When Steve McQueen famously chased the bad buys in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT in “Bullitt,” getting 1 horsepower for every cubic inch of motor was almost unheard of.

In fact, the 390 cu.-in. plant in Lt. Bullitt’s fastback topped out at 325 HP. But these days, a $20,000 Corvette LS7 motor can pull 740 HP from a 427 V8—a technological leap that leaves any half-serious hobbyist scoffing at Bullitt’s little toy.

But … the trick is actually getting those horses’ feet on the street. That’s where custom manufacturers like Heidts Automotive Group give the modern motorhead the real jump on McQueen.

Heidts, Lake Zurich, Ill., designs and builds systems, notably independent front and rear suspensions, that help transfer every available bit of horsepower from plant to pavement in a customized, bolt-on kit—which tends to make investing in an LS7 or the like much more worth it.

“When you’re making changes like that, the rest of the suspension has got to be upgraded to be able to not just handle the power, but get it to the racetrack,” said Todd Westberg, director of operations/engineering at Heidts. “As soon as you lower a car two or three inches, that original suspension geometry may not be optimal; our kit is designed to be lower. We take that all into consideration.”

Machines Make the Difference

The process of making those optimal modifications begins with a complete 3D scan of the original vehicle setup. Heidts then imports the scans into SolidWorks, and the team works to maximize the performance of the suspension as well as design for manufacture on the shop floor.

A third-generation engineer, Westberg and his colleagues at Heidts have worked hard to become a go-to supplier of products like their independent rear suspension (IRS) kits for such popular vehicles as classic Chevrolet C10 trucks and late-‘60s Camaros. Heidts’ high-mix line of products demands flexibility and equipment that can match that product mix turn for turn—and quickly.

Cutting Tubes and Time

When Heidts decided to up its tube cutting game a few years ago, the company decided on a Bend-Tech Dragon A400 with a Hypertherm Powermax65 plasma torch. Having run a plasma table for its flat parts for several years already, the company was familiar with Hypertherm’s technology. But with the Dragon, Heidts got a CNC tube cutting system that can handle 24-ft.-long rounds up to 6 in. OD and squares up to 4 in. The machine also can process rectangular sections as well as channels.

The Dragon was much more affordable for Heidts than a tube laser, and it has significantly cut production time on the tubing (round, square, and rectangular) that makes up many of the company’s bread-and-butter products.

Consider the holes in the shock absorber mounts, made from rectangular tubing, that are part of a Heidts IRS kit for a ‘57 Chevy. It once took 40 minutes to manually mill the 14 holes and notches in each mount and deburr them; the Dragon reduced that to three. Heidts also was able to reduce production time on another part, a rectangular-tube cross member, from about 20 minutes to two or three.

Dodge Charger on a lift in a garage shop

Heidts can refit cars like this 1969 Dodge Charger (foreground) with a new ProG front suspension and convert the original torsion arm suspension to a dual A-arm coil-over shock setup. Images: Lincoln Brunner

In addition, the repeatability offered by a CNC machine like the Dragon makes valuable machine operators like Heidts veteran Jorge Gonzalez that much more productive.

“Big-time savings,” Westberg said of the Dragon’s impact. “It was just a really good fit for us.

“Jorge’s able to get a lot more done in the department,” he added. “He’s not spending four hours on a work order—he’s going to spend 30 minutes on it. So, we’re able to get more done with the same head counts.”

It didn’t hurt that Bend-Tech’s facility in Osceola, Wis., is less than a six-hour drive from Heidts’ shop in the Chicago suburbs.

“That worked out great,” Westberg recalled. “We called them … and I think within a month we had it.”

Getting Good Bends Faster

The same’s been true for the Horn Machine Tools CNC80TSR rotary tube bender that Heidts brought in at the end of 2020. The single-die bender can bend tubing up to 80 mm OD and up to 118 in. over mandrel. It also can handle bend radii up to 11 in. That flexibility, plus the consistency and repeatability that the CNC bender offers, puts key advantages in Heidts’ back pocket.

“The CNC bending just gives us the ability to design things that we think perform better than our competitors,” Westberg said. “We don’t have unlimited space. We’re taking out the original suspension, putting in our aftermarket suspension, and we’re really up against some space constraints there. So, having the right machines and the right tooling gives our designers more flexibility in making sure they can fit that all in an optimum package.”

That comes in handy for making the stark modifications–like shortening the fuel tank on a 1969 Dodge Charger—required to accommodate a new suspension designed just for that vehicle. And at the fabrication stage, it just makes life easier for the people executing those bends.

“A lot of our roll cages and tubing … we were just bending on a manual bender—like, four bends with rotation,” Westberg recalled. “It might take Jorge 15 or 20 minutes to make all those bends, manually measuring the angle with the digital angle finder.” Now—as Gonzalez demonstrated during TPJ’s visit to Heidts—creating multiple bends on a sway bar, all programmed into the CNC, takes all of three or four minutes.

Right Machines, Right Offerings

It’s all part of Heidts’ pattern of purchasing machinery that helps the company best serve its niche clientele profitably instead of just jumping at the shiniest tech for its own sake. For instance, as much as Westberg would love to buy a laser tube cutter, there’s no justifying it. “We’re not a job shop,” Westberg said matter-of-factly. “For the most part, we don’t make parts for other companies. The vast majority is for our products.

Metal fabricator examines metal tube parts manufacturer

To maximize its technology investment and serve its customers better, Heidts makes a point of cross-training employees like shop veteran Jorge Gonzalez, here racking up sway bars he just processed on Heidts’ CNC tube bender.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you get with the technology?’ We’re trying to balance production—setup, changeover—with our batch quantities. You get into some more advanced tube processing, like a tube laser … there’s just no way we could do an ROI on that with the size of shop that we are.”

As steel and raw material prices have risen the past two years, Heidts has been able to offset some of those increases with improvements to its production efficiency—and the benefits have shown up on the balance sheet.

“We were up [in revenue] in 2020; we were up again in 2021,” said Westberg. “We haven’t had to add staff as we’ve grown. A lot of that has to do with the machines and the technology that we’re applying.”

And to the delight of Heidts’ customers, the benefits also show up on the track.

To design a handful of new products for the 1992-2002 Camaro, Heidts purchased a bone-stock 1999 Camaro with 90,000 miles on the odometer. That fall, workers set a baseline lap time at a local racetrack with the original engine and suspension. Over the winter, they upgraded the rear suspension to the company’s new IRS and installed Heidts front suspension components to lower the car and improve the handling. The next spring, with no changes to the engine or transmission, they reduced the lap time by 10%.

Staying Nimble

Whether it’s helping cars handle better on the track or handling the pitch and toss of the market, small businesses like Heidts have to respond to changes as quickly as possible to remain profitable. Having the right equipment makes it that much easier.

“Being a small manufacturer, having flexibility is really important,” Westberg said. “A lot of our dealers don’t know what they’re going to sell tomorrow. Even some of our larger distributors don’t give us a lot of warning on when they’re going to place a stocking order. So, flexibility is paramount.”


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