By Barry Zander
When your chassis arrived at the RV manufacturer, the assemblers probably didn’t take into account the weight distribution of the rig. Is it important?
A definite “Yes!” says Jonathan Elkins, who has been making and installing leaf springs for 18 years and whose family has been in the business for four generations. Elkins is the manager of North County Spring in Escondido, California, just north of San Diego. According to Elkins, leaf springs are “the primary source of suspension, the workhorse of suspension.”
Elkins believes his company is the only one in America that custom makes leaf springs by hammering them to conform to the weight distribution of the coach. Workers take into account the placement of appliances, the difference between oak and generic wood, and other variances that aren’t considered when the RV is built on the standard chassis.
How do you know if there’s a problem? Obvious indications are when there is excessive squat, the front is too low, the ride is harsh or the rig sways from side-to-side. An irritating noise level is noticeable 90% of the time, according to Elkins.
The complaint that brought my wife and me to North County Spring was excessive noise from the passenger side, even when we were driving on smooth blacktop. We had already installed Bilstein shocks to increase comfort and cut down on noise, and while it helped, it didn’t fix the problem. Once the leaf springs were installed, the improvement in handling and quiet was immediately obvious.
The leaf springs custom made by Elkins’ company are heavy-duty, beaten into purer tempered steel using fewer alloys. They are stronger than those bought online that come from Asia, Mexico and Canada, he asserts. His is the only company he’s aware of that uses this quality of steel, which is hammered to adjust for vehicle weight. He said that there are only four or five suppliers of the leaf springs in the U.S., while many shops are struggling to find suppliers. In the past decade, three companies in his area have gone out of business. There is no association of leaf spring companies, he said.
The company installs its products on Class A, B and C RVs as well as towables, which are often “under sprung.” Costs vary by length: C-Class installation is on the high end at $18,000 to $26,000, depending on whether the chassis is Ford or GM. It’s more expensive because the shorter wheelbase requires a wider leaf spring assembly and weighs less. A Class A normally runs between $12,000 and $17,000, and a B-Class will cost about $1,300.
It must be worth the cost, because North County stays busy installing the springs. The replacement takes about four-and-a-half hours, Elkins said.
The question he often gets is about airbag and coil suspension systems, which he contends don’t provide the control of leaf springs. His crew can change the deflection point to improve handling on the road. Each job is done without any modern technology. They beat the leaf springs on anvils with hammers to achieve the best results.
In addition to RVs, the company’s clients include sports cars, show vehicles, and public industrial vehicles, including fire trucks. They also replicate vintage springs that are obsolete.
Myself, being only borderline mechanical, hoped that our new leaf springs would fix the creaking and squeaking coming from under the floor. It did. The improved handling was an added bonus.