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99% of the world's car steering systems are made up of the same three or four components. The steering wheel, which connects to the steering system, which connects to the track rod, which connects to the tie rods, which connect to the steering arms. The steering system can be one of several designs, which we'll go into further down the page, but all the designs essentially move the track rod left -to-right across the car. The tie rods connect to the ends of the track rod with ball and so cket joints, and then to the ends of the steering arms, also with ball and socket joints. The purpose of the tie rods is to allow suspension movement as well as an element of adjustability in the steering geometry. The tie rod lengths can normally be chang ed to achieve these different geometries.

The Ackermann Angle : your wheels don't point the same direction.

In the simplest form of steering, both the front wheels always point in the same direction. You turn the wheel, they both point the same way and around the corner you go. Except that by doing this, you end up with tyres scrubbing, loss of grip and a vehicle that 'crabs' around the corner. So why is this? Well, it's the same thing you need to take into consideration when looking at transmissions . When a car goes around a corner, the outside wheels travel further than the inside wheels. In the case of a transmission, it's why you need a differential (see the Transmission Bible), but in the case of steering, it's why you need the front wheels to actually point in different directions. On the left is the diagram from the Transmission Bible. You can see the inside wheels travel around a circle with a smaller radius (r2) than the outside wheels (r1).

In order for that to happen without causing undue stress to the front wheels and tyres, they must point at slightly different angles to the centreline of the car. The diagram to the left shows the same thing only zoomed in to show the relative angles of the tyres to the car. It's all to do with the geometry of circles. This difference of angle is achieved with a relatively simple arrangement of steering components to create a trapezoid geometry (a parallelogram with one of the parallel sides sh orter than the other). Once this is achieved, the wheels point at different angles as the steering geometry is moved. Most vehicles now don't use 'pure' Ackermann steering geometry because it doesn't take some of the dynamic and compliant effects of steeri ng and suspension into account, but some derivative of this is used in almost all steering systems (right).

Why 'Ackermann'?
This particular technology was first introduced in 1758 by Erasmus Darwin, father of Charles Darwin, in a paper entitled "Erasmus Darwin's improved design for steering carriages--and cars". It was never patented though until 1817 when Rudolph

Ackermann patented it in London, and that's the name that stuck. Qwdacke







Steering ratios

Every vehicle has a steering ratio inherent in the design. If it didn't you'd never be able to turn the wheels. Steering ratio gives mechanical advantage to the driver, allowing you to turn the tyres with the weight of the whole car sitting on them, but more importantly, it means you don't have to turn the steerin g wheel a ridiculous number of times to get the wheels to move. Steering ratio is the ratio of the number of degrees turned at the steering wheel vs. the number of degrees the front wheels are deflected. So for example, if you turn the steering wheel 20 a nd the front wheels only turn 1, that gives a steering ratio of 20:1. For most modern cars, the steering ratio is between 12:1 and 20:1. This, coupled with the maximum angle of deflection of the wheels gives the lock-to-lock turns for the steering wheel. For example, if a car has a steering ratio of 18:1 and the front wheels have a maximum deflection of 25, then at 25, the steering wheel has turned 25x18, which is 450. That's only to one side, so the entire steering goes from -25 to plus 25 giving a lock-to-lock angle at the steering wheel of 900, or 2.5 turns (900 / 360).

This works the other way around too of course. If you know the lock -to-lock turns and the steering ratio, you can figure out the wheel deflection. For example if a car is advertised as having a 16:1 steering ratio and 3 turns lock -to-lock, then the steering wheel can turn 1.5x360 (540) each way. At a ratio of 16:1 that means the front wheels deflect by 33.75 each way.

For racing cars, the steering ratio is normally much smaller than for passenger cars ie. closer to 1:1 - as the racing drivers need to get fuller deflection into the steering as quickly as possible.

Turning circles
The turning circle of a car is the diameter of the circle described by the outside wheels when turning on full lock. There is no hard and fast forumla to calculate the turning circle but you can get close by using this:


circle radius =





The numbers required to calculate the turning circle explain why a classic black London taxi has a tiny 8m turning circle to allow it to do U -turns in the narrow London streets. In this case, the wheelbase and track aren't radically different to any other car, but the average steering angle is huge. For comparison, a typical passenger car turning circle is normally between 11m and 13m with SUV turning circles going out as much as 15m to 17m.

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Steering System designs : Pitman arm types

There really are only two basic categories of steering system today; those that have pitman arms with a steering 'box' and those that don't. Older cars and some current trucks use pitman arms, so for the sake of completeness, I've documented some common types. Newer cars and unibody light -duty trucks typically all use some derivative of rack and pinion steering.

Pitman arm mechanisms have a steering 'box' where the shaft from the steering wheel comes in and a lever arm comes out - the pitman arm. This pitman arm is linked to the track rod or centre link, which is supported by idler arms. The tie rods connect to the track rod. There are a large number of variations of the actual mechanical linkage from direct-link where the pitman arm is connected direct ly to the track rod, to compound linkages where it is connected to one end of the steering system or the track rod via other rods. The example here shows a compound link (left).

Most of the steering box mechanisms that drive the pitman arm have a 'dead spo t' in the centre of the steering where you can turn the steering wheel a slight amount before the front wheels start to turn. This slack can normally be adjusted with a screw mechanism but it can't ever be eliminated. The traditional advantage of these sys tems is that they give bigger mechanical advantage and thus work well on heavier vehicles. With the advent of power steering, that has become a moot point and the steering system design is now more to do with mechanical design, price and weight. The following are the four basic types of steering box used in pitman arm systems.

Worm and sector

In this type of steering box, the end of the shaft from the steering wheel has a worm gear attached to it. It meshes directly with a sector gear (so called because it's a section of a full gear wheel). When the steering wheel is turned, the shaft turns the worm gear, and the sector gear pivots around its axis as its teeth are moved along the worm gear. The sector gear is mounted on the cross shaft which passes through the steering box and out the bottom where it is splined, and the the pitman arm is attache d to the splines. When the sector gear turns, it turns the cross shaft, which turns the pitman arm, giving the output motion that is fed into the mechanical linkage on the track rod. The following diagram shows the active components that are present inside the worm and sector steering box. The box itself is sealed and filled with grease.

Worm and roller

The worm and roller steering box is similar in design to the worm and sector box. The difference here is that instead of having a sector gear that meshes with the worm gear, there is a roller instead. The roller is mounted on a roller bearing shaft and is held captive on the end of the cross shaft. As the worm gear turns, the roller is forced to

move along it but because it is held captive on the cross shaft, it twists the cross shaft. Typically in these designs, the worm gear is actually an hourglass shape so that it is wider at the ends. Without the hourglass shape, the roller might disengage from it at the extents of its travel.

Worm and nut or recirculating ball

This is by far the most common type of steering box for pitman arm systems. In a recirculating ball steering box, the worm drive has many more turns on it with a finer pitch. A box or nut is clamped over the worm drive that contains dozens of ball bearings. These loop around the worm drive and then out into a recirculating channel within the nut where they are fed back into the worm drive again. Hence recirculating. As the steering wheel is turned, the worm drive turns and forces the ball bearings to press against the channel inside the nut. This forces the nut to move along the worm drive. The nut itself has a couple of gear teeth cast into the outside of it and these mesh with the teeth on a sector gear which is attached to the cross shaft just like in the worm and sector mechanism. This system has much less free play or slack in it than the other designs, hence why it's used the most. The example below shows a recirculating ball mechanism with the nut shown in cutaway so you can see the ball bearings and the recirculation channel.

Cam and lever

Cam and lever steering boxes are very similar to worm and sector steering boxes. The worm drive is known as a cam and has a much shallower pitch and the sector gear is replaced with two studs that sit in the cam channels. As the worm gear is turned, the studs slide along the cam channels which forces the cross shaft to rotate, turning the pitman arm. One of the design features of this style is that it turns the cross shaft 90 to the normal so it exits through the side of the steering box instead of the bottom. This can result in a very compact design when necessary.

