There's no denying that the stock Ford suspensions from the '60s and '70s are full of compromises. Budgetary constraints, packaging limitations, and so forth were considerations Ford had to contend with when building vehicles for the masses. Today, owners often attempt Band-Aid fixes while running modern sticky tires, and the end result is a car that doesn't handle, doesn't steer, and doesn't stop. Fixing these issues is entirely possible and one of the best ways to tackle the mediocre handling, steering, and braking of these cars is with a full bolt-on independent front suspension (IFS) upgrade package. An aftermarket IFS kit that addresses these concerns as a systems approach will net you a better handling and safer ride in a weekend of wrenching.
Fatman Fabrications has offered full chassis and Mustang II conversions for the street rod market for nearly three decades, and when the company's engineers first investigated the growing unibody Ford market (Mustang, Falcon, Fairlane, and so on), it was agreed upon that the typical Mustang II crossmember conversion was not the way to go. Instead, Fatman Fabrications devised a trick bolt-in IFS coilover strut suspension cradle that used all Ford parts for ease of servicing. Their reasoning? The Ford unibody design uses the shock towers to support the vehicle and transfer suspension loads to the firewall and cowl. Removing the shock towers means the vehicle's weight is now on the front frame rails exclusively—a weaker proposition by their reasoning.
The popular '94-'04 Mustang spindle and strut assembly was the key part of making the cradle work, and with the enormous late-model Mustang market, the customer would be able to choose from literally dozens of strut and brake options—from stone stock budget parts to trick adjustable struts and multi-piston disc brakes. Buyers can pick and choose their struts, brakes, and other hardware as their budget allows or project needs dictate. They can also purchase everything they'll need including rack-and-pinion, tilt steering column, and more directly from Fatman Fabrications for one-stop-shopping.
The first IFS cradle system from Fatman Fabrications hit the market for first generation Mustangs in 2005 and we were one of the lucky few to actually drive that '68 Mustang with Fatman's IFS system, coming away quite impressed at how the system worked. However, as time marches on, so does a successful company and its innovations and Fatman Fabrications does not sit idle. The company's strut IFS system is now offered for other Ford models, with a full lower cradle and a true A-arm design (previous designs retained the strut rods) that improves the car's handling.
1. First up to see the recycling pile is the Fairlane’s steering linkage. You should be able to simply unbolt the idler arm from the right framerail and separate the outer tie-rod ends from the spindles, finishing with the removal of the center link/control valve stud. While this two-post lift makes life easier, this whole project can be accomplished on jackstands.
2. The Fatman kit does not utilize any of the existing front suspension hardware except for the antisway bar. The antisway bar endlinks need to be disconnected from the original lower control arms, however, we’re removing the bar all together. Drag cars don’t need a front bar.
3. The most stubborn part of any early Ford front suspension is going to be the strut rods and their forward mounting points. Use generous amounts of penetrating oil and work the retaining nut back and forth to prevent galling during removal.
4. The lower control arms are next. You can remove them from the spindle and the chassis, or as in our case, we simply unbolted the lower arm from the chassis (shown here). We then separated the spindle from the upper control arm, ditching the spindle, brake hardware, and lower arm in one step.
5. Once you have the spindles/brakes/lower arm free, you’ll be left with the upper control arm, shock absorber, and coil spring on each side. A spring compressor can be used, but since we don’t need/care about any of these parts, Woody simply removed the upper shock mounts, upper control arm retaining nuts, and pried the whole assembly out. Fatman’s instructions even state this is a viable option for removal, just be sure to use a length of chain or cable to dampen the spring’s energy when it pops out.
6. If you couldn’t get the steering box out when removing the steering linkage earlier, now is the time to remove it from the car. The steering column will need to be upgraded or modified, too, so plan on removing the column now as well.
7. While by no means a photo of everything you get in the Fatman IFS kit, shown here is the majority of the hardware, including the custom IFS cradle, steering rack mounts, coilover springs with mounts, and upper strut mounts. The manual rack (owner’s choice) and spindles/struts are not included, but are shown here to demonstrate assembly. Not shown are the included lower control arms.
