Apart from your car Tyre and seats, the suspension is the prime mechanism that separates your bum from the road. The automobile chassis is mounted on the axles, not direct but through some springs. This is done to isolate the vehicle body from the road shocks which may be in the form of bounce, pitch, roll or sway. These tendencies give rise to an uncomfortable ride and also cause additional stress in the automobile frame and body. All the parts which perform the function of isolating the automobile from the road shocks are collectively called a suspension system. It includes the springing device used and various mountings for the same.
Broadly speaking, suspension system consists of mainly two parts:
  • Spring
  • Damper or Shock absorber

The energy of road shock causes the spring to oscillate. 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 coiled-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 amongst 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 its length, which in turn resist. Now image 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 visualize, but believe me, that's what is happening.

The oscillation of the spring is restricted to a reasonable level by the damper, which is more commonly called a shock absorber. Actually they dampen the vertical motion induced by driving your car along a rough surface. If your car only had springs, it would boat and wallow along the road until you got physically sick and had to get out or at least until it fell apart.
Shock absorbers perform two functions. Firstly, they absorb any larger-than-average bumps in the road so that the shock isn't transmitted to the car chassis. Secondly, they keep the suspension at as full a travel as possible for the given road conditions. Shock absorbers keep your wheels planted on the road. Without them, your car would be a traveling deathtrap.
Technically they are called dampers. Even more 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 the 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 constriction valve (a small hole). Adjustable shock absorbers allow you to change the size of this construction and thus control the rate of damping. The smaller the constriction, the stiffer the suspension.

  1. To prevent the road shocks from being transmitted to the vehicle components.
  2. To safeguard the occupants from road shocks.
  3. To preserve the stability of the vehicle in pitching or rolling, while in motion.

  • Vertical loading - When the road wheel comes across a bump or pit on the road, it is subjected to vertical forces, tensile or compressive, depending upon the nature of the road irregularity. These are absorbed by the elastic compression, shear, bending or twisting of the spring. The mode of the spring resistance depends upon the type and material of the spring used. Further when the front wheel strikes a bump it starts vibrating. These vibrations die down exponentially due to damping present in the system. The rear wheel, however reaches the same bump after certain time depending on the wheel base and the speed of the vehicle. Of course, when the rear wheel reaches the bump, it experiences similar vibration as experienced by the front wheel some time ago. From human comfort point also it is seen that it is desirable to have low vibration frequencies. The results of the studies on human beings have shown that the maximum amplitude which may be allowed for a certain level of discomfort decreases with the increase of vibration frequency.
  • Rolling - The center of gravity of the vehicles is considerably above the ground. Due to this reason, while taking the turns, the centrifugal force acts outwards on the C.G. of vehicle, while the road resistance acts inward, at the wheels. This gives rise to a couple turning the vehicle about a longitudinal axis. This is called rolling. The manner in which the vehicle is sprung determines the axis about which the vehicle will roll.
  • Side Thrust - Centrifugal force during cornering, cross winds, cambering of the road etc. causes a side thrust to be applied to the vehicle. Such forces are usually absorbed by the rigidity of the leaf springs or by fitting pan hard rods.
  • Sprung or 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 Play station 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 swing arms 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 drive shaft, 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 fiber drive shaft and ultra-light alloy wheels.
  • Front Suspension-Dependent Systems
  • Front Suspension-Independent System
  • Front Suspension Semi Independent System
  • Rear Suspension Dependent System
  • Hydro elastic Suspension
  • Hydra gas Suspension
  • Hydro pneumatic Suspension
  • Hydraulic Suspension
  • Ferro fluid or magneto-rheological fluid dampers
  • Linear Electromagnetic Suspension
  • Air Suspension

Front Suspension-Dependent Systems So-called because the front wheel's suspension systems are physically linked. There is only one type of dependent system you need to know about. It is 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 cars 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 needs 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.
Front Suspension-Independent System
These are basically of many types. The main types are:
  • Macpherson Strut
  • Double Wishbone Type System

Macpherson 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. 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 is 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.

