typically use toe-out. Because FWD cars often have understeer, where the front end wants to go straight instead of turn, toe-out reduces understeer during the initial turn-in. Because FWD cars are being pulled by the front wheels, the front bushings are typically pulled forward, the toe-out is the compensation.

Toe is adjusted through the tie-rods.

Setting the alignment is a matter of trial and error adjustments. With a professional laser-guided computerized alignment machine, it can be done in a couple of hours. These machines cost thousands of dollars and the average gearhead does not have the room for such a piece of equipment, nor the need to use it often enough to justify the cost. There is an alternative, however, and it is called the QuickTrick Alignment system. For less than $300, you can get started setting your own alignments. The basic system uses a pair of wheel clamps that hook onto your wheels, up to 22.5” rims and 38” tires. The clamps connect side to side with measuring tapes that lock into the bars. A magnetic level is used on the vertical bar to check caster and camber.

The process for measuring each setting involves a little math and some set up. All of these processes can be done by one person, but having a helper certainly makes it go faster. We set out to determine the handling issues on our 1963 Buick Le Sabre wagon after rebuilding the front suspension. Using the QuickTrick alignment tools, we were able to get the car set up correctly and now it drives smooth down the road.

1. The kit comes with everything you see in the black bag, the turn plates are extra, but they are absolutely worth it.

1. The kit comes with everything you see in the black bag, the turn plates are extra, but they are absolutely worth it.

 

2. To start, we marked the steering wheel with a ziptie. You can do this however you want, some people use tape on the vertical center. The wheel is not correctly centered on this car, so we just marked one side to count turns. Then we centered the wheels using the lock to lock turns divided in half.

2. To start, we marked the steering wheel with a ziptie. You can do this however you want, some people use tape on the vertical center. The wheel is not correctly centered on this car, so we just marked one side to count turns. Then we centered the wheels using the lock to lock turns divided in half.

 

3. The system connects to your wheels using 3 aluminum studs with small notched hooks. If your wheels are nice aluminum that you don’t want to risk getting scratched, no worries, you can simply pop the supplied silicone caps onto the pins and proceed. The upper pin slides up and down, allowing the system to work on wheels from 13” up to 22.5” diameter.

3. The system connects to your wheels using 3 aluminum studs with small notched hooks. If your wheels are nice aluminum that you don’t want to risk getting scratched, no worries, you can simply pop the supplied silicone caps onto the pins and proceed. The upper pin slides up and down, allowing the system to work on wheels from 13” up to 22.5” diameter.

 

4. The lower pins bolt onto the bottom crossbar in a fixed position.

4. The lower pins bolt onto the bottom crossbar in a fixed position.

 

5. The vertical bar secures to the lower bar with knob and bolt.

5. The vertical bar secures to the lower bar with knob and bolt.

 

6. Getting started is easy. Once the car has settled into its natural ride position (roll it back and forth if it has not been driven), then measure an equal distance in front of the tires to set the turn plates. You want the tires centered on the plates matching positions on each tire.

6. Getting started is easy. Once the car has settled into its natural ride position (roll it back and forth if it has not been driven), then measure an equal distance in front of the tires to set the turn plates. You want the tires centered on the plates matching positions on each tire.

 

7. Use a sharpie to mark the center vertical of the tire on the turn plate. This is a critical step for adjusting caster.

7. Use a sharpie to mark the center vertical of the tire on the turn plate. This is a critical step for adjusting caster.

 

8. Next, zero the levels. This is done by placing the level parallel with the car on the ground and hitting the zero button. The gauge is now calibrated for your position.

8. Next, zero the levels. This is done by placing the level parallel with the car on the ground and hitting the zero button. The gauge is now calibrated for your position.

 

9. Place the bars on the car and adjust them so they are locked into the outside edge of the wheel lip. Then place the gauge on the pad located on the vertical bar and make sure the gauge reads zero, this means the vertical bar is 90-degrees from the ground.

9. Place the bars on the car and adjust them so they are locked into the outside edge of the wheel lip. Then place the gauge on the pad located on the vertical bar and make sure the gauge reads zero, this means the vertical bar is 90-degrees from the ground.

 

10. To check camber, the gauge is set on the ground as shown and zero it.

10. To check camber, the gauge is set on the ground as shown and zero it.

 

11. Then place the gauge on the vertical stand facing outwards as shown. This reading is your camber; .4 degrees negative is within spec for this car. Repeat on the other side.

