Video Shop Tour: Visiting Heidts Automotive Group
Deep in the Chicago suburbs, a performance manufacturer that’s become synonymous with hand-crafted street rod and hot rod suspensions has recently doubled in size – but size doesn’t matter as they continue to stay directly connected to the performance community.
Since 1985, Heidts Automotive Group and its well-known Superide and Pro-G street rod suspension have been on every project builder’s wish list.
The company, founded by Gary Heidt nearly thirty years ago, continues to provide the broadest line of Street Rod (pre-48) suspension systems and components in the industry. Wallace (Wal) Leyshon, Heidts Automotive Group owner, has built on that legacy by applying his OEM-based engineering background and has expanded aggressively into the muscle and performance car markets.
Now, with independent front and rear suspension kits available for dozens of cars and trucks, the original idea to provide a better suspension for classic cars has certainly evolved over the years.
Growing Through Partnerships
Owner Wallace Leyshon has expanded and grown the company, and in recent years, the company has partnered with noted racer Kenny Brown. Best known for his bolt-on parts for late-model Mustangs, and with Alston Race Cars – known for their tubular cages and cage kits for drag racing, to become a significant force in the performance business, Heidts is now a tour de force in suspension systems.
Jim Shaw, Senior Mechanical Engineer with the Lake Zurich, Illinois, based company, says that this most recent expansion into a 40,000-square foot shop is a bit of a turning point for the company, though it remains deeply and uniquely committed to hand-built work.
Take a stroll around the massive facilities and you’ll find the company’s three, award-winning house cars, a ’68 and a ’71 Camaro, and a ’66 Mustang. You’ll also find a very busy staff of professional engineers, fabricators, sales and shipping teams turning out the goods for a catalog that now exceeds 1,000 parts.
And while there’s a lot of computer-assisted stuff going on as they design, create and test components for these performance suspension systems, the emphasis is still on hand-welded and manually tested parts. Shaw also likes to let people know that even the high tech guys running the CAD computers are still car guys at heart.
Many of the guys in Heidts’ Engineering come from motorsports backgrounds. -Jim Shaw
“Our strengths obviously include a broad knowledge of street rods, hot rods and musclecars, as well as suspension dynamics and chassis tuning,” Shaw says. “Many of the guys in Heidts’ Engineering come from motorsports backgrounds, both amateur and professional. We have experience in drag racing, circle track and road racing, both behind the wheel and behind a wrench.”
Shaw himself used to work with Northrop Grumman making missile defense systems, but says that his new job is a lot more fun – though he does get to use his almost-rocket-scientist experience to apply world-class engineering techniques to the whole Heidts Automotive Group. And as a desk jockey who has been an amateur motorsports participant since college, it’s a pretty cool opportunity, he admits.
Focus On The Superide
The company’s core work still goes back to its Superide IRS, with inboard-mounted brakes, half-shafts, and lower control arms, bringing modern technology to classic rides.
Heidts prides itself on doing the vast majority of its work in-house, creating roll cage kits, frame rails, sub-frames, crossmembers, rearend housings and control arms from raw material to finished goods through cutting, bending, machining, and welding. At the core, the company remains committed to hand-built work, with automation only for CNC plasma cutting and multi-axis machining jobs.
One of the automated machines utilized in production is the CNC plasma cutter, used to more quickly and uniformly produce flat brackets in bulk from sheet metal. Bracket designs are created in 3D CAD, and automatically sent to the plasma machines through Heidts onsite computer network. This allows multiple design iterations to be tested in a very short amount of time.
“One thing we do not automate is welding – all of our products are MIG and TIG welded by hand by some of the best welders in the world,” Shaw says. “The science behind the welding is applying the right amount of heat to create a robust joint between two parts, but preventing the part from warping as it cools. The art behind the welding is being able to create a beautiful seam on each part that can be put on award-winning show cars, and on the cover of magazines for the entire world to see up close.”
Automation does play a role in some of the work, like their Mustang II upper shock spring hats. Shaw said, “We install the raw parts onto a motor-driven rotary fixture that spins the spring hat at the exact speed that’s needed for the welder to apply a single, consistent weld seam without having to stop, adjust his hands, and restart. This process allows for a very structurally sound and gorgeous weld. It’s not the fastest process in the world, but we don’t want it to be.”
Shaw and his crew have been extra busy in recent weeks as they’ve moved from Wauconda, Illinois, to a new and much-larger building, but that’s not the only changes at work. The shop’s manufacturing capabilities have expanded so Heidts can make its own coil-over shock absorbers; at the same time, the CNC machining capabilities have also been improved, and the company now uses a “shock dyno” to test every single shock before it gets sent to a customer.
Probably the biggest change with the new space is an improved engineering R&D facility that’s three times larger than it was before. “We’re doubling the number of lifts we have and also adding new machinery there as well,” Shaw shared. “But some big things still come in small packages, and we are continuing to utilize computer-aided tools as much as possible for design, analysis, and testing of our products.”
