Drivers turn to Air Lift to enhance vehicle performance

Larry Edsall
Special to The Detroit News

After World War II, Americans were on the move. Many loaded up their belongings and headed west — kicks along Route 66 and all that. Others simply were heading out on vacations, often pulling travel trailers. Often, they overloaded their cars.

A solution was devised in 1949 by two Lansing-based engineers — Claude Pemberton, who worked at General Electric, and Don Perkins, who led experimental projects for Oldsmobile. Their solution was an air-tight bladder that fit within each of a car’s rear springs. Pump compressed air into what were called “helper springs” and the car could carry or tow more weight without the rear of the car sagging unsafely.

Pemberton started a business, Air Lift Company, to manufacture what we now refer to as air springs. Early customers included not only regular drivers, but now-famous Southern stock car racing teams.

Air Lift added a second, sleeve-type air spring designed for pickups and heavier-duty vehicles.

Today, pickup owners and others who tow account for 70 percent of the company’s business. The other 30 percent of customers — and their number is growing rapidly — are people buying suspension products from the Air Lift Performance division, which provides air suspension for all four wheels, primarily for people who want to enhance their vehicle’s stance and dynamic performance.

As Air Lift celebrates its 65th anniversary, and to keep up with the growing demand for its products, the company is nearly doubling the size of its headquarters, manufacturing and assembly center in Lansing — again. It was just a few years ago that the company expanded on its footprint.

The company also will be adding to its staff of 125 employees when its new facilities are ready.

Air Lift president Kevin Mehigh said the company’s typical customer is either an “RV type” — someone who tows a boat, horse trailer, race car or camper — or the performance-oriented owner of European or Japanese sports sedans or modern Detroit muscle cars — Mustangs, Camaros and Chargers.

Air Lift Performance offers 200 custom kits, each designed for a specific vehicle application. The Lansing facility includes a research and development garage with vibration and extreme environmental test champers as well as a control systems laboratory.

Air Lift equipment provides for “no drill” installation.

Mehigh also said that what separates Air Lift suspension systems from competitors are its controllers, the devices that regulate how much air moves from the onboard compressor into the air or helper springs. He said Air Lift offers several types of control systems — including in-dash and wireless versions — but that each is designed to be user-friendly.

Prices for a complete Performance system typically run in the $2,000 to $3,500 range, Mehigh said, while the single-axle setup for a pickup, including controller, can range from around $450 to around $1,000.

For information, including sales outlets and installers, visit the www. website.

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at