Double Wishbone Type System
These are basically three types which are explain below:
  • 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-An 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 as 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 torqueing 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.

Front Suspension Semi Independent System
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 center of the spring is connected to the front sub frame 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.

Rear Suspension Dependent System
These are basically divided into three types
  • Solid-Axle and Leaf Spring - This system was favored 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 and 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 or 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 bolted to either end or 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 pan hard 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 pan hard 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.
Hydrolastic Suspension
Hydrolastic suspension - a system where the front and rear suspension systems were connected together in order to better level the car when driving. The principle is simple. The front and rear suspension units have Hydrolastic displacers, one per side. These are interconnected by a small bore pipe. Each displacer incorporates a rubber spring (as in the Moulton rubber suspension system), and damping of the system is achieved by rubber valves. So when a front wheel is deflected, fluid is displaced to the corresponding suspension unit. That pressurizes the interconnecting pipe which in turn stiffens the rear wheel damping and lowers it. The rubber springs are only slightly brought into play and the car is effectively kept level and freed from any tendency to pitch. That's clever enough, but the fact that it can do this without hindering the full range of motion of either suspension unit is even cleverer, because it has the effect of producing a soft ride. Pictures and images of anything to do with Hydrolastic suspension are few and far between now, so you'll have to excuse the plagiarism of the following image. But what happens when the front and rear wheels encounter bumps or dips together? One cannot take precedent over the other, so the fluid suspension stiffens in response to the combined upward motion and, while acting as a damper, transfers the load to the rubber springs instead, giving a controlled, vertical, but level motion to the car.
The restriction of the fluid flow, imposed by this pipe, rises with the speed of the car. This means a steadier ride at high speed, and a softer more comfortable ride at low speed.
The image below shows a typical lateral installation for Hydrolastic rear suspension. The suspension swing arms are attached to the main sub frame. The red cylinders are the displacer units containing the fluid and the rubber spring. The pipes leading from the units can be seen and they would connect to the corresponding units at the front of the vehicle.

Hydra Gas Suspension Hydra gas is an evolution of Hydrolastic, and essentially, the design and installation of the system is the same. The difference is in the displacer unit itself. In the older systems, fluid was used in the displacer units with a rubber spring cushion built-in. With Hydra gas, the rubber spring is removed completely. The fluid still exists but above the fluid there is now a separating membrane or diaphragm, and above that is a cylinder or sphere which is charged with nitrogen gas. The nitrogen section is what has become the spring and damping unit whilst the fluid is still free to run from the front to the rear units and back.

