How Car Suspensions Work

Suspension Types: Rear
Historical Suspensions
Sixt­eenth-century wagons and carriages tried to solve the problem of "feeling every bump in the road" by slinging the carriage body from leather straps attached to four posts of a chassis that looked like an upturned table. Because the carriage body was suspended from the chassis, the system came to be known as a "suspension" -- a term still used today to describe the entire class of solutions. The slung-body suspension was not a true springing system, but it did enable the body and the wheels of the carriage to move independently.

Semi-elliptical spring designs, also known as cart springs, quickly replaced the leather-strap suspension. Popular on wagons, buggies and carriages, the semi-elliptical springs were often used on both the front and rear axles. They did, however, tend to allow forward and backward sway and had a high center of gravity.

By the time powered vehicles hit the road, other, more efficient springing systems were being developed to smooth out rides for passengers.

­Dependent Rear Suspensions
­ If a solid­ axle connects the rear wheels of a car, then the suspension is usually quite simple -- based either on a leaf spring or a coil spring. In the former design, the leaf springs clamp d­irectly to the drive axle. The ends of the leaf springs attach directly to the frame, and the shock absorber is attached at the clamp that holds the spring to the axle. For many years, American car manufacturers preferred this design because of its simplicity.

The same basic design can be achieved with coil springs replacing the leaves. In this case, the spring and shock absorber can be mounted as a single unit or as separate components. When they're separate, the springs can be much smaller, which reduces the amount of space the suspension takes up.

Independent Rear Suspensions
If both the front and back suspensions are independent, then all of the wheels are mounted and sprung individually, resulting in what car advertisements tout as "four-wheel independent suspension." Any suspension that can be used on the front of the car can be used on the rear, and versions of the front independent systems described in the previous section can be found on the rear axles. Of course, in the rear of the car, the steering rack -- the assembly that includes the pinion gear wheel and enables the wheels to turn from side to side -- is absent. This means that rear independent suspensions can be simplified versions of front ones, although the basic principles remain the same.

Next, we'll look at the suspensions of specialty cars.

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