Steering System designs : Rack and pinion

This is by far the most common type of steering you'll find in any car today due to it's relative simplicity and low cost. Rack and pinion systems give a much better feel for the driver, and there isn't the slop or slack associated with steering box pitman arm type systems. The downside is that unlike those systems, rack and pinion designs ha ve no adjustability in them, so once they wear beyond a certain mechanical tolerance, they need replacing completely. This is rare though.

In a rack and pinion system, the track rod is replaced with the steering rack which is a

long, toothed bar with the tie rods attached to each end. On the end of the steering shaft there is a simple pinion gear that meshes with the rack. When you turn the steering wheel, the pinion gear turns, and moves the rack from left to right. Changing the size of the pinion gear alters the steering ratio. It really is that simple. The diagrams here show an example rack and pinion system (left) as well as a close -up cutaway of the steering rack itself (right).

Variable-ratio rack and pinion steering

This is a simple variation on the a bove design. All the components are the same, and it all works the same except that the spacing of the teeth on the rack varies depending on how close to the centre of the rack they are. In the middle, the teeth are spaced close together to give slight steering for the first part of the turn - good for not oversteering at speed. As the teeth get further away from the centre, they increase in spacing slightly so that the wheels turn more for the same turn of the steering wheel towards full lock. Simple.

Vehicle dynamics and steering - how it can all go very wrong

Generally speaking, when you turn the steering wheel in your car, you typically expect it to go where you're pointing it. At slow speed, this will almost always be the case but once you get some momentum behind you, you are at the mercy of the chassis and suspension designers. In racing, the aerodynamic wings, air splitters and undertrays help to maintain an even balance of the vehicle in corners along with the position of the weight in the vehicle and the supension setup. The two most common problems you'll run into are understeer and oversteer.


Understeer is so called because the car steers less than you want it to. Understeer can be brought on by all manner of chassis, suspension an d speed issues but essentially it means that the car is losing grip on the front wheels. Typically it happens as you brake and the weight is transferred to the front of the car. At this point the mechanical grip of the front tyres can simply be overpowered and they start to lose grip (for example on a wet or greasy road surface). The end result is that the car will start to take the corner very wide. In racing, that normally involves going off the outside of the corner into a catch area or on to the grass. In normal you-and-me driving, it means crashing at the outside of the corner. Getting out of understeer can involve letting off the throttle in front-wheel-drive vehicles (to try to give the tyres chance to grip) or getting on the throttle in rear-wheel-drive vehicles (to try to bring the back end around). It's a complex topic more suited to racing driving forums but suffice to say that if you're trying to get out of understeer and you cock it up, you get.....


The bright ones amongst you will probably already have guessed that oversteer is the opposite of understeer. With oversteer, the car goes where it's pointed far too efficiently and you end up diving into the corner much more quickly than you had expected. Oversteer is brought on by the car losing grip on the rear wheels as the weight is transferred off them under braking, resulting in the rear kicking out in the corner. Without counter-steering (see below) the end result in racing is that the car will spin and end up going off the inside of the corner backwards. In normal you -and-me driving, it means spinning the car and ending up pointing back the way you came.


Counter-steering is what you need to do when you start to experience oversteer. If you get into a situation where the back end of the car loses grip and starts to swing out, steering opposite to the direction of the corner can often 'catch' the oversteer by directing the nose of the car out of the corner. In drift racing an d demonstration driving, it's how the drivers are able to smoke the rear tyres and power -slide around a corner. They will use a combination of throttle, weight transfer and handbrake to induce oversteer into a corner, then flick the steering the opposite d irction, honk on the accelerator and try to hold a slide all the way around the corner. It's also a widely -used technique in rally racing. Tiff Needell - a racing driver who also works on some UK motoring programs - is an absolute master at counter-steer power sliding.

Apart from your car's tyres and seats, the suspension is the prime mechanism that separates your bum (arse for the American) from the road. It also prevents your car from shaking itself to pieces. No matter how smooth you think the road is, it's a bad, bad place to propel over a ton of metal at high speed. So we rely upon suspension. People who travel on underground trains wish that those vehicles relied on

suspension too, but they don't and that's why the ride is so harsh. Actua lly it's harsh because underground trains have no lateral suspension to speak of. So as the rails deviate side-to-side slightly, so does the entire train, and it's passengers. In a car, the rubber in your tyre helps with this little problem, while all the other suspension parts do the rest.

In it's most basic form, suspension consists of two basic components:

Springs These come in three types. They are coil springs, torsion bars and leaf springs. Coil springs are what most people are familiar with, and are actually coiled torsion bars. Leaf springs are what you would find on most American cars up to about 1985 and almost all heavy duty vehicles. They look like layers of metal connected to the axle. The layers are called leaves, hence leaf -spring. The torsion bar on its own is a bizarre little contraption which gives c oiled-spring-like performance based on the twisting properties of a steel bar. It's used in the suspension of VW Beetles and Karmann Ghias, air-cooled Porsches (356 and 911 until 1989 when they went to springs), and the rear suspension of Peugeot 205s amon gst other cars. Instead of having a coiled spring, the axle is attached to one end of a steel shaft. The other end is slotted into a tube and held there by splines. As the suspension moves, it twists the shaft along it's length, which in turn resist. Now i mage that same shaft but instead of being straight, it's coiled up. As you press on the top of the coil, you're actually inducing a twisting in the shaft, all the way down the coil. I know it's hard to visualise, but believe me, that's what is happening. There's a whole section further down the page specifically on torsion bars and progressive springs.



These dampen the vertical motion induced by driving your car along a rough surface and so should technically be referred to by their 'proper' name - dampers. If your car only had springs, it would boat and wallow along the ro ad until you got physically sick and had to get out. It would be a travelling deathtrap. Or at least it would be a travelling deathtrap until the incessant vibration caused it to fall apart.

Shock absorbers (dampers) perform two functions. As mentioned abo ve, they absorb any larger-than-average bumps in the road so that the upward velocity of the wheel over the bump isn't transmitted to the car chassis. But secondly, they keep the suspension at as full a travel as possible for the given road conditions - they keep your wheels planted on the road.

You want more technical terms? Technically they are velocity -sensitive hydraulic damping devices - in other words, the faster they move, the more resistance there is to that movement. They work in conjunction with t he springs. The spring allows movement of the wheel to allow the energy in the road shock to be transformed into kinetic energy of the unsprung mass, whereupon it is dissipated by the damper. The damper does this by forcing gas or oil through a constrictio n valve (a small hole). Adjustable shock absorbers allow you to change the size of this constriction, and thus control the rate of damping. The smaller the constriction, the stiffer the suspension. Phew!....and you thought they just leaked oil didn't you?

Find Mustang suspension kits at

A modern coil-over-oil unit

The image here shows a typical modern coil -over-oil unit. This is an all -in-one system that carries both the spring and the shock absorber. The type illustrated here is more likely to be an aftermarket item - it's unlikely you'd get this level of adjustment on your regular passenger car. The adjustable spring plate can be used to make the springs stiffer and looser, whilst the adjustable damping valve can be used to adjust the rebound damping of the shocks. More sophisticated units have adjustable

compression damping as well as a remote reservoir. Whilst you don't typically get this level of engineering on car suspension, most motorbikes do have preload, rebound and spring tension adjustment. See the section later on in this page about the ins and outs of complex suspension units.

Suspension bushes

These are the rubber grommets which separate most of the parts of your suspension from each other. They're used at the link of an A -Arm with the subframe. They're used on anti-roll bar links and mountings. They're used all over the place, and from the factory, I can almost guarantee they're made of rubber. Rubber doesn't last. It perishes in the cold and splits in the heat. Perished, split rubber was what brought the Challenger space shuttle down. This is one of those little parts which hardly anyone pays any attention to, but it's vitally important for your car's handling, as well as your own safety, that these little things are in good condition. My advice? Replace them with polyurethane or polygraphite bushes - they are hard-wearing and last a heck of a lot longer. And, if you're into presenting your car at shows, they look better than the naff little black rubber jobs. Like all suspension -related items though, bushes are a tradeoff between performance and comfort. The harder the bush compound, the less comfort in the cabin. You pays your money and makes your choice.