Hydro pneumatic Suspension
Since the early fifties, Citroen have been running a fundamentally different system to the rest of the auto industry. It’s called hydro pneumatic suspension, and it is a whole-car solution which can include the brakes and steering as well as the suspension itself. The core technology of hydro pneumatic suspension is as you might guess from the name, hydraulics. Ultra-smooth suspension is provided by the fluid's interaction with a pressurized gas, and in this respect, it’s very similar to the hydra gas system described above.
The system is powered by a large hydraulic pump, typically belt-driven by the engine like an alternator or an air conditioner. The pump provides fluid to an accumulator at pressure, where it is stored ready to be delivered to servo a system. This pump may also be used for the power steering and the brakes, and in the DS for the semi-automatic gearbox.
Apart from the pump, the two most obvious components in the system are the spheres on top of each suspension strut, and the struts themselves. The spheres are like the springs in regular suspension, and the struts are the hydraulic components that make the fluid act like a spring. The spring in this suspension system is provided by a hydraulic component called a suspension sphere. The accumulator is an additional sphere (which holds a reserve of hydraulic fluid under pressure to even out the load on the pump caused by varying demand) acting rather like a battery. The accumulator is is gas (typically nitrogen) under pressure in a bottle contained within a diaphragm. This is effectively a balloon which allows pressurized fluid to compress the gas, and then as pressure drops the gas pushes the fluid back to keep the system's pressure up. In the image here, the nitrogen gas is represented in red and the LHM fluid is represented in green. As the pressure in the fluid overcomes the gas pressure, the nitrogen is compressed by the diaphragm being pushed back. Then as the pressure in the fluid reduces, the gas pushes back the diaphragm which expels the fluid from the sphere, returning gas and fluid to equilibrium. So how can the interaction of compressing gas, hydraulic fluid and a diaphragm form a spring?
Simple: The pressure of the gas is the equivalent to the spring weight. The inlet hole at the bottom of the sphere restricts the flow of the fluid and provides an element of damping. By replacing the spheres for ones of different specifications, it's possible to adjust the ride characteristics of these cars. 
Before we go any further it is important that you understand where the fluid acting on the diaphragm in the sphere gets its force from, and to do that we are going to have to look at the operation of the other key component in the Citroën system.
The sphere in these systems is actually mounted at the end of the strut. The strut itself acts like a syringe to inject fluid into the sphere. When the wheel hits a bump it rises, pushes the piston back and this squeezes fluid through the tiny hole in the sphere to let the gas spring absorb the energy of the bump. Then when the car is over the bump, the gas pushes the diaphragm back out, pushing the fluid down to the strut, pushing the wheel down to the ground.
Some interesting possibilities were opened up when Citroën decided to use this system to spring their cars. One or two of the more obvious ones are that since the system is hydraulic, the ride height can easily be altered; Citroën put fancy valves called height correctors in the system.

Hydraulic Suspension Hydraulic suspension is an innovation making its way into motor sports, no doubt to trickle down to consumer vehicles eventually. It has been designed by a Spanish company called Creuat and pioneered by the Racing For Holland Dome S101 sports car team. In the image below you can see both the traditional coil over system (the yellow/blue/red units) at the front of the car. This photo was taken before scrutineering for the 2005 24 Hours of Le Mans race. The team had both systems online and when scrutineering passed the car, the coil over units were removed, to race for the first time completely with hydraulic suspension.
Instead of springs and dampers, this central Hydro pneumatic unit takes care of each suspension mode in an independent manner. This allows the car to be tuned to avoid most of the compromises which arise out of the use of conventional suspension made of springs and dampers.
  • Ferro fluid or Magneto-rheological fluid damper in 2006, Audi launched the new TT model and one of the innovations that it came with is their magnetic semi-active suspension. It is a totally new form of damping technology refined from Delphi’s MagneRide system. Delphi used to be a division of GM when they developed the first version of Magneride in conjunction with LORD Corp. (The initial version was used in the 2002 Cadillac Seville STS). It is designed once again to attempt to resolve the long-standing conflict between cabin comfort and driving dynamics. The Audi system is a continuously adaptive system - i.e. it's a closed feedback loop that can react to changes both in the road surface and the gear-changes (front-to-back weight shift) within milliseconds. So how does this work? Well, the dampers in the Audi system are not filled with your regular old shock absorber oil. Nope. They're filled with magneto-rheological fluid. This is synthetic hydrocarbon oil containing subminiature magnetic particles. When a voltage is applied to a coil inside the damper piston, it creates a magnetic field inside the magnetic field, all the magnetic particles in the oil change alignment in microseconds to lie predominantly across the damper. Because the damper is trying to squeeze oil up and down through the flow channels, having the particles lined up transverse to this motion makes the oil 'stiffer'. Stiffer oil flows less, which stiffens up the suspension. Neat. You might have seen a demo of a similar system on TV in 2005 when an artist in New York started making living art using a ferromagnetic liquid (Ferro fluid) and electromagnets. The principle is exactly the same - apply a magnetic field and the fluid lines up along the lines of magnetism. The image on the left shows a Ferro fluid demonstration. The Audi system has a centralized control unit which sends signals to the coils on each damper. Hooked up to complex force and acceleration sensing gauges, the control unit constantly analyses what's going on with the car and adjusts the damping settings accordingly. Because there are no moving parts - no valves to open or close - the system reacts within microseconds; far quicker than any other active suspension technology on the market today. And because the amount of voltage applied to the coils can be varied nearly infinitely, the dampers have a similarly near-infinite number of settings. The power usage for each strut is around 5Watts, and the entire thing takes up no more room than a regular coil-over-oil unit. Vorsprung durch Technik indeed.

