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Tool Number One: Garage Lifts

September 26, 2010 | Troubleshooting & Repair

By Gordon Maltby
Reprinted from the 356 Registry magazine


If you could name a single tool that would consistently make your garage life easier, it may well be a hydraulic lift. Under-the-car work is so much easier if you're not on your back, and a bonus feature is the ability to stack cars for optimum use of storage space. Assuming you're willing to adapt your garage to accomodate one and willing to spend the money, the only question remaining is, "Which lift?"

Two or four posts

Although there are scissors and hinge lifts, single post and in-ground hydraulic lifts available, we're going to focus on the two types most commonly used by a home hobbyist: two-post and four-post, above-ground lifts. Prices for these begin at around $1500 US. The same type of lift from another manufacturer could cost over twice that, however. As with many other products, the design, materials, construction and a myriad of related considerations determine the price of any one brand's product.

Inside a lift

Two-post lifts are usually slightly less expensive than fours. Here's how they work. Each post contains a hydraulic ram with a sprocket wheel on its piston end. On this sprocket rides a chain, one end anchored and one attached to a sliding frame inside each post. The frame carries the arms on pivots. On the other end of the four arms rests your car. A pump, driven by an electric motor feeds the hydraulic rams; the motor size and voltage determine, to a great extent, how fast the lift will rise.

Since there is one pump and two cylinders, there's a certain amount of plumbing. There is usually a system of heavy cables and pulleys that act as a balancing mechanism between the two frame/arm units. This cable system has to run between the posts, of course. The hydraulic tubing and the cables can be located either in a drive-over shallow floor pan or in a cross-panel above the unit. The former is usually called a low-profile, as the top of the post is only around 8 ft. high. The latter, "clear floor" unit has a 12 ft. (approximately) high post with a metal connector holding the cables and tubes.

Some people don't like driving over the one-inch-high metal ramp (especially if you are pushing a car into place), but if you are short of ceiling height it may be your best bet.

Illustration from brochures of AutoLifters of Wichita, KS, recently gone out of the business owing to price competition from Chinese imported lifts. A large percentage of lifts are now made in the Orient.

Preferences and choices

The differences in two-post lifts are both in design and construction. There are "center load" lifts, with equal-length arms on which the car should be weight balanced; and asymmetric lifts, where two longer arms allow the car to be offset so the doors can be opened wider. Asymmetric lifts are not for heavier vehicles like large trucks; you don't want a couple of thousand extra pounds more on one end than the other.

The gauge of steel used in the posts varies, as does the leaf chain size. The hydraulic cylinder and rod size, and the seals and components used to build the unit will vary, so it's worth asking about. The pad height is important when you're dealing with a lowered car. Some have adjustable, threaded pad pins, others have only swivel pads at a set height. The safety locks on the lift post may be inside or outside and their "beefiness" will vary somewhat. Locks are important because that's what will be holding your car up. Although the hydraulics will bring the car up and down, retaining pressure on the system for very long is not recommended. Pump it up, then gently release to the nearest locking point.

There is also a lock on each arm to keep it from swiveling after it leaves the ground, and the design of these varies with manufacturer.

Most lifts have a standard width between posts—not really an issue for a 356—but some new lifts allow you to set the posts according to your specific needs. These, and some other lifts have hydraulic equalizing valves instead of cables for balancing loads. Without the cables, you can use whatever length hydraulic tubing you like, and run it, say, through the attic or way behind the work area - no drive-over cover plate or overhead connector to deal with. Expect to see more of this type lift in the future.

Capacity will be noted for each lift, from 5,000 to over 10,000 lbs. A 356 can easily be serviced on the smallest capacity lift, but if you also want to change oil on your pickup you may opt for a bigger one.

Installation and use

Each of the two posts is bolted to the concrete floor (most manufacturers require a 4-inch slab). Drilling eight holes is supposedly an easy job, but in my garage I ended up busting up a 12-inch square area, installing rebar and mesh and pouring high strength concrete with bolts in place.A two-post lift requires solid mounting to the floor, and shims, if necessary, to ensure level. A four-poster can usually be moved. After that, it's just a matter of muscling the pieces into place, hooking up the pipes and cables and adjusting. If you have a 120V motor, you can hard wire it or plug it into a 20 amp circuit. 240V motors take a little more wiring.

Benefits of a two-post lift are the ability to work on the brakes, suspension and the underside of the car with minimal interference. The suspension, however, is left hanging down and it is generally acknowledged that this is not a good long-term storage idea. If your car leaks fluids you'll have to find a way to protect the car you store below it. When planning for a lift with storage in mind, consider the height you'll need for two cars - about 10 feet or more. Measure the height of your cars and add for the amount the wheels will hang. In lifting, you must also be careful to locate the pads on your 356's body where they won't damage anything and the car is balanced. If your car is rusty this may be a problem.

Play it safe and make sure no one (including you) will inadvertently open the garage door when a car is on the lift. At the very least, put a pad on the top of the door. If you are going to remodel your garage, give yourself plenty of height, at least in the area above the lift. Consider that you may have a hood open when the car is up in the air.Other considerations

If you position the lift in a standard depth garage bay, the garage door opener must be replaced or relocated from the center of the door. Wall-mount (just above the door opening) openers are available, or some ceiling-mount openers can be moved toward the side of the door.

Unless your lift is far enough away from the door, you should develop a system for keeping the door from accidentally opening when a car is in the air. Put a switched outlet for the opener next to the lift motor, put a pin in the door track and/or a warning sign on the outside handle when a car is elevated. In short, do whatever you can to keep someone (like yourself) from lifting the door into the back of your car.

Four-posters

Four post lifts operate similarly to two-posters, but the hydraulic unit(s) and cables are usually located horizontally under the ramps on each side. The key consideration is stability. You need not secure the posts to your garage floor, but if you run into one of them with a vehicle you may wish you had. If portability is important, you can even get units with wheels. These are meant primarily for storage; Tim Parker designed his new garage so the four-post lift could double as an elevator, bringing his motorcycles to a second floor storage area (behind the plywood door). A custom, removeable center plate fills the normal void between wheel ramps. In the wiaccess to suspension, brakes, tires etc. is limited but you can purchase jacks that lift the car up from the ramps. Most four-posters come with drip trays (what, you mean Porsches leak?). There's no problem opening car doors as on a two-poster.

Differences you'll find are in the type of steel (thickness and composition) and construction (don't you love to see a nice weld?) and the type of slider. Inside-the-post sliders are more common, but the ones that surround the post are generally considered safer and stronger. The locking mechanisms will vary, and the number of notches determine how much choice you have in setting a particular height. Notches cut in the post are usually more secure than a welded "ladder" on the post's side.

Column heights vary, as does the height to which a lift will rise. Many four-posters don't get up high enough to allow you to walk underneath. These lifts require approach ramps, and you should decide if you want them to be removeable. Some hang down and pose a walk-around danger. A lift located just inside a garage door poses some of the same problems mentioned earlier; tall uprights give some protection, but might prevent full opening.

There are many web sites showing lifts, and a good suggestion would be to see some up close at a car show. Please thoroughly educate yourself about the benefits, pitfalls, and options available. If you buy a good lift you'll get years of use and surely agree, it's "Tool Number One."

David Jones has solved the problem of hanging suspension for long term storage. 8-inch wide angle iron is secured to pins that fit in the arm pivots. Short ramps allow the car to be driven onto the hoist and a two-post lift instantly has the storage utility of a four-poster.

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