If you have an off-road vehicle like a Jeep Wrangler, suspension bushings are an important part of your s uspension system.

Suspension Types
In their infinite wisdom, car manufacturers have set out to baffle us with the sheer number of different types of suspension available for both front and rear axles. The main groupings are dependent and independent suspen sion types but this naming convention really only applies to traditional or analogue suspension systems. Even independent systems are typically joined across the car by an anti -roll bar and so are not truly independent.

From about 2006 onwards, the concept of fully independent suspension systems started to appear on cars where the anti -roll bar was replaced by sophisticated

computer software connected to some form of electronically -controlled suspension. See the section later on dealing with digital suspension systems for more information. If you know of any not listed here, e -mail me and let me know - I would like this page to be as complete as possible.

Front suspension - dependent systems

So-called because the front wheel's suspension systems are physically linked. For everyday use, they are, in a word, shite. I hate to be offensive, but they are. There is only one type of dependent system you need to know about. It i s basically a solid bar under the front of the car, kept in place by leaf springs and shock absorbers. It's still common to find these on trucks, but if you find a car with one of these you should sell it to a museum. They haven't been used on mainstream c ars for years for three main reasons:

Shimmy - because the wheels are physically linked, the beam can be set into oscillation if one wheel hits a bump and the other doesn't. It sets up a gyroscopic torque about the steering axis which starts to turn the axle left-to-right. Because of the axle's inertia, this in turn feeds back to amplify the original motion.

Weight - or more specifically unsprung weight. Solid front axles weigh a lot and either need sturdy, heavy leaf springs or heavy suspension linkages to keep their wheels on the road.

Alignment - simply put, you can't adjust the alignment of wheels on a rigid axis. From the factory, they're perfectly set, but if the beam gets even slightly distorted, you can't adjust the wheels to compensate.

I frequently get pulled -up on the above statements from people jumping to defend solid-axle suspension. They usually send me pictures like this and claim it's the best suspension system for off -road use. I have to admit, for off-roadstuff, it probably is pretty good. But let's face it; how many people with these vehicles ever go off-road? The closest they come to having maximum wheel deflection is when the mother double-parks the thing with one wheel on the kerb during the school -run.......

Picture credit: Landrover Owner's Group

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Front suspension - independent systems

So-named because the front wheel's suspension systems are independent of each other (except where joined by an anti-roll bar) These came into existence around 1930 and have been in use in one form or another pretty much ever since then.

MacPherson Strut or McPherson strut

This is currently, without doubt, the most widely used front suspension system in cars of European origin. It is simplicity itself. The system basically comprises of a strut type spring and shock absorber combo, which pivots on a ball joint on the single, lower arm. At the top end there is a needle roller bearing on some more sophisticated systems. The strut itself is the load -bearing member in this assembly, with the spring and shock absorber merely performing their duty as oppose to actually holding the car up. In the picture here, you can't see the shock absorber because it is encased in the black gaiter inside the spring.

The steering gear is either connected directly to the lower shock absorber housing, or to an arm from the front or back of the spindle (in this case). When you steer, it physically twists the strut and shock absorber housing (and consequently the spring) to turn the wheel. Simple. The spring is seated in a special plate at the top of the assembly which allows this twisting to take place. If the spring or this plate are worn, you'll get a loud 'clonk' on full lock as the spring frees up and jumps into place. This is sometimes confused for CV joint knock.

Rover 2000 MacPherson derivative

During WWII, the British car maker Rover worked on experimental gas -turbine engines, and after the war, retained a lot of knowledge about them. The gas -turbine Rover T4, which looked a lot like the Rover P6, Rover 2000 and Rover 3500, was one of the prototypes. The chassis was fundamentally the same as the other Rovers and the net result was the the 2000 and 3500 ended up with a very odd front suspension layout. The gas turbine wasn't exactly small, and Rover needed as much room as possible in the engine bay to fit it. The suspension was derived from a normal MacPherson strut but with an added bellcrank. This allowed the suspension unit to sit horizontally along the outside of the engine bay rather than protruding into it and taking up space. The bellcrank t ransferred the upward forces from the suspension into rearward forces for the spring / shock combo to deal with. In the end, the gas turbine never made it into production and the Rover 2000 was fitted with a 2 -litre 4-cylinder engine, whilst the Rover 3500 was fitted with an 'evergreen' 3.5litre V8. Open the

hood of either of these classics and the engine looks a bit lost in there because there's so much room around it that was never utilised. The image on the left shows the Rover-derivative MacPherson strut.

Potted history of MacPherson: Earle S. MacPherson of General Motors developed the MacPherson strut in 1947. GM cars were originally design -bound by accountants. If it cost too much or wasn't tried and tested, then it didn't get built/used. Major GM innovations including the MacPherson Strut suspension system sat stifled on the shelf for years because innovation cannot be proven on a spreadsheet until after the product has been produced or manufactured. Consequently, Earle MacPherson went to work for Ford UK in 1950, where Ford started using his design on the 1950 'English' Ford models straight away. Today the strut type is referred to both with and without the "a" in the name, so both McPherson Strut and MacPherson Strut can be used to describe it.

Further note: Earle MacPherson should never be confused with Elle McPherson - the Australian ber-babe. In her case, the McPherson Strut is something she does on a catwalk, or in your dreams if you like that sort of thing. And if you're a bloke, then you ought to....

Double wishbone suspension systems.

The following three examples are all variations on the same theme.

Coil Spring type 1

This is a type of double-A or double wishbone suspension. The wheel spindles are supported by an upper and lower 'A' shaped arm. In this type, the lower arm carries most of the load. If you look head -on at this type of system, what you'll find is that it's a very parallelogram system that allows the spindles to travel vertically up and down. When they do this, they also have a slight side-to-side motion caused by the arc that the wishbones describe around their pivot points. This side -to-side motion is known as scrub. Unless the links are infinitely long the scrub motion is always present. There are two other types of motion of the wheel relative to the body when the suspension articulates. The first and most important is a toe angle (steer angle). The second and least important, but the one which produces most pub talk is the camber angle, or lean angle. Steer and camber are the ones which wear tyres.

Coil Spring type 2

This is also a type of double-A arm suspension although the lower arm in these systems can sometimes be replaced with a single solid arm (as in my picture). The only real difference between this and the previous system mentioned above is that the spring/shock combo is moved from between the arms to above the upper arm. This transfers the load-bearing capability of the suspension almost entirely to the upper arm and the spring mounts. The lower arm in this instance becomes a control arm. This particular type of system isn't so popular in cars as it takes up a lot room.

Multi-link suspension

This is the latest incarnation of the double wishbone system described above. It's currently being used in the Audi A8 and A4 amongst other cars. The basic principle of it is the same, but instead of solid upper and lower wishbones, each 'arm' of the wishbone is a separate item. These are joined at the top and bottom of the spindle thus forming the wishbone shape. The super -weird thing about this is that as the spindle turns for steering, it alters the geometry of the suspension by torquing all four suspension arms. They have complex pivot systems designed to allow this to happen. Car manufacturers claim that this system gives even better road -holding properties, because all the various joints make the suspension almost infinitely adjustable. There are a lot of variations on this theme appearing at the moment, with huge differences in the numbers and complexities of joints, numbers of arms, positioning of the parts etc. but they are all fundamentally the same. Note that in this system the spring (red) is separate from the shock absorber (yellow).

Trailing-arm suspension

The trailing arm system is literally that - a shaped suspension arm is joined at the front to the chassis, allowing the rear to swing up and down. Pairs of these become twin-trailing-arm systems and work on exactly the same principle as the double wishbones in the systems described above. The difference is that instead of the arms sticking out from the side of the chassis, they travel back parallel to it. This is an older system not used so much any more because of the space it takes up, but it doesn't suffer from the side -to-side scrubbing problem of double wishbone systems. If you want to know what I mean, find a VW beetle and stick your head in the front wheel arch - that's a double-trailing-arm suspension setup. Simple.