8. The IFS cradle mounts to the stock unibody stamping via the lower control arm mounting holes and this series of machined steel spacers. The spacers have to be installed in a specific order to fit and are shown here (from left to right) as they will be installed rear to front in the car.
9. A test fit of the steel spacers showed this rear lower engine mount bolt interfered and had to be unbolted and reversed in the hole to make room for the steel spacer in this spot. Since the engine mount brackets were modified (solid mounts created), we’re not sure if this will be an issue on all Fairlanes, but check your spacer fitment to be sure.
10. With the aid of a second set of hands or a floor jack, position the Fatman IFS cradle under the front structure and place the stepped steel spacers into the rear lower control arm holes as shown. Woody prefers to install the cradle with the rack-and-pinion unit already mounted, but you can install the IFS cradle bare if it makes it easier for you.
11. Carefully raise the IFS cradle into place while positioning the front spacers in the original lower control arm cam bolt brackets, followed by the long ½-inch mounting bolts. For ’66-’67 Fairlanes, you’ll use the inner mounting holes on the cradle. The outer holes are for ’68-’71 models. Place the remaining inboard spacers in their proper locations and work the mounting bolts through them to secure the cradle.
12. The bottom of the cradle is secured to the Fairlane’s front structure via a clamp plate and two countersunk bolts. We found this ’66 Fairlane’s lower structure to differ from the Fairlane Fatman used for its instructions, creating a ½-inch gap between the cradle and structure. Woody quickly cut a section of plate steel to use as a spacer and Fatman Fabrications tells us all future kits will come with the plate and longer bolts just in case the installation calls for it.
13. After the bottom of the cradle has been secured to the Fairlane’s structure, the ½-inch mounting bolts installed through the lower control arm mounting holes can now be tightened. Or you can just leave everything “snug” until you have all remaining parts/fasteners in place, just don’t forget to tighten these bolts later.
14. If you haven’t already removed the shock absorber upper mounts, do so now, and remove their retaining bolts also. The Fatman IFS kit includes these stout upper strut mounts with spherical bearings. They simply bolt to the upper shock towers with the included hardware, nylon spacers, and lower plates.
15. Fatman includes super strong, TIG-welded tubular steel lower control arms in its kit. The control arms come preassembled with new ball joints and bushings and simply bolt on to the cradle’s mounting points. Unlike rubber bushings, the control arm’s urethane bushings allow tightening of the mounting bolts with the arms in any position.
We recently discovered a local installer, Woody Fowler at Pecker Head Racing, had a customer's '66 Fairlane scheduled for an installation of one of Fatman Fabrications' strut IFS systems. Car owner Charlie Brazzeal already has a nicely restored '67 Fairlane GT with a 427 FE and four-speed with a Detroit Locker equipped 9-inch, but a recently acquired 427 FE Tunnel Port engine gave Charlie the itch to go hunting GM muscle at the local dragstrip. Being a Fairlane fan, Charlie scored this '66 Fairlane project "mid-build" with a lot of chassis and interior tin-work already completed. The strut IFS install will free up some room for exhaust headers while allowing quick suspension tuning at the track for ride height, spring rate, and compression/rebound via externally adjustable drag-spec McPherson struts. The Fairlane is currently in mock-up mode, so what you'll see in the following photos will soon be coming back off to finish the chassis work. Charlie's plans call for an R-code look in Wimbledon White with a solid roller cam in the FE, a high-stall C4 in the tunnel, and single 4V induction under the R-code style hood. We can't wait to see this Tunnel Port FE-powered 'Lane hit the track and make some noise!
16. The Fatman IFS requires minor trimming to the late-model Mustang spindles. The stock steering arm is cut off to save a bit of weight and the ball joint boss is ground down some for dust boot clearance at full suspension droop. These mods only take a few minutes with a grinder. A modified spindle is shown here to the left of a stock spindle.
17. The spindles are assembled to the new tubular arms with nylon lock nuts. These lock nuts are 24mm and require 100 ft-lbs to secure properly. An impact gun is the best tool for the job.
