By now you know the basics, how to roll, how to stop, and how to see where you’re going. What more could you need, right? Since the Roman Empire ruled wherever there’s been transportation, there’s been vehicle suspension systems. Whether for increasing comfort on a long ride, enhancing performance, or allowing for a greater load to be transported, vehicle suspension systems have come a long way. The concept has been the same, but the technology certainly has changed.
Vehicle Suspension Systems History
Chariots and horse or ox-powered carts have been around for thousands of years. Chariot racing is one of the first recorded instances of racing some sort of vehicle for sport. In this sport, the chariots were wildly uncontrollable, and often times the Roman chariot races killed more participants than gladiator matches. What was lacking was the control in the corners that comes with proper vehicle suspension systems.
Later on in the rule of the Roman Empire, a complex system of iron connecting rods was found to have a secondary purpose, reducing the bumps from the roads. This was more of a side effect, and due to the design the system would only allow for low speeds and would constantly require attention. It wasn’t until the eighth century that we saw the basic idea of suspension come to mind. Straw-covered baskets, placed near each wheel, were used on the King’s Carriage. This basic outline is similar in design to what we have today, vehicle suspension systems near each wheel. This system was far from perfect, as the carriage would often sway back and forth on the overly soft suspension. If a vehicle suspension is too stiff, it would break. Too soft, and it would cause sea sickness in its passengers. A new system needed to be found.
The next advent in vehicle suspension systems came for separating the wheel frame from the chassis. Iron chains were used to connect the cabins of carriages to the frame of the wheel structure. This was a noisy system, but offered the best alternative for a comfortable ride. In the 17th century, the iron chains were replaced by leather straps, reducing noise and allowing for more flexibility in the ride. This strapping system remained in place until the 19th century, when modern suspensions finally began to appear.
Early Vehicle Suspension Systems
Early leaf spring systems began to appear on carriages in the 19th century. These leaf springs would be made from either wood (for smaller vehicles) or from low-carbon steel (for heavier vehicles). The earliest metal springs were quite large, and often resulted in carriages weighing up to 10 tons (for perspective, The Lotus Elise weighs 0.8 tons) This spring design would go on to become the new standard in vehicle suspension systems.
The leaf spring works by sandwiching strips or metals together in varying lengths, normally in a basic c shape. The resistance in flexing this stack of steel strips is what creates the suspension effect. The concept of leaf springs can still be found on larger vehicles today, as it provides a sturdier, more reliable ride for heavier loads and require less maintenance. You may even still see pickup trucks with leaf suspension systems in the rear wheels. Leaf springs were not the pinnacle of suspension, that was yet to come.
in 1901, a vehicle won the Paris to Berlin race with a time over 30 minutes faster than the runner-up. What set this racer apart was its unique vehicle suspension systems, with what we would now call shock absorbers. Most vehicles at this time, and for a good number of years to follow, used the torsion bar suspension model. Torsion bar suspension works like it sounds, the amount of torsion in a metal bar determines the amount of suspension travel. This system is durable, and takes up very little room in a vehicle. The downside is the comfort and handling of a vehicle suffer under torsion systems.
Modern Vehicle Suspension Systems
Now that leaf springs had evolved into a usable force, and coil springs and been introduced, suspension was ready to become what it is today. While the Model T didn’t feature a highly technical suspension system, using coil springs attached to a center leaf spring for added movement and greater ride comfort. in 1945, Earle S. MacPherson became the chief engineer of lightweight cars at Chevrolet. Under his design, the first vehicles featuring the MacPherson strut hit the markets in 1946. The MacPherson strut is fairly common on vehicles today, combing shock absorbers, struts, control arms, tie rods, and anti-roll and sway bars. The MacPherson system is the most cost-effective, performance-oriented way of providing a modern vehicle suspension system. Porsche, Mercedes, and BMW still use the MacPherson system today.
While the MacPherson system is no doubt popular, there have been other advancements. Like the chariot races of old, the need to go faster with greater agility created the demand for newer models of vehicle suspension systems. Multi-link and double wishbone suspensions offer different performance attributes than the traditional MacPherson strut. Double wishbone suspension can offer increased road contact when cornering, while multi-link suspension can help to further increase this. Multi-link suspension systems got their start on F1 cars, and have since began to find their way into modern vehicles. They work by having multiple points of contact with the body, instead of the one offered with a MacPherson strut.
Many designs have been presented for the future of vehicle suspensions, with the current front-runner appearing to be electromagnets. Rather than an oil filled shock absorber, the vehicle suspension system is adjusted by the amount of force generated by two opposing electromagnets. This would allow of a much smoother ride, as well as offering on the fly adjustments to ride height and performance. This “active” system is already being experimented with different production models, and as early as 2002 Cadillac had “MagneRide” in some of their models.
Guaranteeing A Smooth Ride!
Suspension has allowed us to go from flipping death trap chariots to cornering technical curves at over 100 MPH. Without modern advancements, a morning commute would leave us more much more battered and bruised. As vehicles move towards autonomy, the focus will grow toward creating even more cabin comfort. Reducing noise, maximizing fuel economy, and smoothing out rides will once again create the demand for even more advanced vehicle suspension systems!
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