Linear Electromagnetic Suspension This is the latest innovation in suspension systems, invented by Bose®. The idea is that instead of springs and shock absorber on each corner of the car, a single liner electromagnetic motor and power amplifier can be used instead. Inside the linear electromagnetic motor are magnets and coils of wire. When electrical power is applied to the coils, the motor retracts and extends, creating motion between the wheel and car body. It's like the electromagnetic effect used to propel some newer roller coaster cars on launch, or if you're into video games and sci-fi, it's like a rail gun. One of the big advantages of an electromagnetic approach is speed. The linear electromagnetic motor responds quickly enough to counter the effects of bumps and potholes, thus allowing it to perform the actions previously reserved for shock absorbers. In its second mode of operation, the system can be used to counter body roll by stiffening the suspension in corners. As well as these functions, it can also be used to raise and lower ride height dynamically. So you could drop the car down low for motorway cruising, but raise it up for the pot-hole ridden city streets. It's all very clever. The power amplifier delivers electrical power to the motor in response to signals from the control algorithms. These mathematical algorithms have been developed over 24 years of research. They operate by observing sensor measurements taken from around the car and sending commands to the power amps installed with each linear motor. The goal of the control algorithms is to allow the car to glide smoothly over roads and to eliminate roll and pitch during driving. The amplifiers themselves are based on switching amplification technologies pioneered by Dr. Bose at MIT in the early 1960s. The really smart thing about the power amps is that they are regenerative. So for example, when the suspension encounters a pothole, power is used to extend the motor and isolate the vehicle's occupants from the disturbance. On the far side of the pothole, the motor operates as a generator and returns power back through the amplifier. By doing this, the Bose® system requires less than a third of the power of a typical vehicle's air conditioner system. Clever, eh?
Bose have also managed to package this little wonder of technology into a two-point harness - i.e. it basically needs two bolts to attach it to your vehicle and that's it. It's a pretty compact design, not much bigger than a normal shock absorber. 

Air Suspension In days gone by, air suspension was limited to expensive logistics trucks - heavy goods vehicles that needed to be able to maintain a level ride no matter what the road condition. Nowadays, you can retrofit air suspension to just about any vehicle you like from a Range Rover to a Ferrari. Air suspension replaces the springs in your car with either an air bag or an air strut made of high-tensile super flexible polyurethane rubber. Each air bag or strut is connected to valve to control the amount of air allowed into it. The valves are in turn connected to an air compressor and a small compressed air reservoir. By opening and closing the four valves, the amount of air sent to each unit can be varied. By letting the same amount of air out of all the units, reducing the pressure in the bags, your car gets lowered, whilst increasing the air pressure by the same amount in each unit results in your car lifting higher off the ground. The rubber bags filled with air provide the springing action that used to be the realm of metal springs, and you have the option to maintain the factory (or aftermarket) shock absorber for - well - absorbing shocks. That's it in a nutshell.

Why air suspension?
Simple: ride quality. A well set up air suspension system can surpass metal spring suspension in just about any situation. If you want a luxurious, smooth, supple ride that will iron out the deepest of ruts and crevasses in the road, air suspension is what you're looking for. It's why logistics firms have used it in their trucks since the year dot - air suspension transmits much less road vibration into the vehicle chassis. One point to note: for some reason the imperial fittings used on some American systems are all but impossible to get hold of in the UK, so if you're in England and looking for air suspension, Rayvern would be a good choice, or BSS or GAS in Germany.


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