18. The Mustang struts used can be from ’79-’93 or from ’94-’04. Generally the earlier strut is used to provide more travel—Woody chose Strange adjustable drag struts for the Fairlane. After trimming the upper strut bump stops as shown in the instructions, the threaded adjusters and coilover springs are installed along with the upper spring seats and the 1¼-inch stepped bushings, which will engage the strut bearings in the upper mounts already installed.
19. The assembled struts are installed by lining up the strut shafts with the upper strut mount bearing openings and inserting the shafts. You will need to compress the coilover springs to some extent (depending upon spring length ordered) and a floor jack will help with this. Once through the bearings, the upper bushings are installed along with the nylon lock nut for each side. Tighten the nuts with an impact gun or hold the struts with an adjustable wrench as shown here. Cap the strut tops with the included protective rubber caps.
20. The Strange struts that Woody chose, even though they were listed for ’79-’93 Mustang, utilized the smaller spindle mounting spacing of the ’94-’04 style. As such, the included shims/camber adjuster from Fatman wouldn’t work as designed. Woody had to add a wider bridge to the shims so that they would sit on the outside of the spindle versus the inside. The bolt presses against the strut body and offers an easy way to adjust camber.
21. To attach the spindles to the struts, Fatman Fabrications provides new mounting hardware with nylon lock nuts. To be able to clear the soon-to-be-installed brake calipers, the bolts must be installed from the rear with the nylon lock nuts to the front as seen here.
22. The finished strut/spindle installation is shown here. Note the ample room to quickly reach the strut adjustment knob at the base of the strut, as well as the coilover spring collar for ride height adjustments. Some brands of struts adjust their compression from the top, under the hood (Tokico, Koni, and more).
23. Depending upon the spring diameter, ride height, and other factors, the stock bump stop may need to be removed from the coil spring cover, or even minor notching of the spring cover for clearance to prevent the coilover spring from making contact.
24. The owner of the Fairlane chose the ’99-’04 Mustang aluminum two-piston brake calipers for their lighter weight and better stopping power. However, the current design steering arm only has clearance built in for the ’94-’98 iron single-piston caliper, as you can see here, when the steering arm is placed against the two-piston caliper. Fatman Fabrications is aware of the ’99-’04 caliper difference and tells us a revised steering arm will be available by the time this story hits your mailbox.
25. The standard single-piston iron calipers used on the ’94-’98 Mustang were sourced locally and used on the Fairlane in the short term until the updated steering arms can be sent to the shop. Remember, this is all being mocked up and has to come back off for the Fairlane’s bodywork, so please no comments on the rusty old caliper!
26. The rack-and-pinion unit requires shortening of the inner tie-rod ends to meet the proper track width of the new strut IFS. Fatman Fabrications provides the measurements in the instructions, along with a threading die and handle to rethread the tie-rod ends. The outer tie-rod ends are then threaded on and installed into the steering arms.
27. Alignment specs aren’t critical to get the car rolling and can simply be set to 0 toe for now. That’ll get you to an alignment shop for full alignment duty. Adjust the tie-rod ends equally to ensure the steering rack stays centered.
28. While most people will opt for an aftermarket tilt-column assembly to make the installation (and your entry/exit) easier, the owner of this Fairlane drag car opted to stick with a vintage floor-shift column (the Fairlane was originally a column shift car). Woody dug a floor-shift column out of his stash of spare parts and trimmed the column to length, added a support bushing, and machined the steering shaft as shown. These steps are all outlined in the included instructions.
29. Fatman Fabrications includes a length of double-D steering shaft bar stock and the correct U-joints to connect the steering rack to the steering column. Use a piece of wooden dowel to simulate the steering shaft for easy measuring.
30. The finished installation looks nice and tidy, and compact to boot. This Fairlane will be ready to hit the track with a fully adjustable strut front suspension that weighs less and reacts faster than the original double-arm suspension with coil spring and separate shock absorber. On the ground, the Fairlane is riding a little low, but this is with the coilover adjusters at their lowest point. While the engine bay has been stuffed with an FE for general clearance/fit checks, ride height won’t be a concern until the actual race engine is in place.