When Chip Lofton and his family were stranded on the side of the highway during a road trip, he needed a quick fix to get moving again. Yet the solution he found to their busted air suspension would eventually do much more than just get the Loftons safely on their way. Nearly 25 years later, the idea for that quick fix has become the backbone of Strutmasters, LLC., a multimillion dollar business that now serves car owners around the world.
The Automoblog team took a trip to Strutmasters’ headquarters in Roxboro, North Carolina to get an inside look at its production facility. We also spoke with Strutmasters General Manager Scott Beaddles to learn more about the business, its history, and its future.
Necessity is the Mother of Suspension Invention
When Lofton’s Lincoln Town Car broke down on that 1999 road trip, he was left with few options. He’d have to wait for the parts for his air suspension to come in and, once they did, he’d have to pay quite a bit of money for repairs. But he guessed that he might be able to replace his air suspension strut with a basic, traditional coilover strut from a similar vehicle and at least get his car and family home.
That gamble ended up paying off. The replacement strut worked even better than expected – and Lofton managed to avoid paying the majority of the air suspension repair costs.
Soon after, he realized that this idea could benefit other owners of cars with air suspensions, so he started Strutmasters, LLC. The company started out providing coilover suspension replacements for a handful of vehicles with air suspensions and grew its catalog from there.
Within a few years, Strutmasters was making parts and kits for dozens of makes and models. The company capitalized on the burgeoning e-commerce trend and began sending products to customers around the country. Two and a half decades later, the company is a formidable force in the suspension replacement industry that it helped to create.
An Old-School Solution to New-School Problems
Some may be surprised to learn that air suspension technology is over 120 years old. In 1901, a patent was filed for a “pneumatic spring for vehicles” that used compressed air to provide resistance for a car suspension. Yet it wasn’t until 1986, when Toyota introduced the first electronically-controlled air suspension, that this technology started to become a popular feature on consumer vehicles.
Modern air suspension systems work by monitoring a vehicle’s ride height relative to the road and adjusting the air pressure in pneumatic springs to provide optimal resistance. The result is a car that responds to changing road conditions and provides a smooth ride for the driver and passengers. However, these active suspension systems classify as high-tech auto equipment – which usually translates to both complicated and expensive to fix.
Conversely, the coilover suspension system may initially feel like a museum piece, with origins tracing back as far as 1763. First used on automobiles in 1904, these more traditional suspension systems use a metal strut to hold a car up and a spring to provide a balance of give and resistance.
Strutmasters designs and manufactures parts and “suspension conversion kits” that replace the air suspension on a car with a coilover system. For the car owner, this means losing the functionality of an active suspension, but it also means saving heaps of money – sometimes several thousand dollars.
Beaddles explains that the savings are more than worth the difference for many drivers.
“For most people it’s just a matter of cost,” he says. “In a lot of cases, it might cost more than your car is worth to replace the active suspension, which doesn’t make a lot of sense for most people. When they’re made right, coilovers can offer comparable performance at a fraction of the cost.”
Keeping it Close to Home
In addition to the technology itself, Strutmasters operates on another idea that seems a little old-fashioned in 2023: assembling its products domestically. While the company sources its components from global manufacturers, it assembles its kits at its Roxboro headquarters.
Beaddles shares that the decision to complete the final steps in the manufacturing chain in North Carolina provides Strutmasters with a few advantages.
“The manufacturing quality overseas these days can be really good,” he says. “But assembling things and testing them allows us to step in and do QA [quality assurance] on our own at any time. It’s just a lot easier to make sure everything is up to spec. We don’t want any surprises for us or the customer.”
Strutmasters also uses the factory at its headquarters to design and test its products. According to Beaddles, this helps with the product development process.
“A big part of it is just that it’s actually easier to do things here, even if it is a little more expensive,” he says. “We want to come as close as possible to the ride and feel that people got with their active suspension when it was working. Even a slight variation in pressure on the springs, for example, can make a huge difference in how a car handles and the feedback it gives the driver.”
Beaddles says that the process of fine tuning replacement suspension parts can often involve a lot of back and forth. Sending designs to third parties and waiting for them to come back adds time and complexity to the process.
“To get the parts exactly right, we have to test and refine everything,” says Beaddles. ”Doing it in-house means that we can make adjustments and improvements in real time. That allows our engineers to really focus on one thing at a time and helps us get to the point of production much more quickly.”
Made With DIYers In Mind
Fixing one’s own car is another practice that is increasingly going out of fashion, but it’s one that Strutmasters embraces. While swapping out a suspension system may seem like a daunting task for anyone other than a professional mechanic, the company encourages people to consider doing the fix themselves.
“As cars have gotten more complicated, working on your own vehicle has become a bit of a lost art,” says Beaddles. “These days you need special equipment to do a lot of the work you need to do on a car, but installing new coil shocks is still pretty simple.”
Beaddles says that while many customers have their kits and components installed by a mechanic, he hopes that people at least consider doing the job themselves. To help, the company hosts installation videos on its website and packages DIY instructions with its products.
“Replacing your suspension yourself of course saves you a lot of money,” he says. “But I also think it’s good for people. Most people probably don’t know that there is still a lot of work on their car that they can do themselves. Doing a big job like a suspension replacement at home can help people realize that.”
Strutting Into the Future
Although Strutmasters built its success off of long-established technology, the company unquestionably has its sights set on the future. In recent years, the company has expanded to offer motorcycle suspension kits and components, specialty off-road products, and has even a growing line of active suspension components.
Beaddles says that the company is going to continue to grow and develop along with the industry. That may include adopting new technology or expanding into different areas. Yet the old-school values that helped build Strutmasters aren’t going anywhere.
“Maybe we’re just stubborn,” he says. “I’m sure we could find cheaper ways to do what we do, but we like making things in house and being so hands on. It’s just so much simpler.”