UPDATE: Education and experience has changed my views on some of this! See below for an update on rear swaybars before following the bad advice I wrote up here when I was stupid.
Anti-sway bars are the stuff of myth and legend. Especially for the General Motors Metric mid-size platform (the G-Body). You can search and read forums and old magazine articles until your eyes bleed, and you will come away with the distinct impression that nobody really knows how to deal with them. How do they work? how big do you need them to be? Is the bar from supplier X going to be enough? Will it be too much?
When it comes to swaybars on the GM G-body, the conventional wisdom (and the product offerings) seem to center around going slightly bigger. If you’re fortunate enough to have a G-Body that came with the F41 suspension package, you have a 32mm solid front bar, and a smaller rear bar attached to the lower control arms. The aftermarket supplies 34 and 36mm solid and hollow conventional (1 piece bent) bars, and that’s about it, except for Ridetech, which can sell you a NASCAR style torsion bar that’s 1.5″ (38mm) in diameter.
So what do you really need? My opinions – and these are my opinions, but I’ll explain them – follow.
The answer to which swaybar you need? “It depends.” But I’ll go ahead and spit out one answer early: If you are not racing the car, the F41 front and rear bars are all you need.
The more I dig into the actual engineering on this car, the more I’m impressed by GM. Some of the perceived deficiencies in the platform are really the result of cost cutting or compromises made in the name of comfort, not bad engineering. The frame is a good example. It’s a c-channel structure. People knock it for being floppy. It turns out, GM engineered the frame to work with the body as a system. If you replace the squishy rubber body bushings with a better bushing material, all that frame flex goes away and the car feels as solid as a new unibody model. There’s no need to add weight or cost by boxing the factory frame, or replacing the frame entirely with a costly aftermarket frame. Once you identify and address the compromise (soft body bushings) things work as designed, and the design isn’t bad.
The suspension on these cars is no different. The geometry was parts-bin engineering, a metric-converted version of the A-body from the late 1960s. The design goals were cost and comfort. The front suspension was built without a lot of caster. Why? Caster stresses the power steering system. They’d have had to add a power steering cooler to all these cars if they’d run the kind of caster modern cars run. And all these modern cars have power steering coolers on them now.
With the F41 package, GM definitely subscribed to the soft spring, stiff bar mentality. And it works beautifully. So I’ll say it:
Unless you’re racing the car on race compound tires, the F41 swaybars are exactly what the car needs. Any more front bar without changes to the front suspension will make it push, and any more rear bar will make the car’s snap oversteer problem even more snappy.
Now, what if you’re racing? Things get more difficult. To keep the car planted and all four tires on the ground in a turn, you need to understand the geometry in the front, your shocks, and your tires. Fix the geometry and the tires, and the car will start heaving further, and will eventually start picking the inside front tire up. When you get your car to this point, it’s time to step up in front bar size.
It is obvious from this picture that the car is going to require more anti-sway of some kind to keep the inside tire planted, and transfer load from the outside tire, which is getting overworked.
Doing this with springs won’t help. Controlling roll with the springs limits the suspension travel without providing any load transfer to the inside wheels. Doing this with springs also requires some serious shocks.
So, do it with the anti-sway bar.
Why? First, you keep your softer springs, which keeps your ride tolerable and keeps your costs down by allowing you to run with a less expensive over-the-counter shock package. Second, Newton’s Third Law of motion means that in roll, the compression on the outside of the car will twist the bar and push the inside tire down onto the pavement, increasing the grip on the inside tire. More grip is what we want, not necessarily less roll.
That gets us to “which bar?”
Here, too, I will provide my answer: “Not the one in the catalog you’re looking at.”
To do it right, you need to give up on a conventional single-piece bent bar like you’d get from Hotchkis. Their 34mm bar isn’t big enough. Also, conventional-style endlinks that use poly bushings won’t work. The additional rate destroys the bushing material and creates slop in the links, which makes your bar not work at all. Additionally, the conventional frame mount bushings have a lot of friction and also complicate making your bar work.
To do your swaybar correctly, you need a three-piece unit like they use on actual race cars. Ridetech came to this conclusion when they designed their Musclebar(tm), but their design was built to be an easy bolt-in, so they make some compromises. Namely they welded stuff where it could have been bolted. I can only assume they did this for durability on a street application where people wouldn’t be checking the clamp fasteners often enough. They also only have two choices for the center bar, and my friends have found it to not be enough for autocross.
So hit up actual race car part suppliers. Speedway Engineering and Schroeder Steering offer splined torsion bars in a large number of sizes. Once you fab up the mounting and get your sway bar arms bent right and lined up, you can easily swap out the torsion bar. Instead of having to buy a whole swaybar from Ridetech for $600 each time, you just swap out the torsion bar for $150-$300. The torsion bars also don’t take up much space, so you can just throw them in the trailer. If need to make an adjustment at the track that can’t be accomplished by moving the link mounts, you can just pull out a whole different bar and swap it in a few minutes.
My suggestion is to go bigg-ish, with a bar rate somewhere close to 500-600lb-in, then increase the size until the car starts to push in corners. Then back off a step.
UPDATE: The following paragraph is WRONG. I was WRONG.
But what about the rear? I’ve not seen an instance where a stiffer rear bar will help this platform. In fact, you need to allow the rear to articulate as much as possible. Stiffer rear anti-sway bars will actually cause the car to pick the inside rear tire up off the ground (solid axle!). You’ll lose traction coming out of the corner and it’ll tear up your differential having that inside wheel freewheeling.
Here’s why this is wrong: In roll, the sway bars add force to the outside wheel in an attempt to prevent roll. If you increase the front bar size without also increasing the rear bar or rear spring, then there’s not enough transfer at the rear. But that force has to go somewhere, and it all ends up on the outside front tire. So if your front and rear bars aren’t balanced, you’ll overload the outside front tire – which is exactly what I was fighting all year. I’m going to be going against my statement above this winter and acquiring a larger rear bar. My concerns about rear wheel lift remain, and I’ll have to pay attention to it.