Theme : Suspension – Introduction

The Editor asks is it a Science or an Art?


Motoring history has a select group of people who can be seen as the creators of outstanding suspension systems, among them are Jean Baudin at Peugeot, Richard Parry-Jones at Ford, Colin Chapman at Lotus, André Lefèbvre at Citroen, Bob Knight at Jaguar and Alex Moulton for BMC. But there were far more who didn’t care for, or understand, the subtleties of suspension, notably Enzo Ferrari who seemed to think that its only reason for existence was to prevent the sumps of his beloved engines from scraping along the road.

Obviously the people named above were assisted by a host of other talented people, but there seems to be an art, as much as a science, to suspension design, an understanding of how it should feel on the road that can’t be reproduced by charts and gauges, that needs to be guided by a single, sensitive individual. Today’s engineers have stood on the shoulders of these giants, and they have a far better grounding in the science of suspension design than ever before, yet there seems to be something missing. Like architects designing social housing that they will never live in, they seem able to produce systems that function very well, but seldom thrill or even, in some cases, satisfy.

It is often said on these pages that there is no longer such a thing as a truly bad car and, broadly, I’d concur. But there has been an unfortunate leaning towards a universal standard of ride combined with roadholding that could loosely be described as ‘Germanic’, and this, one suspects, is sometimes due to the excessive influence of marketing departments. This seems a pity.

Once upon a time, and disregarding engine sound, a blindfold ride in a Mercedes, an Alfa Romeo, a Jaguar and a Peugeot would have left no doubt as to which was which. That doesn’t mean that one was better than another, though you’d be entitled to have a preference. They were all different and, without wanting to enter too far into the realm of the fanciful, I might suggest that each reflected a part of its nation’s character. But today, when I can buy the same McDonalds Hamburger in Stuttgart, Milan, Coventry or Sochaux, these differences are no more.

But there is much to be written on the subject and I cannot help but comment that, in the Northern Hemisphere, meteorologically speaking, today is the first day of Spring.

14 thoughts on “Theme : Suspension – Introduction”

  1. I’m particular about the use of the word art. I’d prefer to say that judging a suspension set-up involves skill at guessing how objective quantifiables are perceived qualitatively by the desired target users.

    1. Richard. I’ve already had this discussion with Sean, who is probably even more parsimonious than you are in his rationing of the A-Word. However, I use it as a shorthand for describing something that you possibly can’t actually quantify. Most art can probably be explained by our subconscious reaction to shapes, colours, emotions, etc, yet the artist might be as ignorant of this as is the observer. I’m contending that a good suspension engineer, from the past, set aside their slide rule at some point and just decided that certain settings were better than others.

  2. ” in the Northern Hemisphere, meteorologically speaking, today is the first day of Spring.”

    But as it is arbitrary, it is best ignored until the true first day of Spring, later this month.

  3. Oh dear. It seems that the pedants are revolting. Whatever happened to the maxim about the Editor’s Decision?

    As regards SPRING, it is a flexible concept but, since meteorologists are happy to divide the year into four convenient three month-sized pieces, I felt it acceptable to use this as the basis of my humble play on words.

    As regards ART, I will strike nothing out Richard, and will leave you with the immortal words of Da Vinci to La Gioconda : “Your Face. My Art”.

  4. On the basis that it will definitely be Spring by the time the month is over, please accept my apologies for not taking the pun more graciously.

    Over it’s not ‘Souchaux’ but ‘Sochaux’. Was it just too difficult to check?

  5. I had to laugh at the mention of spring, because I read it exactly when the snow set in.

    Now I still have to figure out what “spring” has to do with suspension, didn’t know they were somehow related.

  6. An erudite article, one which should be at once emailed to the suspension engineers at Honda and Hyundai/Kia, to whom the concept of combining art with science has not yet occurred. Honda has not yet discovered the role of decent suspension travel, and H/K is truly designing by internal handbooks with rows and columns of numbers. The Germans, judging by the serene ride and competent handling of the new cooking-level C Class, have the ability, but often not the desire to design pleasant machines.

    Nevertheless, the most sudden recalibration of my senses to what is possible, was when I arrived in London in 1969 from North America. The newish Jag XJ6 seemed to glide over manhole cover depressions with the utmost ease and lack of visible body motion, while remaining silent, no whacks or clunks to impede its serene progress. A revelation, even compared to my previous experience of hammering down gravel roads at home in a Citroen DS.

    These days, the more expensive Mclarens with hydraulic suspension that compensates all four corners at once seem to be at the zenith of capability. One road test I read, which had a Saab 9-3 as photo chase car on some devilishly bumpy Welsh back roads, was at some pain to point out that the McLaren rode far better than the Saab, and in standard performance terms obliterated it in every way, obviously.

  7. I’m not surprised that the Saab 9-3 was found to have an inferior ride to the McLaren. The one I had in 1997 was a most unpleasant device when driving briskly on Irish back roads; the suspension crashed, the steering column shook and confidence plummeted. It is disappointing how ride and suspension performance on less than smooth roads seem to have become less important in car design. The secret of making swift progress is to be comfortable and in control on the minor roads. I was recently surprised just how “busy” a Porsche Cayman felt when I was a passenger from Belfast to Dublin. Motorway and dual carriageway throughout but not a restful journey.

    1. Irish roads expose suspension’s shortcomings terribly. In Germany a Focus 2 is a fine riding car; on Ireland’s coarse, lumpy roads the same car is wearing. A Megane was awful too: the motorways have appalling long frequency undulations in the sub-structure.

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