Do-it-yourself wheel alignment

Portable, accurate, and inexpensive

by Greg Raven
AutoTech magazine, March 1988

As it is with many vehicle maintenance chores, wheel alignment is one of those things you know you should perform periodically but find it difficult to make time for. Half of you knows that it must be done to improve tire wear and handling, while the other half points out that heck, the car still rolls … a persuasive argument against the expenditure of time, energy, and money.

This usually goes on until you come across an advertised special on wheel alignment, only $19.95 with this coupon. Twenty bucks isn’t so bad, and it doesn’t take them long to do it so you still have some time left out of your weekend.

Ever stop to think how they can afford to align your car for $19.95? I’ll bet if you made a list of things you would be willing to do for twenty bucks, aligning a car would not be on it. A low price on wheel alignments can mean a variety of things. It could mean that the shop is competing aggressively with other shops in the area. It could mean that the shop is luring you in, hoping to find other items on your car that need attention, essentially squeezing until there is no blood left in the turnip. It might even mean that the shop is disreputable, taking your money without doing an alignment at all. In any case, it is more than likely that unless specifically stated the shop will only set the toe, leaving the camber and caster to fend for themselves. Paying more for an alignment doesn’t necessarily guarantee better workmanship, although in all fairness there are plenty of good alignment shops out there.

Traditionally, the only method of wheel alignment available to the do-it-yourselfer has been a trammel bar, which, like the bargain alignments, measures only toe. I’ve always found using a trammel bar to be more cumbersome than I would graciously put up with.

Enter the Gunson Wheel True, a truly fast device for measuring toe, marketed in the United States by Samplex of Kentucky. The Wheel True consists of two metal gauges, two bungee cords, and a metric tape measure. The bungee cords hold the metal gauges tightly against the wheel while measurements are being made. At the front and rear ends of the gauges are slots through which the tape measure passes. The slots average 57.3 cm apart, conveniently making each centimeter of difference in measurement between the front of the gauges and the rear of the gauges equal to one degree of toe. The tape is marked off in millimeters, making the Wheel True accurate to six seconds.

As previously noted, a total wheel alignment encompasses more than checking and adjusting the camber and caster, which can be easily done using the Wayne Mitchell Engineering CA-1 camber/caster gauge, available through CMW Enterprises in California. Lightning fast camber measurements can be made by indicating off the sidewall of the tire. On cars with fully machined wheels, a set of adaptors allows the CA-1 to indicate off of the wheel itself.

Caster measurements, which normally require the use of special turntables, can be made using the CA-1’s caster-angle template and a little mathematics.

To test both units, we borrowed a factory-fresh Volkswagen Fox Wagon from Volkswagen of America, loaded the Wheel True and the CA-1 into the back, and headed for Stuttgart Automotive, a Porsche/Audi/Mercedes repair shop in West Los Angeles. We first parked the car on a relatively flat section of concrete and then checked tire inflation to make sure it was to specification all around. Had this been a used car, we would have next inspected the suspension for bent, broken, or worn components.

We then took all our measurements as outlined in the directions for both gauges. We also hauled out Stuttgart Automotive’s Snap-On optical alignment gauges and measured everything again.

The upshot of all the measuring was that the combination of the Wheel True and CA-1 was just as accurate as the Snap-On optical gauges. One advantage to the optical set-up is that it shows when the wheels are parallel, whereas with the Wheel True you have to eyeball it. Optical gauges can be somewhat fragile, however. The gauges for the Wheel True are hearty enough, the easily replaceable tape measure being the only component that might wear out. The CA-1 is a stout tool that should stand well up under a lot of use.

Just for fun, we checked the accuracy of the Wheel True against the CA-1; they measured within six seconds of each other. With accuracy this good, the do-it-yourselfer isn’t giving up anything to the expensive machines the pros use.

Of course, if the $19.95 alignment is still too much money neither of these gauges is going to appeal to you. Their ruggedness and small size will appeal to racers, however, especially in light of the fact that the Wheel True mounts in such a way that only a couple inches of ground clearance is necessary. Independent mechanics and small shop owners in need of alignment equipment are also prime candidates for equipment this convenient and accurate.

If you are not a racer, a mechanic, or the owner of a small shop and these gauges sound like a good idea but the cost still seems high, our recommendation is that you get a couple friends to go together with you on the purchase. By splitting the cost four ways, for example, each person just about recoups his investment with the first alignment.

Companies mentioned:

Wheel True $49.50 Samplex R. 1 Box 339 East Bernstadt, KY 40729 (606)843-6126

CA-1 camber/caster gauge CMW Enterprises P.O. Box 2335 Leucadia, CA 92024 (619)942-9170