Camaros have a well-deserved reputation for terrific driving and handling characteristics, generally speaking. But the drivability of any car depends on a good solid foundation for the steering and suspension components. Early Camaros, Novas, and Firebirds are all built on a subframe system, with the front half of the drivetrain assembled onto a bolt-on subframe, and the back half mounted in frame rails which are integral parts of the body shell.
Problems can come from any misalignment or distortion of the subframe, which might be caused by an impact from an accident or from rust around the mounting holes. For many long years, the only real solution for restorers was to find a good used subframe at the nearest salvage yard or swap meet. But the salvage yards have been picked clean, and subframes are getting harder to find in any condition.
One company has recently begun to produce brand new subframes for first generation Camaros, which look exactly like the OEM units as near as we could tell. All original holes seem to be the right shape, size, and location, and even the welds look like authentic factory seams.
Our 1969 project Camaro’s main body cab had been fitted with new sheet metal panels, but the original subframe was a mess, with a smashed front frame-horn from a traffic crash long ago, and plenty of serious rust. So we ordered a brand new subframe from Auto Metal Direct (AMD) to put our old F-body on solid footing once again. When we called, we found out that they actually make three slightly different versions, as the 1967, 1968, and 1969 subframes were each unique for one year only. The differences were very minor, such as an added or deleted hole here or there, etc.
Check out the following step-by-step installation process, and then check the subframe under your next Camaro project, to make sure you’ve got a good foundation to build on.
Our original subframe was seriously rusted, and looking pretty rough.
The front frame-horn on our car was smashed in an accident long ago.
Our new subframe arrived right on schedule, and looked just like the original factory unit, right down to the brackets, holes, and weld seams.
The first thing we did was measure all dimensions, to verify everything was correct. Then we immediately test fitted it onto the car. It fit perfectly.
Frame-to-body bolts were put into place to anchor the subframe to our body.
Bolted into place and torqued to specs, the subframe was ready for adding the bolt-ons.
New upper and lower control arms were fitted with new ball joints and bushings, and the upper arms got new inner control arm shafts. Our Camaro would have all new suspension and steering components when we were through.
It’s important not to tighten the upper inner bushing bolts until the engine is installed and full weight is on the coil springs. Otherwise, the bushings may hold the front of the car in a “jacked-up” position.
Next, we began bolting the control arms onto the subframe. This is the left lower arm, being installed by Craig Hopkins of The Installation Center in Cleveland, Georgia.
Upper inner control arms are secured by large bolts which pass through the subframe and then through the upper inner shafts. These bolts have a knurled pattern near the head to anchor them in the subframe mounts, and to keep them from rotating when the nuts are tightened or loosened. They must be firmly driven into place to anchor them properly
Special shims are placed behind the control arm shafts for alignment purposes. Craig has a lot of experience with this, so he can estimate a number of shims which will likely get our Camaro “in the ballpark” before sending it to an alignment shop once the car is completed.
Now is the time to install the rubber bumpers, which limit control arm travel during bumps and (hopefully) prevent metal-to-metal contact during impacts with pot holes or wild drops caused by powerful wheelies at the drag strip (we wish!)
Here is an underside view of the hole where the bumper fits through. Note the grease to ease installation.
This is the finished view of the rubber bumper, seen from beneath the car.
Now Craig is carefully placing the front coil spring in place. Next, he will compress it carefully, using a coil spring compressor or floor jack. This part of the job can be very dangerous and is best left to professionals, unless you have proper equipment and training.
Now the spindle is bolted into place, which locks the coil spring safely in its nest in the subframe, out of harms way. Be sure to torque all suspension nuts and bolts to proper specs, and use those cotter pins!
Next, Craig is bolting on the cast iron arm which will attach to the outer tie rod end, thus connecting the spindle to the steering linkage.
With all four control arms and both coil springs in place, the steering gear box comes next. Three long special bolts with thick washers anchor the steering box in place on the driver’s side of the subframe.
On the other side of the subframe, the idler arm is next to be installed. It firmly supports the pivoting travel of the steering assembly, and is vitally important to good wheel alignment and tight steering.
The center link is now installed on the idler arm end.
Next, Craig bolts the center link onto the pitman arm at the steering box.
With the center link in place, both left and right tie rod assemblies can be installed.
The anti-sway bar assembly is next on the agenda. Here Craig is fitting the long bar through the subframe holes from one side to the other.
Sway bar bushings and brackets hold the bar to the underside on the left and right subframe horns.
Each end of the anti-sway bar is anchored to the lower control arm by the stabilizer link assembly. Here Craig is seen with a wrench on the nut on the top end, and a ratchet on the other. After initial tightening, he’ll go back with a torque wrench and set it to factory specs.
Finally, it is time to install the front shocks. We’re using original style Delco spiral shocks, just like the units this car would have worn when it first came out of the GM factory. Slide the shocks in place from the bottom.
When the two bottom shock-mount bolts are installed, it’s time to install the bushings, washer, and nut on the top of the shock shaft.
At this point Craig agreed to remove the finished subframe from the car body, so we could better show you the finished subframe. He unbolted it, and slid it right out into plain view for the camera.
The finished assembly looks great. Everything went very smoothly, and we were quite impressed with the new subframe from AMD.
Auto Metal Direct
C. Hopkins Rod & Custom