Twin I-Beam suspension

Used almost exclusively by Ford F-series trucks, twin I-beam suspension was introduced in 1965. This little oddity is a combination of trailing arm suspension and solid beam axle suspension. Only in this case the beam is split in two and mounted offset from the centre of the chassis, one section for each side of the suspension. The trailing arms are actually (technically) leading arms and the steering gear is mounted in front of the suspension setu p. Ford claim this makes for a heavy -duty independent front suspension setup capable of handling the loads associated with their trucks. In an empty truck, however, going over a bump with twin I -beam suspension is like falling down stairs in leg irons.

Moulton rubber suspension

This suspension system is based on the compression of a solid mass of rubber - red in both these images. The two types are essentially derivatives of the same design. It is named after Dr. Alex Moulton - one of the original design team on the Mini, and the engineer who designed its suspension system in 1959. This system is known by a few different names including cone and trumpet suspension (due to the shape of the rubber bung shown in the right hand picture). The rear suspension system on the original Mini also used Moulton's rubber suspension system, but laid out horizontally rather than vertically, to save space again. The Mini was originally intended to have Moulton's fluid-filled Hydrolastic suspension, but that remained on the drawing board for a few more years. Eventually, Hydrolastic was developed into Hydragas (see later on this page), and revised versions were adopted on the Mini Metro and the current MGF-sportscar. For a while, Moulton rubber suspension was used in a lot of bicycles - racing and mountain bikes. Due to the compact design and the simplicity of its operation and maintenance, it was an ideal solution, but has since been superceded by more advanced, lightweight designs. If you're interested in further reading, there's a memoir book out now about Alex Moulton and his original designs. Alex Moulton - a lifetime in engineering.

Transverse leaf-spring

This system is a bit odd in that it combines independent double wishbone suspension with a leaf spring like you'd normally find on the rear suspension. Famously used on the Corvette, it involves one leaf spring mounted across the vehicle, connected at each end to the lower wishbone. The centre of the spring is connected to the front subframe in the middle of the car. There are still two shock absorbers, mounted one to each side on the lower wishbones. Chevy insist that this is the best thing since sliced bread for a suspension system but there are plenty of other experts, manufacturers and race drivers who think it's junk. It's never been clear if this was a performance and design decision or a cost issue, but this type of system is very rare.

Historically, Triumph used transverse leaf spring suspension on their small chassis cars (Herald, Vitesse, Spitfire & GT6). In the good old British school of thought, they did this because it was cheap. The spring was bolted to the differential, rather than the chassis, and under (very) hard cornering you got jacking and tuck -under. If you got this whilst driving and panicked enough to let off the gas, or worse, step on the

brake, you got massive over-steer, and pirouetted off into the nearest tree. There were plenty of complaints about this suspension system in the late 60's, so Triumph changed to a 'swing spring' system on some cars (no longer bolted to the diff), and what they called 'rotoflex' on the GT6. Again from the good old British school of thought, the replacement system was unnecessarily complicated and allegedly very fragile.

Photo credit : Triumph Herald Tricks & Tips

There was also a rare Swedish sports car in the 1990's called JC Indigo which had transverse leaf spring as both front and rear suspension. The composite spring was derived from the Volvo 760 station wagon but Indigo used it both as rear suspension and in a modified form in the front. The car had mostly Volvo running gear but the company had no relationship to Volvo themselves. It went out of business pretty quickly and I'm not even sure if the Indigo ever reached mass production. Interesting factoid for you: Sweden has had over 120 car manufacturers. Only three remain, only two are really mass producers and it is unlikely that more than one of them will survive to see 2020.

Speaking specifically about Corvette leaf-spring suspension.

The Corvette was not the first car to combine leaf springs with independent suspension. As well as the Triumph Herald, Fiat did so mething similar in the 50s with steel springs. The recent Volvo 960 Wagon (not sedan) also used fibreglass leaf springs in the rear with independent suspension. The Corvette is, as far as I know, the only vehicle that uses this setup both front and rear.

The system is definitely independent, not like a live axle or a twist beam rear end. With dependent systems, when one wheel moves, the other is forced to move too. The design of the Corvette suspension is such that even though both sides are linked one side can move without affecting the other, hence its classification as independent. But how - what about that leaf spring? Surely if it's attached to both sides, that makes this a dependent suspension system?

On the older Corvettes (C2, C3, C4 rear end) the le af spring was rigidly clamped to

the subframe in the centre. That made it act like two separate leaf springs, one for each side. As two separate leaf springs it, like a torsion bar, was simply an alternative to coil springs.

When considering coil -spring type suspension, the 'third spring' is essentially forgotten - the two visible coils are considered to be the springing part of the suspension. Not so - there's the anti-roll bar too. Whilst not technically a spring, it does act as a transverse torsion bar l inking both sides of the suspension together. So the way GM started using the tranverse leaf spring is actually very clever; it lets one spring act as both a traditional spring and an anti-roll. Yes - if one wheel moves, spring forces (not geometric displacements like we see with a live axle) are applied to the other wheel - however, in a car with an anti -roll bar the same thing happens (see the section on anti roll bars). The problem was that it worked well as a spring, but not so well as an anti-roll bar, so in the end GM had to add anti -roll bars too.

Typically, aftermarket tuners will tear the leaf springs out and replace them with coil spring systems simply to make li fe easier. GM left many things on the Corvette with room for improvement. Leaf springs are not really a fundamental problem - typically the view is that Corvettes would be no better from the factory with coil springs. A traditional leaf spring live axle sa ves money because the cost of leaf springs is less than coils, trailing arms, pan hard rod etc. The Corvette has all the same suspension arms as a system with coil springs, so the only difference is the cost of the fibreglass leaf vs. the cost of the coil spring; leaf springs cost more than a coil so GM didn't do it to save money. It's not immediately clear then why they did it other than perhaps 'because they could'.

To round off this section then, here is an excellent link talking about how this suspension works - it does a far better job than I can: Fibreglass springs


Rear suspension - dependent (linked) systems
Solid-axle, leaf-spring

This system was favoured by the Americans for years because it was dead simple and cheap to build. The ride quality is decidedly questionable though. The drive axle is clamped to the leaf springs and the shock absorbers normally bolt directly to the axle. The ends of the leaf springs are attached directly to the chassis, as are the tops of the shock absorbers. Simple, not particularly elegant, but cheap. The main drawback with this arrangement is the lack of lateral location for the axle, meaning it has a lot of side-to-side slop in it.

Solid-axle, coil-spring

This is a variation and update on the system described above. The basic idea is the same, but the leaf springs have been removed in favour of either 'coil -over-oil' spring and shock combos, or as shown here, separate coil springs and shock absorbers.

Because the leaf springs have been removed, the axle now needs to have lateral support from a pair control arms. The front ends of these are attached to the chassis, the rear ends to the axle. The variation shown here is more compact than the coil over-oil type, and it means you can have smaller or shorter springs. This in turn allows the system to fit in a smaller area under the car.

Beam Axle

This system is used in front wheel drive cars, where the rear axle isn't driven. (hence it's full description as a "dead beam"). Again, it is a relatively simple system. The beam runs across under the car with the wheels attached to either end of it. Spring / shock units or struts are bolt ed to either end and seat up into suspension wells in the car body or chassis. The beam has two integral trailing arms built in instead of the separate control arms required by the solid -axle coil-spring system. Variations on this system can have either separate springs and shocks, or the combined 'coil -over-oil' variety as shown here. One notable feature of this system is the track bar (or panhard rod). This is a diagonal bar which runs from one end the beam to a point either just in front of the opposite control arm (as here) or sometimes diagonally up to the top of the opposite spring mount (which takes up more room). This is to prevent side -to-side movement in the beam which would cause all manner of nasty handling problems. A variation on this them is the twist axle which is identical with the exception of the panhard rod. In a twist axle, the axle is designed to twist slightly. This gives, in effect, a semi-independent system whereby a bump on one wheel is partially soaked up by the twisting action of the beam. Yet another variation on this system does away with

the springs and replaces them with torsion bars running across the chassis, and attached to the leading edge of the control arms. These beam types are currently very popular because of their simplicity and low cost.