Staying Ahead Of The Curve
How does a company like Heidts keep up with the ever-expanding market for hot rod and performance parts, and the increasing competition? Shaw says that it’s very important to remember who its customers are, and try to keep them involved in the process, as Heidts looks for new ideas to better itself and the technology it uses to produce top-quality components. “The key is to listen,” Shaw says. “When we travel to shows and events, our main goals are not only to educate consumers on who we are and what we do, but also to listen to their wants and needs.”
With the explosion of ultra-high-performance musclecars directly from the OEMs, plus the overall growth in competition-based hobbies from Drag Racing and Autocross to open track days, the demand for Heidts parts keeps on increasing. It also means that customers’ expectations are very high. “One thing that’s advantageous for the suspension aftermarket is that horsepower is relatively cheap nowadays. This means a higher percentage of the total build cost can go towards chassis upgrades to help improve handling and overall performance,” said Shaw.
Getting Some Help From The Fans For Testing
The tougher part of his own job, Shaw shared, is to figure out how to turn some pretty subjective requirements from customers (think “comfortable,” “easy to install,” “adjustable,” “light” or “strong”) into hard concepts like suspension geometry, spring rates and shock valving. That’s where the company is a real trend-setter in its use of computerized 3D CAD systems.
“In some cases we can actually test fit new suspensions on a car without even having a vehicle in house. This allows us to try out different designs very quickly and inexpensively, and predict vehicle performance before we go to test. That minimizes the trial-and-error aspect of chassis tuning, but it will not replace it,” Shaw said.
To put the build to the test, Heidts then prototypes its parts on test vehicles – often customer cars that loyal fans have agreed to hand over. The vehicle has to meet some requirements before Heidts agrees to use it, but in return for letting them use their vehicle, Heidts sends the customer home with the final prototype, free of charge.
“Dynamic testing is by far the most fun,” he says. “The roads around Chicago are notoriously rough, and we use that to our advantage. Once the vehicle passes our tests, we design and build fixture machinery for cutting, bending, machining, and welding – they’ve got to be capable of producing the same exact part, over and over again, for decades to come.”
Shaw says his engineers also work with Heidts’ Sales and Marketing team to make sure their requirements are being met – and also to occasionally do projects like the ever-popular “secret spy shots” of their ongoing work.
Heidts is indeed a very active place, cranking out those 1,000 catalog items. With more than 10,000 unique part numbers in the system, their build-to-order and batch-build techniques help keep the whole system flowing.
“Our goal is to hold the right amount of inventory that we can ship an order within 24 hours,” Shaw said. “It’s challenging, because we build parts by hand like a hot rod shop, but we hold inventory like a distribution warehouse.”
Ongoing, comprehensive product testing is also extremely important. He said, “We have the same goal with every part – the highest quality possible. For our spindles, we use a hardness tester to measure material properties randomly for each batch, and we have a partnership with our suppliers where they provide us with very precise dimensional information.”
Heidts uses an innovative fixture-based quality control process for the majority of its fabricated parts, where each of the fixtures serve as a go/no-go gauge for the previous station. “Our tubular control arms get cut, bent, milled (coped or fishmouthed), then welded – and the milling fixtures are used as a gauge for bending and the welding fixtures are used as a gauge for milling. If it doesn’t fit the fixture it either gets reworked or scrapped,” Shaw said.
With Heidts’ hardcore fans actively taking part in the testing of the company’s creations, the shop keeps its focus on just three house cars, all equipped with Pro-G IFS and IRS setups.
“The ’68 Camaro has a Kurt Urban-built LS7 motor, and was recently debuted at our HPCC Event at Autobahn in May, where it came in 2nd and 1st in its first two events,” Shaw says, “It’s an example of an extreme Pro-Touring build that’s street legal, we drive it all of the time to local shows and other events, but the interior is quite bare so it is loud and hot in there.”
Heidts’ ’71 Camaro is a dedicated R&D vehicle with an LS3, a fully welded 12-point cage and a bunch of prototype parts that even Shaw isn’t allowed to talk about yet, adding, “Half the parts on that car won’t even make it to production, but it is a platform for us to try new things out.” The 66 Mustang is looking for a motor, but it will be another marketing car that they’ll send out to shows, events and autocrosses. A ’56 Chevy seamless frame rolling chassis is also in the shop for some “upgrades”.
With the upcoming debut of a Classic Truck Superide 2 suspension geared at the classic truck market – a bit beefier and bolt-in, versus the existing weld-in version – you’ll also find a ’71 Chevy C-10 and a ’75 Ford F-100 as project testing platforms. “I just heard a rumor that we bought another car for the shop, but I haven’t gotten a firm confirmation yet,” Shaw says. “I think it will show up next week. This is what happens when you get more space in your shop…you get more cars.” Heidts commitment to quality and to maintaining those hands-on touches continue to make the company a performance fan favorite.
Be sure to check out the Heidts Automotive Group website to see what they have for your classic car or truck, and stay tuned for more installs and technical articles on some of their suspension systems. And remember: they aren’t just guys making car parts, they’re car guys building suspension systems.
Check out the GALLERY from our recent visit below: