Custom Alignment: Critical Last Step of a Coilover Installation Project

After swapping my shocks and struts for coilovers, I had the suspension geometry professionally optimized. I did a little undercarriage cleaning to prep, too.
Andrew P. Collins

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Installing Fortune Auto coilover suspension on my eighth-gen Civic Si project was generally easy. The shocks and struts I was replacing were only about a year old, so rust hadn’t taken much of a hold on them. I still ended up using a decent dose of WD-40® Multi-Use Product, but that was mainly to make my alignment guy’s life easier. A fresh alignment is a critical last step to any significant suspension job.

This installment of Project Car Diaries is sponsored by WD-40® Brand.

For those who are wondering, automotive alignment refers to the angle of the wheels. The camber (vertical orientation) and toe (horizontal orientation) indicate how tilted (or not) the wheels are. While it might look like all car wheels are usually just straight up and down, there are fractional settings that can affect handling quite dramatically.

That race cart looks a lot easier to adjust than my car. This is from a hillclimb race I did at Mount Philo—will report back on that in another Project Car Diary entry soon. Andrew P. Collins

If you’ve heard those terms but aren’t quite sure why you’d want to mess with them, there are two main reasons for a custom alignment. Either you want to fit weirdly huge wheels and achieve an incredibly low ride height (hashtag stance life) or you want to set your car up for better grip under extreme cornering.

Factory alignment settings are typically optimized to get you good grip in normal driving conditions with minimal tire wear. But if you’re committing to performance and doing things like fitting coilover suspension, you might want to set your car up to have a bigger contact patch under aggressive cornering. Nothing comes for free though; your tires will probably wear out more quickly once you stray from factory settings.

At-Home Alignments: DIY or Don’t?

It is certainly possible to do your own alignments; measuring tools can be acquired fairly easily and you can even make tools for the job for almost nothing.

It’s not a particularly expensive job to have done professionally, though—I shelled out about $150 for my alignment. A shop alignment also comes with peace of mind on a piece of paper in the form of a digitally calibrated reading ensuring your settings are in spec.

Whether you do an alignment yourself or ship it to a shop, cleaning up your alignment adjustment points will be appreciated by whoever’s doing the work.

This is where I break out the WD-40® EZ-REACH®. The Original WD-40 Formula is a unique blend of lubricants that contains anti-corrosion agents and ingredients for penetration, water displacement, and soil removal. It doesn’t attract dirt or moisture to metal surfaces, and it’s not likely to mar non-metal materials on the underside of a car.

I squirt a little on the tie-rod end threads, adjustable control arm threads, and camber bolts almost any time I’ve got my car on jacks. Keeping those parts clean makes them easier to adjust, which means less time to make adjustments.

WD-40 EZ-REACH has an eight-inch flexible straw that holds its shape for getting to hard-to-reach places. This is particularly excellent here because I can hit all those exposed threads and adjustment bolts without even pulling the wheels off. In 2024, you have far more application options than those little red plastic straws for putting the Original WD-40 Formula exactly where you want it.

WD-40 Smart Straw® has superseded the basic one (it’s permanently attached to the can, so it doesn’t disappear after your first use), and the WD-40 Precision Pen is conveniently portable for small-area applications. For the opposite effect, there’s even WD-40 Big Blast®. I haven’t tried that one yet, but as the name suggests it’s a wide-beam dispenser for large areas.

Before I send my car in for an alignment, I like to bend the EZ-REACH nozzle and hit every thread I can see with the Original WD-40 Formula. If stuff looks really crusty, I’ll go for WD-40 Specialist® Penetrant which you can also get with an EZ-REACH nozzle. Neither formula hurts rubber on contact, but I do still wipe excess away from wheels and anywhere else it might land that isn’t metal.

Ride Height, Wheels, and Alignment: The Trinity of Tire Fitment

There’s an intimidatingly wide range of variables to consider once you start messing with your car’s suspension. Cosmetically, most people describe great fitment as the edge of the wheel lining up perfectly with the outside of the fender. That does look good—my Civic’s not even close right now, but we’ll get into that later.

Your car’s ride height, wheel size, and alignment are huge factors in determining your vehicle’s stance and what size tires you can run. Naturally, they also all influence handling and tire wear. Without going deep on suspension science, one key takeaway to have in mind before you start modding is that suspension is a system. Each part affects others, and every change to geometry will impact the vehicle’s performance.

Here are three very different wheel fitments. The Subaru on the left has major negative wheel offset. I’ll admit that my car in the middle looks a little weird right now, due to the high offset of these wheels making them look tucked in. That Jetta wagon on the right has closer to what most people would consider a nice fitment, at least cosmetically. The wheel is nearly flush with the fender and gap between the tire and metal is minimal. Andrew P. Collins

If you’re going to take tuning seriously, it’s not as simple as “just add more camber and you can make your car lower.” All adjustments have consequences, lower is not necessarily better, and different cars will favor certain setups over others.