4-bar suspension can be used on th e front and rear of vehicles - I've chosen to show it in the "rear" section of this page because that's where it's normally found. 4 -bar suspension comes in two varieties. Triangulated, shown on the right here, and parallel, shown on the left.

The parallel design operates on the principal of a "constant motion parallelogram". The design of the 4-bar is such that the rear end housing is always parallel to the ground, and the pinion angle never changes. This, combined with the lateral stability of the Panhard Bar, does an excellent job of locating the rear end and keeping it in proper alignment. If you were to compare this suspension system on a truck with a 4 link or ladder-bar setup, you'd notice that the rear frame "kick up" of the 4 -bar setup is far less severe. This, combined with the relatively compact installation design means that it's ideal for cars and trucks where space is at a premium. You'll find this setup on a lot of street rods and American style classic hot rods.

The triangulated design operates on the same principle, but the top two bars are skewed inwards and joined to the rear end housing much closer to the centre. This eliminates the need for the separate panhard bar, which in turn means the whole setup is even more compact.

Derivatives of the 4-Bar system

There are many variations on the 4 -bar systems I've illustrated above. For example, if the four angled bars go from the axle outboard to the chassis near the centreline, this is called a "Satchell link". (Satchell is a US designer, who us ed the above linkage on some of Paul Newmans Datsun road racers some years back.) It has certain advantages over the above examples. Both of the these angled linkages can be reversed to have the angled links below the axle and the parallel links above. The roll centre will be lowered with the angled bars under the axle, a function which is difficult to accomplish without this design. The other variation on the "four bars" not shown are the Watts and Jacobs bar linkages to replace the Panhard rod for lateral positioning. Another linkage is the two parallel bars above the axle and a triangulated link underneath - a design you will find on the Lotus 7 - where the lower link has its base on the chassis and the apex under the differential. Then there is the Mallo ck Woblink, which could be described as half way between a Jacobs ladder and a Watts link, and makes it possible to place the rear roll centre quite low without sacrificing ground clearance.

Watts links are pretty popular with the hydraulic lowrider/truck bed dancer types. The Jacobs ladder is used almost exclusively on US midget and sprintcar dirt track rear ends. The Mallock Woblink is used mostly on the Mallock U2 Clubman cars in Great Britain.

de Dion suspension, or the de Dion tube

The de Dion tube - not part of the London underground, but rather a semi -independent rear suspension system designed to combat the twin evils of unsprung weight and poor ride quality in live axle systems. de Dion suspension is a weird bastardisation of live-axle solid-beam suspension and fully independent trailing -arm suspension. It's neither one, but at the same time it's both. Weird! With this system, the wheels are interconnected by a de Dion Tube, which is essentially a laterally -telescoping part of the suspension designed to allow the wheel track to vary during suspension movement. This is necessary because the wheels are always kept parallel to each other, and thus perpendicular to the road surface regardless of what the car body is doing. This setup means that when the wheels rebound, there is also no camber change which is great for traction, and that's the first advantage of a de Dion Tube. The second advantage is that it contributes to reduced unsprung weight in the vehicle because the transfer case / differential is attached to the chassis of the car rather than the suspension itself.

Naturally, the advantages are equalled by disadvantages, and in the case of de Dion systems, the disadvantages would seem to win out. First off, it needs two CV joints per axle instead of only one. That adds complexity and weight. Well one of the advantages of not having the differential as part of the suspension is a reduction in weight, so adding more weight back into the system to compensate for the design is a definite distadvantage. Second, the brakes are mounted inboard with the calipers attached to the transfer case, which means to change a brake disc, you need to dismantle the entire suspension system to get the driveshaft out. (Working on the brake calipers is no walk in the park either.) Finally, de Dion units can be used with a leaf-spring or coil-spring arrangement. With coil spring (as shown here) it needs extra lateral location links, such as a panhard rod, wishbones or trailing links. Again - more weight and complexity.

de Dion suspension was used mostly used from the mid 60's to the late 70's and could be found on some Rovers, the Alfa Romeo Alfettas (including the sedans and the GTV) and the GTV6, one or two Lancias a smattering of exotic racing cars and b udget sports cars or coupes.

More recently deDion suspension has had somewhat of a renaissance in the specialist sports car and kit car market such as those from Caterham, Westfield and Dax. These

all uniformly now use outboard brake setups for ease -of-use, and a non-telescoping tube, usually with trailing links and an A -bar for lateral location (rather than a Watts linkage or Panhard rod.) Whilst a properly setup independent suspension system will always win hands-down on poorly maintained roads, when you get on to the track, the advantage is not so clear cut and a well set up deDion system can often match it turn for-turn now, espeically for flyweight cars.

Rear suspension - independent systems

It follows, that what can be fitted to the front of a car, can be fitted to the rear to without the complexities of the steering gear. Simplified versions of all the independent systems described above can be found on the rear axles of cars. The multi-link system is currently becoming more and more popular. In advert ising, it's put across as '4-wheel independent suspension'. This means all the wheels are independently mounted and sprung. There are two schools of thought as to whether this system is better or worse for handling than, for example, Macpherson struts and a twist axle. The drive towards 4 -wheel independent suspension is primarily to improve ride quality without degrading handling.

Ford Control Blade Suspension

A lot of attention and marketing was paid to Ford about their new Control Blade rear suspension when it first came out. Glossy marketing brochures told us how this revolution in rear suspension would make our Ford Focus handle better, grip the road better, and brake better than everything else on the road. What that essentially meant was "we've got a new suspension system". It actually started out its life sometime around 1998 in Ford of Australia and I believe Holden had something to do with it too. Since then its become far more mainstream.

So "Control Blade" is the snappy moniker that Ford came u p with. It sounds good, looks good on paper, and has an aura of 21 century-ness about it. "Blade". Ooh.






Control blade is basically an evolution of trailing -arm suspension. The purpose of

Control Blade suspension is two -fold. First they wanted to separate the various suspension functions from each other - isolating the handling components from the ride qualiy components. With the springs and shock absorbers being mounted separately, Ford have managed to optimise the function of thes e components. It's similar in concept to what BMW did with the telelever front suspension on motorbikes (separating braking from suspension forces) only in the Ford system, it separates the springing support of the suspension from the shock reducing functi ons of the shock absorbers. Secondly it increases the interior space available in the vehicle. Most suspension systems used in daily drivers have strut towers in the rear of the vehicle - those bumps either side of the boot (trunk). Ford wanted to give mor e space in the back and needed to find a good way to remove or reduce the size of those towers. With Control Blade, because the shock absorbers are separated from the springs, it opened up a lot more design flexibility. Ford used a trailing -arm type suspension so that they didn't have swingarms up under the wheel arches and the springs were shortened and moved inboard and underneath. In one variation, the shock absorbers still sit vertically but the space they take up now is hugely reduced because they no longer have the coil springs around the outside. In the second variation the shock absorber is a subminiature unit mounted inboard of the springs underneath the vehicle. The control blades themselves are basically the trailing arms which give lateral suppo rt and provide the vertical pivot point for the entire unit.

The Ford spiel says this about Control Blade: "It has the key function of promoting ride and reducing road noise transmission, while providing the freedom to let the lateral links define toe and camber by absorbing any rearward forces and allowing the rest of the suspension to do it's job uninterrupte d. Effectively isolating the handling

components of the new IRS from the road noise and impact harshness components of the suspension.". In English? It means better handling and less road noise. Looking at the basic design it's not difficult to see that th is system has a much lower centre of gravity than a Macpherson strut (for example). Lower C -of-G in a vehicle is always a good thing. The geometry of the Control Blade system also provides significant 'anti-dive' under braking force, which means a the car body will dive less when you jump on the brakes which in turn translates into more well -behaved braking response. Lower C-of-G, less roll and less pitch during braking all add up to better handling. The images used here are currently from other sources as I've not had the time to render up my own just yet, but they show the basic layout of each variation of control blade suspension and I've annotated them accordingly.

