Lifts come in a variety of configurations. For a good basic overview, check
out the Web site of the Automotive Lift
Institute. Figuring out which lift is right for you depends on what you
plan to do with the lift and how much space you have for it. Lifts for home
use fall into two basic categories based on how they lift the car.
“Frame-engaging” lifts have arms that reach under the car to lift it at secure
jacking places near the perimeter of the frame, such as at the suspension
attachment points and rocker panel boxes. Some have fixed-position pads, while
others use four heavy steel arms which swing horizontally and can be pulled
out or pushed in so that the lift pads can be easily adjusted to align with
your vehicle’s securest lifting points. Because these lifts raise the frame,
the tires dangle and wheels-off work on the suspension and brakes is easy
From there, the lifts break down into several types. Here are the most common,
with their advantages and disadvantages. As for cost, figure that professional
installation of an above-ground lift may add another $500-$600 to the bill.
“Wheel engaging” or drive-on lifts support the car at the tires, as if the
entire road surface is rising. Between the two decks supporting the tires is a
large open space allowing free access to the car’s engine and underbody. These
lifts are better for overhead storage of the vehicle while providing good
access to the center of the underbody. For wheels-off work, an extra set of
crossbeams and hydraulic jacks must be purchased.
Scissor-type or hinge type. These frame-engaging lifts lie flat on the floor,
allowing the car to drive over them. Once the arms are positioned to align
with the jack points, an electric, hydraulic-electric, or pneumatic system
raises the lift by means of scissor-action joints or a hinged parallelogram of
beams. Home users usually buy them in low or medium lift heights, ranging from
36 to 48 inches. Cost: $1,000-$2,400.
Pros: Cheaper than other lift configurations; compact so it can be used
in any garage; doesn’t need to be bolted to the floor; leaves the wheels
dangling for easy brake and suspension work.
Cons: Consumes space on the floor; low-riding cars will have trouble
clearing some models; low lift height; access to the underbody is hampered by
the jacking mechanism; often billed as “moveable” but they weigh 500-700
Two-post surface lifts. This common frame-engaging lift design supports the
vehicle’s weight with metal arms attached to two posts at the side of the
vehicle. There are a multitude of designs, but they generally fall into two
categories, “symmetrical” lifts that support the vehicle in the middle, and
“asymmetrical” lifts that offset the posts forward, mainly to allow the doors
to open. Cost: $2,000-$3,400.
Pros: Can support heavier loads; can lift the car to six or seven feet;
allows full access to the wheels and underbody; uses relatively little floor
Cons: Must be bolted to the floor and, because the posts rock slightly
during normal use, the bolts must be checked periodically for correct torque;
more challenging to use than drive-on lifts; body work can be harder because
posts partially block access to the body sides.
Four-post drive-on lifts. These are wheel-engaging lifts with two runways on
which the vehicle parks and four posts to support the runways as they rise,
generally by means of a hydraulic piston pulling on heavy cables. Access to
the underbody is through the large gap between the runways. Cost:
Pros: Easy to drive on and off; four-post stability means no bolting
down is required; the lift can be easily moved if necessary; the best for
long-term overhead car storage.
Cons: Wheels-off work is more cumbersome and requires extra cross beams
and jacks; the lift takes up a lot of space; runways block access to parts of
In-ground lifts. This ultra deluxe frame-engaging lift design raises the car
with one or two cylinders that rise out of the floor. These are typically
found in dealerships and service stations, though some well-heeled hobbyists
swear by them. The machinery is below ground, located in a nine-foot-deep pit
dug into the floor. As you might imagine, installation costs can be steep –
usually $3,000 to $4,000. New “cassette-style” designs prevent hydraulic leaks
and are thus more environmentally friendly. Manufacturers often specify using
Mobil 1 synthetic grease to keep them lubricated. Cost: $8,000-$10,000.
Pros: Full 360° access to the body and wheels; uses the least amount of
floor space; practically disappears when not in use.
Cons: Princely priced; lifting cylinder doesn’t allow for multi-car
overhead storage; hard to take with you if you move.