After more than forty-five years in the air spring industry, Paul Gibson of SuperSprings sets the record straight on air spring technology for truck campers.
It’s almost a given. Walk into any truck camper dealership and they’re going to recommend air springs (also known as air bags) for your truck camper rig. In fact, this practice has been going on for so long that there are many misconceptions about this nearly universal product.
When we try to get to the bottom of a subject like air springs, it can be extremely hard to find someone with the experience and credibility to talk about the subject with authority. So you can imagine our excitement when we met Paul Gibson of SuperSprings. With over four decades of engineering experience in the heart of the air spring industry, we had found our expert.
TCM: You’ve been involved with the air spring industry since the mid-1960s. What initially brought you to the industry?
Paul: I joined Air Lift, an air spring overload company, shortly after college. Going to work there was basically a result of my interest in vehicles and racing. My original job with Air Lift was promoting their products to drag racing and other racing teams.
Air Lift used to pay contingency money for teams that won races using their products. As I was walking to the pits, I would see pickup campers pulling the race car trailers. Seeing the pickup campers struck a chord in my brain. We ended up explaining to the race teams that if they used Air Lift air springs on their tow vehicles as well as their race cars they would be given an additional stipend.
The race teams would make sure their race car was perfectly balanced, but they would come to the races with their tow vehicle sagging as it towed their race cars. We brought it to their attention to add air springs to their pickup campers and tow vehicles.
TCM: Tell us about your involvement with product development at Air Lift and Firestone. Are you an engineer?
Paul: Yes. My background is in engineering and I have a degree from Michigan State. I have continued my education through several SAE courses related to vehicular suspension design.
The original pickup trucks were sprung very stiff because they were designed for work, not play. Then the auto manufacturers decided they wanted to attract more women to the pickup market and make pickups more of a general use vehicle. As a result, we worked at Air Lift to improve the ride and handling of pickup trucks. With time, the auto manufacturers further tuned their trucks to be grocery getters.
As we progressed at Air Lift, we continued to build suspension devices to allow people to use vehicles for more recreational type uses. In the early 1970s, I worked on design work for General Motors on the P30 chassis and also worked extensively with GM on the GMC front wheel drive motor homes. I also worked with Ford on automatic leveling systems and air assistance for snow plow applications.
I spent twenty-five years at Air Lift and nineteen years at Firestone engineering air spring technology and applications. I left Firestone a couple of years ago and joined SuperSprings.
TCM: Were there any competitors to Air Lift in the early days?
Paul: Air Lift was the pioneer in the air overload spring industry. The other company that got involved was Oil States Rubber Company. That’s a good story.
There was a young guy at Oil States Rubber Company who had a pickup camper in the late sixties. He converted air springs that were designed originally for industrial applications for his pickup. He even built the hardware to mount them on his truck. This caught on and Oil States Rubber Company spun out a division that they called Ride Rite. They began marketing their air springs in the southwest. Eventually they decided they needed to stay with their industrial roots and sold the Rite Rite division to Firestone in the late 1970s.
TCM: How would you describe what an air spring is to someone who’s not familiar with the product or technology?
Paul: An air spring is a rubber and fabric container that holds air pressure to support a load. The construction and material of an air spring is similar to what you find in the automotive tire industry. As the pressure increases, the air spring can support more load. The larger the air spring, the greater the load it can support.
TCM: What are the primary benefits of air springs?
Paul: The more an air spring is compressed, the firmer it gets exponentially. For example, if you go into a corner or a cross wind, as that air spring is compressed, you are decreasing the volume of the air spring, which increases the air pressure, which increases the spring resistance.
Through adjusting the air pressure in the air spring, you can provide the amount of spring needed for the vehicle at that time. If the truck is empty, you don’t need much air pressure. If the truck is loaded, you need more air pressure to support the load. Through the use of air pressure, you are able to maintain a level vehicle.
TCM: So airbags are more about maximizing the existing load carrying capacity, not increasing it?
Paul: That’s correct. Too many people think they can add some type of suspension add-on device and increase the GVWR of the vehicle. A vehicle’s GVWR is made up of a whole host of parts and pieces that were designed by the OEM to get to that payload level. For example, it’s the amount of weight that the tires can hold, the type and quality of brakes to stop, the strength of the frame to support, how heavy the axles are, and the whole design of the vehicle. Changing and adding springs certainly helps carry the load, but it does not change the payload of the truck.
We used to talk about the early trucks, back in the early 1970s that had a 7,500 pound GVWR. These trucks didn’t sag as much because of the amount of spring they had. And people were not concerned how they handled. They were just work trucks.
As trucks became more popular and people wanted them to ride better, they were still advertising the 7,500 rating. They didn’t tell you what the truck would look like at that weight. Modern 7,500 GVWR trucks will sag a lot more at the same load than the 7,500 GVWR trucks of the 1970s. That was one of the driving forces that brought suspension products into the marketplace and made trucks more marketable to the public.
TCM: Just to be clear, airbags do not in any way increase the payload capacity of your truck?
Paul: You are correct.
TCM: Are airbags designed to help a truck that’s loaded past it’s manufacturer recommended payload capacity?
Paul: Air bags do not turn three quarter ton trucks into one ton trucks. You cannot take a 7,500 GVWR truck and make it a 10,000 GVWR truck by changing the suspension.
What air springs do is level the load. With the truck and load more level, your truck is more appropriately set up for steering and stopping within its OEM payload limitations. Being level will also keep the headlights in alignment and level and keep your truck riding and handling the way it was designed.
We continue our conversation with Paul Gibson in SumoSprings 101: Paul Gibson of SuperSprings. In SumoSprings 101, Paul discusses the benefits of SumoSprings and further elaborates on air spring technology.