Picture credits: Ford press kit

Aftermarket work on Control Blade vehicles.

There's one thing worth noting about this suspension system. Because the spring and shock are in different locations, and because of the reduced or removed strut towers, it makes it very difficult to bolt -on aftermarket suspension kits to these vehicles. For the daily driver, that's probably not an issue but if you're looking at spiffing up the suspension on a Ford Focus for track days or racing, it's not going to be quite so straightforward as it is on other cars. Just so you know.

Suspension modifications

Variable-camber suspension for steering

If you've read the wheel and tyre bible, you'll know that camber is the lateral tilt of the suspension (and hence the wheel and the tyre) to the road surface. Proper camber (along with toe and caster) make sure that the tyre tread surface is as flat as possible on the road surface. The problem with regular fixed -geometry suspension is that the camber is set up to be ideal when driving straight. This mea ns that however much you dislike the idea, when you corner, less of the tyre's tread is in contact with the road surface because the tyre has to tilt slightly when the steering is turned. In 2006, OnCamber LLC patented their variable camber steering system which they launched at SEMA in Las Vegas. Matthew Kim, OnCamber's founder and president was kind enough to send some pictures of their development system which you can see here. The idea is simple - as the steering wheel is turned, the steering input shifts the top mounts of a McPherson strut type suspension system laterally. In other words, the top of the strut is no longer solidly bolted to the strut tower. When the top mount point is moved, the camber of the suspension system changes. Turn to the left, and the mounting points shift to the left tilting the wheels over to the left giving a larger contact patch whilst cornering. ie. the inside wheel tilts and goes into positive camber(almost parallel to the outside wheel), which in turn contributes to the overall grip of the car.

The variable camber action also gives even tyre wear. Pyrometer readings during testing have shown that the inside, mid, and outside tyre tread temperatures are all within 2 of each other. With regular fixed -camber steering, the inside of the tyre was 20 higher. OnCamber's development car is an RSX although they have designs on the table for double-wishbone variants of their system too. On the RSX testbed the camber plates are attached together by linear guides which permits them to move freely. The top connecting rods are mechanically connected to the steering rack. The

degree of camber applied with steering is adjustable by varying the distance of the rods from the pivot point. ie: when the rods are mounted closer to pivot point you get more camber with less steering input. On track, this system has shaved 3 seconds off the development vehicle's lap times in race conditions. Whether this sytem will trickle down into consumer level cars is debatable. It's doubtful that a manufacturer would add this as standard but the racing and aftermarket scenes will undoubtedly welcome this development with open arms. 3 seconds off your lap time for a change of suspension components? Why woul dn't you? The images below show a camber plate at the top of one of the strut

Anti-roll Bars & Strut Braces

Strut Braces
If you're serious about your car's handling performance, you will first be looking at lowering the suspension. In most cases, unless you're a complete petrolhead, this will be more than adequate. However, if you are a keen driver, you will be able to get f ar better handling out of your car by fitting a couple of other accessories to it. The first thing you should look at is a strut brace. When you corner, the whole car's chassis is twisting slightly. In the front (and perhaps at the back, but not so often) the suspension pillars will be moving relative to each other because there's no direct physical link between them. They are connected via the car body, which can flex depending on its stiffness. A strut brace bolts across the top of the engine to the tops of the two suspension posts and makes that direct physical contact. The result is that the whole front suspension setup becomes a lot more rigid and there will be virtually no movement relative to each side. In effect, you're adding the fourth side to the open box created by the subframe and the two suspension pillars.

Simple straight brace(highlighted).

Complex brace (highlighted).

Anti-roll Bars (Sway Bars/Stabilizers)

No, these aren't the things that are bolted inside the car in case you turn it over those are rollover cages. Anti -roll bars do precisely what their name implies - they combat the roll of a car on it's suspension as it corners. They're also known as sway bars or anti-sway-bars. Almost all cars have them fitted as standard, and if you're a boy-racer, all have scope for improvement. From the factory they are biased towards ride comfort. Stiffer aftermarket items will increase the road -holding but you'll get reduced comfort because of it. It's a catch -22 situation. Fiddling with your roll stiffness distribution can make a car uncomfortable to ride in and extremely hard to handle if you get it wrong.

The anti-roll bar is usually connected to the front, lower edge of the bottom suspension joint. It passes through two pivot points under the chassis, usually on the subframe and is attached to the same point on the opposite suspension setup. Effectively, it joins the bottom of the suspension parts together. When you head into a corner, the car begins to roll out of the corner. For example, if you're cornering to the left, the car body rolls to the right. In doing this, it's compressing the suspension on the right hand side. With a good anti -roll bar, as the lower part of the suspension moves upward relative to the car chassis, it transfers some of that movement to the

same component on the other side. In effect, it tries to lift the left suspension component by the same amount. Because this isn't physically possible, the left suspension effectively becomes a fixed point and the anti -roll bar twists along its length because the other end is effectively anchored in place. It's this twisting that provides the resistance to the suspension movement.

If you're loaded, you can buy cars with active anti -roll technology now. These sense the roll of the car into a corner and deflate the relevant suspension leg accordingly by pumping fluid in and out of the shock absor ber. It's a high-tech, super expensive version of the good old mechanical anti -roll bar. You can buy anti -roll bars as an aftermarket add-on. They're relatively easy to fit because most cars have anti -roll bars already. Take the old one off and fit the new one. In the case of rear suspension, the fittings will probably already be there even if the anti -roll bar isn't.

Typical anti-roll bar (swaybar) kits include the uprated bar, a set of new mounting clamps with polyurethane bushes, rose joints for the ends which connect to the suspension components, and all the bolts etc that will be needed.

Note: with the advent of digital suspension systems, anti -roll bars are starting to be phased out on some vehicles as they can be I replaced have a with quick -reacting on digital

electronically-controlled suspension systems here.




Variable stiffness anti-roll bars

Some sportier vehicles have the capability to stiffen up the suspension for more aggressive handling by altering how the anti -roll bar behaves. The system itself isn't especially complex. Instead of simple rubber or urethane bushes to clamp the anti -roll

bar to the frame of the car, these systems use a motor -driven or electromagnetically clamped bush instead. When the driver decides they want 'sport' mode, the car can increase the friction in the mounting bushes by clamping them more tightly around the anti-roll bar. This better resists the anti -roll bar's ability to twist across the width of the vehicle, which in turn provides more resistance at the ends where it joins the suspension components. The end result is that the suspension components have to take on a lot more load to deflect by the same amount. Or conversely, under the same load, they move less, thus stiffening up the suspension.

The Ins and Outs of complex suspension units.

Generally speaking, this section will be more relevant to you if you ride a motorbike, but you can get high-end spring / shock combos for cars that have all these features on them. The thing to realise is that if you're going to start messing with all these adjustments, for God's sake take a digital photo of the unit first, or somehow mark where it all started out. It's a slippery slope and you can very quickly bugger up the ride quality of your vehicle. If you don't know what the "stock" setting was, you'll never get it back.

Compression damping.

This is the damping that a shock absorber provides as it's being compressed, ie. as you hit a bump in the road. It's the resistance of the unit to alter from its steady state to its compressed state. Imagine you're riding along and you hit a bump. If there is too little compression damping, the wheel will not meet enough resistance as the suspension compresses. Not enough energy is dissipated by the time you reach the crest of the bump and because the wheel and other unsprung components have their own mass, the wheel will continue to m ove upwards. This unweights or unloads the

tyre and in extreme cases, it can lose contact with the road. Either way, you briefly lose traction and control.

The opposite is true if compression damping is too heavy. As the wheel encounters the bump in the road, the resistance to moving is high and so at the crest of the bump, the remaining energy from the upward motion through the shock absorber is transferred into the frame of the bike or the chassis of the car, lifting it up.

Rebound damping.
Go on - have a guess at what this is. Well in case you're not following along, this is the damping that a shock absorber provides as it returns from its compressed state to its steady state, ie. after you've crested the bump in the road. Too light, and the feeling of control in your vehicle is minimised because the wheel will move very quickly. The feeling is the soft, plush ride you find in a lot of American cars. Or mushy as we like to call it. Too heavy, and the shock absorber can't return quickly enough. As the contour of the road drops away after the bump, the wheel has a hard time "catching up". This can result in reduced traction, and a downward shift in the height of the vehicle. If that happens, you can overload the tyre when the weight of the vehicle bottoms-out the suspension.

Damping controllers.
High-end kit has controls on the shock absorber for both compression and rebound damping. Typically the rebound damping will be a screwdriver slot at the top of the shock absorber, and compression damping will be a kno b either on the side or on the remote reservoir. Ultra-high-end kit has separate controls for high - and low-speed damping. ie. you can make the shock absorber behave differently over small bumps (low speed compression and rebound) than it does over large b umps (high speed compression and rebound). Of course you could buy yourself a nice big TV, a DVD player, dark curtains, a new couch and a year's supply of popcorn for the same cost as four of these units.

Spring preload.
Some motorbike suspension units, as well as some found on cars, give you the ability to alter the spring preload or pre -tension. This means that you're artificially compressing the spring a little which will alter the vehicle's static sag - the amount of suspension travel the vehicle consum es all by itself. For example, if you ride a motorbike on your own, the preload might work on the factory setup. But if you put a passenger on the back, the tendency is for the bike to sag because there's now more sprung weight. Increasing the preload on t he spring plate will help compensate for this.

Sprung vs. unsprung weight.

Simply put, sprung weight is everything from the springs up, and unsprung weight is everything from the springs down. Wheels, shock absorbers, springs, knuckle joints and tyres contribute to the unsprung weight. The car, engine, fluids, you, your passenger, the kids, the bags of candy and the portable Playstation all contribute to the sprung weight. Reducing unsprung weight is the key to increasing performance of the car. If you can make the wheels, tyres and swingarms lighter, then the suspension will spend more time compensating for bumps in the road, and less time compensating for the mass of the wheels etc.

The greater the unsprung weight, the greater the inertia of the suspension , which will be unable to respond as quickly to rapid changes in the road surface.

As an added benefit, putting lighter wheels on the car can increase your engine's apparent power. Why? Well the engine has to turn the gearbox and driveshafts, and at the end of that, the wheels and tyres. Heavier wheels and tyres require more torque to get turning, which saps engine power. Lighter wheels and tyres allow more of the engine's torque to go into getting you going than spinning the wheels. That's why sports cars have carbon fibre driveshafts and ultra light alloy wheels.

Progressively wound springs

These are the things to go for when you upgrade your springs. In actual fact, it's difficult not to get progressive springs when you upgrade - most of the aftermarket manufacturers make them like this. Most factory -fit car springs are normally wound. That is to say that their coil pitch stays the same all the way up the spring. If you get progressively wound springs, the coil pitch gets tighter the closer to the top of the spring you get. This has the effect of giving the spring increasing resistance, the more it The k = spring constant / is (stiffness) force = of D^4 a * coil G compressed. spring / equals: (64*N*R^3)


where D is the wire diameter, G an elast ic material property, N the number of coils in the spring, and R the radius of the spring.

So increasing the number of coils decreases the stiffness of the spring. Thus, a progressive spring is progressive because the two parts are compressed equally until the tightly wound part locks up, effectively shortening the spring and reducing its compliance. So for normal driving, you'll be using mostly the upper 3 or 4 'tight' winds to soak up the average bumps and potholes. When you get into harder driving, like cornering at speed for example, because the springs are being compressed more, they resist more. The effect is to reduce the suspension travel at the top end resulting in less body roll, and better road-holding. Invariably, the fact that the springs are

progressively wound is what accounts for the lowering factor. The springs aren't made shorter - they're just wound differently. Of course the material that aftermarket springs are made of is usually a higher grade than factory spec simply because it's going to be expected to handle more loads.

Note:Make sure you get powder -coated springs! This means they've been treated with a good anti-corrosion system and then covered in powdered paint. The whole lot is then baked to make the paint seal and stick and bring out it's polyurethane elastic properties. It's the best type. If you just get normally painted springs, the paint will start to flake on the first bump, and surface rust will appear within days of the first sign of dampness. Not good. Besides - powder coated springs look cool too!

Suspension calculations
I know a fair bit about suspension but when it comes to empirical calculations, not so much. Because I've been asked this question a great many times, I decided to provide a link to for those who are inte rested, to the Suspension Calculator project which aims at helping people that are building race cars perform suspension related calculations. The calculations vary from motion ratios, to spring stiffness, to wheel loads.

Electronic damping force controllers.

Remember way back at the top of the page I mentioned that some dampers allowed you to change the damping rate by altering the size of the constriction hole? That's all very well and good but you have to stop your car, get out and twiddle a knob or screw on the top or side of the strut each time you want to make a change. In 2005 the aftermarket saw the first appearance of an EDFC - electronic damping force controller. The premise is really simple. Four servo motors (the four smaller boxes in the picture here), one for each strut, each one designed to replace the manual screw adjuster. A control unit mounts inside the car and allows you to change the damping force of the

shocks front and rear without leaving the drivers seat. The way it works is dead simple. When you first install the system and power it up, all the servos spin clockwise for a few seconds. This ensures the adjusters are screwed all the way in on all four struts. From tha t point, you can dial in any number from 0 to 20 on the control unit. When you do, the servo motors spin a certain amount - the same as you getting out of the car and spinning the adjuster with your finely calibrated fingers. The units currently have three memory settings so you can store motorway, city and track -day settings (for example), and recall them at the push of a button.

Installing the current-generation EDFCs is pretty simple - about the most difficult thing you'll face is running the wires from each servo back to the control unit inside the car. There's a few different companies selling EDFCs right now. This link will take you to a googlesearch for further info.

Picture credit: TEIN

Torsion bars

Torsion bars (or torsion rods) deserve their own section because they are a type of spring which can be used in place of coil - or leaf-springs. It's one of the topics I get the most e-mail on, so instead of continually sending the same answer, I thought I'd cover it on this page.

A torsion bar is a solid bar of steel which is connected to the car chassis at one end, and free to move at the other end. They can be mounted across the car (transverse like the rear suspension on the Peugeot 205 and Renault 16) or along the car (longitudinal, like the front suspension on the Morris Minor) - one for each side of the suspension. The springing motion is provided by the metal bar's resistance to twisting. To over-simplify, stick your arm out straight and get someone to twist your wrist.

Presuming that your mate doesn't snap your wrist, at a certain point, resistance in your arm (and pain) will cause you to twist your wrist back the other way. That is the principle of a torsion bar.

Torsion bars are normally locked to the chassis and the suspension parts with splined ends. This allows them to be removed, twisted round a few splines and re -inserted, which can be used to raise or lower a car, or to compensate for the natural 'sag' of a suspension system over time. They can be connected to just about any type of suspension system listed on this page.

The rendering to the right shows an example longi tudinal torsion bar. The small lever at the far end of the torsion bar would be attached solidly to the frame to provide the fixed end. The torsion bar itself fits into that lever and the suspension arm at the front through splined holes. As the suspension at the front moves upwards, the bar twists along its length providing the springing motion. I've left the shock absorber assembly out of this rendering for clarity.

Lift Kits

Because of the mechanical nature of suspension, all sorts of mods are availa ble. Lifting suspension is a popular mod used to try to increase ground clearance. This is often a source of misunderstanding. A lift kit doesn't really give you more ground clearance. What it does is increase the height between the axle and the underside of the body. Whilst this does give more ground clearance for the bodywork, the lowest point on the vehicle is still the axles - or on a 4-wheel-drive, the bottom of the transfer case. For this reason, you'll often see trucks and SUVs with lift kits and larger wheels and tyres. The lift kit boosts the clearance under the bodywork whilst the larger wheels and tyres result in the axles being lifted higher off the ground. Technically of course, in a 4-wheel-drive, you don't really need a lift kit - bigger wheels and tyres would do it. BUT lift kits typically end up being required because adding on the larger wheels and tyres can often mean they will no longer fit in the wheel arches. The lift kit will help solve that problem.