11. Then place the gauge on the vertical stand facing outwards as shown. This reading is your camber; .4 degrees negative is within spec for this car. Repeat on the other side.

 

12. Caster takes a little bit of math and operation. With a zeroed gauge, and the wheels straight, place the gauge on the vertical in parallel position.

12. Caster takes a little bit of math and operation. With a zeroed gauge, and the wheels straight, place the gauge on the vertical in parallel position.

 

13. Next, turn the wheel to the rear 20-degree mark. Zero the gauge.

13. Next, turn the wheel to the rear 20-degree mark. Zero the gauge.

 

14. Then turn the wheel to the opposite 20-degree mark. Take this reading and multiply times 1.5. This is the caster. For this car, 1.5 caster is actually more than the .5 to 1 degree negative spec, but more caster is better than not enough. Repeat for the other side. The spec needs to be within the vehicle’s side to side margin, usually ¾ of a degree variance is acceptable.

14. Then turn the wheel to the opposite 20-degree mark. Take this reading and multiply times 1.5. This is the caster. For this car, 1.5 caster is actually more than the .5 to 1 degree negative spec, but more caster is better than not enough. Repeat for the other side. The spec needs to be within the vehicle’s side to side margin, usually ¾ of a degree variance is acceptable.

 

15. Toe measurement is done two ways. With the QuickTrick system, you measure total toe. Each tape measure is locked into the notches at the front and rear of the lower bar across the vehicle side to side with the wheels pointed forward in the center position. The measurements are then subtracted from each other. The narrower side indicates toe in or out. This is where our problem was, we had over an inch of toe-in, which is ludicrous.

15. Toe measurement is done two ways. With the QuickTrick system, you measure total toe. Each tape measure is locked into the notches at the front and rear of the lower bar across the vehicle side to side with the wheels pointed forward in the center position. The measurements are then subtracted from each other. The narrower side indicates toe in or out. This is where our problem was, we had over an inch of toe-in, which is ludicrous.

 

16. To adjust the toe, you need to use the string trick. Here you set up jack stands at the front and rear on both sides of the car. Measure the distance from the center of the wheel hub to the string, front and rear, setting the line square. Most cars have a narrower rear track width, so you need to compensate for that in your measurements.

16. To adjust the toe, you need to use the string trick. Here you set up jack stands at the front and rear on both sides of the car. Measure the distance from the center of the wheel hub to the string, front and rear, setting the line square. Most cars have a narrower rear track width, so you need to compensate for that in your measurements.

 

17. Once the string is set, measure the front of each wheel and note the measurement.

17. Once the string is set, measure the front of each wheel and note the measurement.

 

18. Then measure the back of the wheel and note this distance. Subtract the two measurements (one side at a time), and that is that wheel’s toe.

18. Then measure the back of the wheel and note this distance. Subtract the two measurements (one side at a time), and that is that wheel’s toe.

 

19. We found that both wheels had significant toe-in, so we had to adjust the tie rods. These are usually pretty gnarly with road grime, so they get sprayed with lots of lube and then the nuts were loosened.

19. We found that both wheels had significant toe-in, so we had to adjust the tie rods. These are usually pretty gnarly with road grime, so they get sprayed with lots of lube and then the nuts were loosened.

 

20. Some adjusters have flats for a wrench, but not these 53-year old jobs, so we used a pair of vice grips on the center (not too tight!) and proceeded to crank the tie rod out until we were within the 1/16” toe-in per side we were after. All done!

20. Some adjusters have flats for a wrench, but not these 53-year old jobs, so we used a pair of vice grips on the center (not too tight!) and proceeded to crank the tie rod out until we were within the 1/16” toe-in per side we were after. All done!

Sources:

QuickTrick Alignment

About Jefferson Bryant (213 Articles)
A life-long gearhead, Street Tech Magazine founder and editor Jefferson Bryant spends more time in the shop than anywhere else. His career began in the car audio industry as a shop manager, eventually working his way into a position at Rockford Fosgate as a product designer. In 2003, he began writing tech articles for magazines, and has been working as an automotive journalist ever since. His work has been featured in Car Craft, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Truckin’, Mopar Muscle, and many more. Jefferson has also written 5 books and produced countless videos. Jefferson operates Red Dirt Rodz, his personal garage studio, where all of his magazine articles and tech videos are produced. You can follow Jefferson on Facebook (Jefferson Bryant), Twitter (71Buickfreak), and YouTube (RedDirtRodz).

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