Instead of starting with questions like “can I fit 20-inch wheels,” or “what sidewall ratio is best for this car,” consider focusing your research on your performance objective as the main dictator of your setup. Think in terms of “I want the car to turn in harder,” or even a broader “I’m willing to sacrifice a little tire wear for better responsiveness than stock.”

Of course, if you’re building for show, sure add camber until your car looks like a turtle doing savasana and fit whatever wheels you want. Or if you’re simply looking to make your daily a little cooler with fresh wheels, find a wheel and tire that will fit using factory alignment and send it.

How To Find the Right Alignment for You and Your Car

You’re going to want to consult people who have tuned your exact platform to optimize your car’s alignment for a non-standard ride height or look. But here are some broad strokes of approaches you can take.

Easiest: Factory Alignment for Your Lowered Car

If you want to lower a car a little bit for looks, a good shop should be able to get it to factory alignment specs at the new ride height. You may need aftermarket alignment accessories like special shock-mounting bolts and adjustable control arms, though. For example, my Civic has aftermarket bolts holding the front coilovers to the steering knuckle. There’s a little lobe in those bolts, which adjusts the angle of the strut slightly as it’s turned. I also run custom rear control arms that allow for adjustable camber in the back, where Honda did not have any from the factory. Luckily, such things are readily available for common platforms and quality alignment shop will know what to do with them.

More Involved: Copy Somebody’s Homework

I recognize that I’m in a slightly dangerous era of my journey as a car modder. I have a great deal of theoretical knowledge, but I’m light on practical engineering experience. In terms of car alignments, I know the variables I should be thinking about but I don’t really know how to find their appropriate values on my own. You, too, might know “negative camber can improve handling” but that’s not super useful when you need a specific figure to give your alignment guy.

This is a “slightly aggressive but might not eat your tires in a month” setting I found and went with. Yeah, the before-settings were all over the place because I’d just put new coilovers in. Del Hatt Automotive

This is one of those times when building a popular platform like a Civic or Mustang or WRX or Toyobaru or anything else you commonly see at track days is a boon … you can get started by simply copying the specs of somebody who knows what they’re doing.

That’s what I did. There’s an outfit called RedShift that has specialized in Civic suspension tuning for many years. It now produces its own coilovers, but when the eighth-gen Civic was new RedShift published recommendations for alignment specs depending on what ratio of handling to tire wear you’re willing to put up with. You need to dig through the internet archive (aka “Wayback Machine”) to access that page now, but I’ve got it saved in my personal collection of Google docs. It’s not the type of information that’s going to go stale.

Complex: Actual Testing

If you have the competency and capability of driving a car on track and pulling into the paddock to make alignment adjustments on the fly, I’m sure you’re just laughing at my stumbling attempts to tune an old Civic in my home garage.

But this is the ultimate level of suspension awareness: Trying different settings, and understanding exactly what changes run to run as a result of tweaks.

You don’t need your own pit crew to make your own informed choices, though. You could just extend the “copying somebody else’s homework” concept by starting with a proven setting and messing with it to see if you like what happens.

Finding the Right Alignment Shop

Don’t just roll up to the first garage that offers alignments. Some won’t do non-factory alignment settings, and some won’t even work on cars with modified suspension.

Facebook groups and forums (yeah, still) might have hints on where you could send your car for a custom alignment. If you don’t have luck there, try getting in touch with a local SCCA chapter (which you might want to join anyway!) and they should have tips. Alternatively, consider reaching out to a local race track and asking for shop recs.

If that all fails, you can call around and ask if shops do custom alignments or work on modified cars. Being polite pays off in these situations.

In the Hudson Valley where my Honda lives, I’ve been using a shop in the city of Poughkeepsie called Del Hatt Automotive for alignments purely because a friend of a friend told me they had “a lot of experience with eighth-gen Civics.” Not that it’s a complex or unique platform, but still. When I booked my appointment, one of the first things they asked was if I wanted factory-spec or a custom alignment. I took that as a good sign and have been satisfied so far.

Keep Experimenting

You shouldn’t have to change your alignment when changing wheels or tires, even if you’re moving to a slightly different size. But any time you remove steering or suspension components, it’s a good idea to revisit your alignment measurements.

If you get yourself a set of ride-height adjustable coilovers like the Fortune Auto units I just dropped into this Honda, maybe hold off on committing to a single alignment spec before you decide exactly what ride height you like. Just remember to take notes on what you do or don’t like about the way the car responds at a certain configuration so you can make the best possible changes down the road.