Lift kits come in literally hundreds of shapes and sizes, all dependent on the final application as well as the design of the vehicle the kit is going to be used on. For street cars, typically with independent suspension, the kit will basically be longer struts, longer springs and remou nted shocks. For off-roaders with beam axles and transfer cases, the suspension system is typically leaf -spring, so the kit will be a set of blocks that fit between the beam axle and the bottom of the leaf spring. Alternatively, some kits have blocks which lower the spring mounts themselves so that the spring-to-axle joint isn't changed. The images here show examples of a typical leaf-spring beam-axle suspension system along with two examples of how it can be raised.

Fitting a lift kit is pretty basic eng ineering but it's really difficult to do without access to a hydraulic lift, so its best to either get a garage to do it, or to find a mechanic friend who has a decent sized hydraulic lift. Trying to mess with the suspension whilst a vehicle is on the grou nd is just asking for trouble.

Speaking of trouble...
Lifting a vehicle is going to affect its handling. Most obviously, you're going to add height to the centre of gravity, which in turn is going to make the vehicle more prone to roll in corners. At the extreme, an already roll-happy SUV or truck will become even more likely to turn over in the event of an accident.

Similarly, just because you've lifted your truck, don't think you can instantly go off road with it like a pro. If you're doing it for off -road functionality rather than just pose value, spend the extra cash and get a one -day off-road course. You'll have a blast and it will make you infinitely safer when you do take your vehicle off the beaten track. It's also worth pointing out that putting lar ger wheels on simply to increase ground clearance can come with all its own problems including the legality of it, changes to the steering and suspension geometry and steering load. It's also a possibility on some types of 4WD vehicle that larger tyres and steering load can result in tearing the steering box off the chassis. Other things which tend to fail quicker when this is done are items like pitman arms, track rods, knuckle and ball joints - all of these get stressed beyond their normal design limits w hen you stuff massive tyres and wheels on a truck.

One other point to consider when doing this: if your speedometer is based on a mechanical link to the gearbox, your speedo will become so innacurate that it will basically be useless. You'll be driving at an indicated 30mph but could be doing

40mph Just be warned.







Lowering Kits
The opposite of lift kits - lowering kits. These are designed to (wait for it....) lower your car. Also at the other end of the scale - lowering kits are almost exclusively used on cars, whereas lift kits are almost exclusively used on trucks and SUVs. (Having said that, the number of pimped -out low-rider trucks on the road does seem to be increasing by the day.) Lowering your car will similarly affect the handling, just like a lift kit. But again it's the opposite end of the spectrum - a lowered car will typically handle much better than factory suspension, and it will lower the centre of gravity, making it less likely to tip or roll in an accident. I'm a European, and as far as I'm concerned, if you're going for pose value, lowering your car is the quickest way to do it, hotly pursued by larger wheels and tyres to make the car appear even more ground-hugging.

Lowering kits typically consist of shorter, stiffer springs and gas shocks - often nitrogen-filled. Don't do it by halves. Get a matched kit from someone like Spax or Jamex. Matched kits have springs and shocks designed to work together. If you get shorter springs, your factory shocks will be under a lot of stress because they'll be operating a much shorter throw than they were designed for, and ultimately, they'll normally fail much quicker. Similarly, don't get shorter shocks and cut the springs. Cutting the springs is the epitome of A Really Bad Idea. You're weakening the spring's structural integrity and the chances are that when you've finished a ham -fisted attempt at hacking off all 4 springs with a grinder, the result will be 4 springs all slightly different lengths.

There's something else worth mentioning here - do not try to disassemble a shock absorber. Ever. Those things are like little bombs, and unless you have all the right tools, you could easily loose a hand as the shock explodes into its comp onent parts when you get that last twist off the collar. Please - just don't. I know your mate Guido might have told you it's a "sure fire" way to shorten the shock, but he's lying. Matched lowering kits typically assume you're going for sportier handling, so a lot of times, you'll get a whole slew of new adjustments which you never had before. Spring height, rebound damping, compression damping etc. My recommendation is to leave everything as it is to start with. Right out of the box they're normally set u p pretty well.

Lowering kit questions.

What if I get shorter springs to lower the car? Will I need to adjust my caster and camber angles and/or my shock absorbers? Generally the answer would be no for caster/camber angles. Most cars have a good 10-13cm (4-5 inches) movement in their suspension from the factory. As most of the lowering springs you can buy only lower by 2 -7cm (1-3 inches), your suspension should still be well within it's designed oper ating limits. Therefore, caster and camber angles shouldn't need looking at. As for the shocks, see the FAQ page. What if I get shorter springs to lower the car? Will my tyres rub on my arches? They shouldn't unless you start messing about with wheel and tyre sizes. Again, given that most suspension kits lower within the car's normal operating limits, there shouldn't be a problem. If there was, then every time you went over a big hump with standard suspension, the tyres would rub. Rubbing against the arches will almost certainly only occur if you lower the car and widen the wheels. See the Wheel & Tyre Bible for more info on thin.

Caster, camber, alignment and other voodoo

This is the general term used to gloss over the next three points:

This is the forward (negative) or backwards (positive) tilt of the spindle steering axis. It is what causes your steering to 'self -centre'. Correct caster is almost always positive. Look at a bicycle - the front forks have a quite obvious rearward tilt to the handlebars, and so are giving positive caster. The whole point of it is to give the car (or bike) a noticeable centre point of the steer ing - a point where it's obvious the car will be going in straight line.

Camber is the tilt of the top of a wheel inwards or outwards (negative or positive). Proper camber (along with toe and caster) make sure that the tyre tread surface is as flat as possible on the road surface. If your camber is out, you'll get tyre wear. Too much negative camber (wheels tilt inwards) causes tread and tyre wear on the inside edge of the tyre. Consequently, too much positive camber causes wear on the outside

edge. Negative camber is what counteracts the tendency of the inside wheel during a turn to lean out from the centre of the vehicle. 0 or Negative camber is almost always desired. Positive camber would create handling problems.

The technical reason for this is b ecause when the tyres on the inside of the turn have negative camber, they will tend to go toward 0 camber, using the contact patch more efficiently during the turn. If the tyres had positive camber, during a turn, the inside wheels would tend to even more positive camber, compromising the efficiency of the contact patch because the tyre would effectively only be riding on its outer edge.

Toe in & out

'Toe' is the term given to the left -right alignment of the front wheels relative to each other. Toe-in is where the front edge of the wheels are closer together than the rear, and toe-out is the opposite. Toe -in counteracts the tendency for the wheels to toe -out under power, like hard acceleration or at motorway speeds (where toe -in disappears). Toe-out counteracts the tendency for the front wheels to toe -in when turning at motorway speeds. It's all a bit bizarre and contradictory, but it does make a difference. A typical symptom of too much toe -in will be excessive wear and feathering on the outer edges of the tyre tread section. Similarly, too much toe -out will cause the same feathering wear patterns on the inner edges of the tread pattern. A reader of my site emailed me this which is a nice description of toe -in and toe-out. As a front-wheel-drive car pulls i tself forwards, the wheels will tend to pivot arount the king-pins, and thus towards the center of the car. To ensure they end up straight ahead, they should sit with a slight toe -out when at rest.

A rear-wheel-drive car pushes itself forward, and the front wheels are rotated by friction... thus they will tend to want to trail the king -pins, and therefor will want to splay apart. To ensure that they run parallel when rolling, they should be given some toe-in when at rest.

The perfect 4WD car will have neutral pressure on the front wheels, so have neither toe-in or toe-out... however very few companies make the perfect 4WD, so some will have a small amount to toe -in/out, depending on the dominant axle.