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The Air Lift Story


In a simpler time when a man’s ride was judged not by how flush his fitment was or by how tucked his tires were, but by the time it took him to tear up the 4.1 mile long Daytona Beach race track;
Air Lift emerged to reign supreme. Air_Lift_History_race_daytona_crash_junior_johnson_bagged_air_suspension_054What started as the brain child of GE Engineer Claude Pemberton and Oldsmobile Toronado developer Don Perkins in 1949 as a means to offer extra lifting capabilities to vehicles carrying huge loads, quickly turned into a thriving business that now employs over 70 people and services more than 543 vehicles types and classes.Air_Lift_History_ford_truck_bagged_air_suspension_003

At the time of its inception the idea of using pressurized rubber air sleeves inserted into existing coil springs to provide added stiffness and lift for extremely heavy loads was an unheard of concept.  This quickly turned around as people began witnessing first hand the extreme carrying capabilities of the Air Lift air springs.  Of course once it was proven that air springs could carry weight more efficiently than coil springs, the next step was inevitably the race track.Air_Lift_History_daytona_026

Before the Bonneville Salt Flats were recognized as the best place on earth to test what your ride was truly made of, the Daytona Beach Road Course in Daytona, Florida was considered to be the premiere location for racers with something to prove.  More than 15 land speed records were set at this very track over half a century ago with racers such as Alexander Winton, Jack Radtke, and Ransom Olds tearing up the ocean strip.Air_Lift_History_race_daytona_crash_junior_johnson_bagged_air_suspension_055

Air_Lift_History_race_daytona_crash_bagged_air_suspension_055Of course racing on sandy beaches had its own set of obstacles to overcome such as having proper traction while transitioning through the hairpin curves that connected the 2 mile long beach strip of the track to the freshly paved A1A highway.  Air Lift quickly jumped into the arena and started manufacturing performance based air springs to support these heavy vehicles as they navigated the course.Air_Lift_History_race_daytona_mercury_bagged_air_suspension_045

Air_Lift_History_lee-petty_009What started off as a bootlegger’s way of blowing off steam on weekends, NASCAR quickly turned into the largest racing event in North America.  Racers like Bobby Griffin, Junior Johnson and many of the Petty family ran Air Lift springs and swore by them.  On February 22, 1959, Lee Petty won the very first Daytona 500 with an Air Lift equipped Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 (#42) in what became a story for the ages.Air_Lift_History_race_lee-petty-bagged_air_suspension_019

Petty and rivals Johnny Beauchamp, and Joe Weatherly drove side by side by side across the finish line at the final lap for a photo finish.  Beauchamp was declared the unofficial winner, and drove to victory lane to collect his prize. Petty protested the results, saying: “I had Beauchamp by a good two feet. In my own mind, I know I won.”

It took NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. three days to decide the winner.  In the end, with the help of the national newsreel, Petty was officially declared the winner.Air_Lift_History_racecar_darliongton_raceway_darel_dieringer_buck_baker_003

Buck Baker was another Air Lifted driver who starred in 682 races, which sets him at 3rd most starts overall in the history of NASCAR.  In 1953, 1960 and 1964, Baker won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway which eventually saw him pick up 46 victories in his over 40 years of racing.Air_Lift_History_race_daytona_trophy_bagged_air_suspension_042

By the late 1960’s NASCAR began heading in a different direction with regards to its suspension regulations so Air Lift transitioned into the drag racing scene.  Legends of the 1/4 mile including Butch Fedewa rose to national stardom after winning races all over the United States.  Eddie Schartman drove the Air Lift Rattler (Comet and later Cougar) to multiple wins throughout the late 60’s as well.Air_Lift_History_race_daytona_sign_bagged_air_suspension_042

As time wore on so did the direction of the company and eventually Air Lift saw a leadership change.  Claude Pemberton took over as president from Perkins.  His son Bob took over as president upon his retirement and Air Lift currently continues to operate as a family company to this day.Air_Lift_History_cadillac_bagged_air_suspension_038

Today, Air Lift stands as the industry standard for air suspension parts and service.  Its Traditional (Towing, Hauling, Load Support), Engineered (OEM, Emergency Vehicles, Handicap Accessible Buses), and  Air Lift Performance (Full Air, Lowered Vehicles) divisions are what allow them to continue growing during the good times and the bad.Air_Lift_History_racecar_speedway_neil_houston_bagged_air_suspension_063

While no one can say for certain what the future has in store, by bringing the passion of its old school heritage to the youth of the new millennium, Air Lift is in the driver’s seat yet again and is showing the world that it isn’t just a one trick pony and is here to stay for good.Air_Lift_History_jack_radtke_ford_bagged_air_suspension_060

Big thanks go out to Ian Cain and Corey Rosser from Air Lift for the support and wealth of information and resources supplied for this article.  Download FREE vintage Air Lift wallpapers here!

Additional Sources:

NASCAR Wikipedia

Lee Petty Wikipedia

Daytona Wikipedia

Buck Baker Wikipedia

Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame


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