A few years ago, Tony Bones was getting 50 emails a day from visitors to his online forum who were desperate for help with their car’s wheel geometry problems. So he did two things: he quit his job with a tyre fitting company and set up his own wheel alignment business, called Wheels in Motion, in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, making sure its website (wheels-inmotion.co.uk) had a theory section that would handle all future enquiries.
Today, and only half in jest, his colleagues say a few minutes with Tony as he explains the science behind wheel alignment and geometry will “make your ears bleed”. I spent more than a few minutes listening to his minutely detailed explanations and was left in no doubt that what Tony doesn’t know about making your car’s wheels point in the same direction, you could write on an adjustment shim. Alook at the theory topics on his website should convince you: kingpin inclination angle theory, longitudinal castor angle theory, axis deviation theory, sequential alignment fault diagnostics…
The thing is, while it’s tempting to snigger, if you’ve ever had a problem with your car’s wheel alignment – maybe it’s pulling to one side, the steering wheel isn’t straight or the tyres are scrubbing – and the quick-fit centre you take it to says “It’s a characteristic of the car”, or “We’ve adjusted it and it’s spot on”, you’ll know that sniggering is the last thing you feel like doing.
It’s clearly the last thing the owner of the 17-plate Mercedes-Benz C-Class perched on Tony’s ramp felt like doing. Convinced the 3000-mile car was pulling to the left, he gave up on the fastfits and took it to the only man he knows who can fix it without compromising other areas of the car’s wheel geometry.
As Tony makes minute corrections to the car’s castor angles, he says he sees lots of Mercedes with the same problem but has devised a fix that corrects it without causing issues elsewhere.
“The car’s tracking was out, too,” he says. “When you take delivery of a new car, one thing they don’t give you is a printout of the wheel geometry so you can see it’s all properly set up. You have to rely on the garage, and they don’t always get it right.”
Tony’s passion for alignment has led him to create a network of local customers whose wheel alignment and geometry he checks at intervals free of charge, the goal being to amass a database of specifications, problems and remedies (there’s a section dedicated to common alignment issues on his website).
Take BMWs fitted with run-flat tyres, for example. Tony says customers’ experience has shown that the stiffened sidewalls can’t flex sufficiently and the tyres wear prematurely on BMW’s prescribed alignment settings. So he has devised new settings that cure the problem without creating other issues. “It’s a fine line, changing the alignment without changing the performance,” he says. “But it can be done.”
A hint of how much Tony knows about alignment and geometry comes from the fact that he claims to be able to tailor the set-up of a Mazda MX-5 to satisfy a whole range of conditions, including road, fast road, track, competitive track, hillclimb, sprint and drift. This skill makes him dismissive of some tyre fitters who offer only basic wheel alignment.
“Some of them only align the front wheels with each other, rather than aligning them with the thrust angle in the middle of the rear of the car, as they should,” he says. “And forget checking the Ackermann angle [the relationship of the inner and outer wheels on full lock]. They’ve probably never heard of it.”
Tony has a number of keen assistants, but his principal one is called Hawkeye, a precision wheel alignment machine that uses lasers to read up to 30 different angles around the car, including the body’s relationship with the chassis. It fires beams of light at reflectors clamped to the car’s wheels, in order to gauge their precise orientation. Its display screen shows the kinds of angles and geometry that brought me out in a rash at school. Not so Tony.
“I’m passionate about wheel alignment,” he says as he lovingly prepares to re-shim a Ferrari’s lower control arm. “I visualise shapes from angles; the numbers don’t scare me.” But if I think I’m free of Wheels in Motion’s resident Dr Bones, I haven’t reckoned on its Captain Kirk: Jason Saunders.
Saunders looks after Wheels in Motion’s tyre sales side, called Blackboots. Tyres are in his blood, his father having owned four tyre depots in which Jason learned his trade. He says Tony’s reputation for wheel alignment and his own for sourcing high-performance and rare tyres attracts customers from all over the UK.
“It may not look like it, but people who own a Lamborghini or a Ferrari don’t throw their money around,” he says. “I supply a Lamborghini dealer whom I know adds a big mark-up. We do his wheel alignment, too. It didn’t take long for his customers to realise we were doing his work at a lower price. Word spreads.”
Jason’s stock room is a treasure trove of special tyres, including a set of Pirelli 345/35 R19 P Zero Corsas destined for a Ferrari Enzo. The Sultan of Brunei occasionally dispatches his F40 for fresh rubber, while another customer is the son of the founder of a high-street fashion chain, and Jason shows me the new tyres just in for his McLaren P1.
Back at the fitting bays, Jason reveals his pride and joy: a Boss Touchless Tyre Changer. Rather than gripping the wheel rim and damaging it, as lesser machines do, the wheel is mounted on a shaft and secured by a cone. Then, guided by an operator, three hydraulic, rubber-coated arms descend from the Boss and lever off the tyre without leaving a mark on the rim.
My admiration of the Boss performing its magic is interrupted by Jason, his eyes shining: “Feel the bead on this Michelin Pilot Super Sport I’m about to fit to a Lamborghini. Lovely, isn’t it?” For a moment, I’m tempted to share in his delight, but two hours of intense tyre and alignment chat have left me feeling light-headed. Beam me up, Scotty.
Car geometry glossary:
ACKERMANN ANGLE: The engineering principle that allows steered wheels to turn through different radii.
CAMBER ANGLE: The vertical alignment of a wheel perpendicular to the road.
TOE: Looking from above, whether the front of a wheel is angled towards the car (toe-in) or away from it (toe-out).
THRUST ANGLE: An imaginary centre line originating from the centre of the rear axle and at right angles to it, and extending to the front axle. It is key to correct wheel alignment.
KINGPIN INCLINATION: The angle of the kingpin (the main pivot point in a steering system) perpendicular to the ground.