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Photo by Avsar Aras on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Shock Absorbers: Often Overlooked, they Play a Key Role in Providing a Smooth Ride

Early automobiles were simple in design, lacking many features we take for granted today, from seat belts to shock absorbers. An integral part of your vehicle’s suspension system, shock absorbers keep your ride smooth, even over gravel roads, small potholes, railroad tracks and other roadway obstacles.

Modern shock absorbers help reduce your vehicle’s natural inclination to bounce, roll and sway, and many drivers are completely unaware of their existence. The story of shock absorbers is a fascinating one, helping you to better understand how your suspension system works and its most common issues. Let’s take a ride through the history of shock absorbers.

Imagine a Car without Shock Absorbers: A Brief History Lesson

In the early days of the car, then widely known as a “motorized carriage,” drivers and passengers alike could feel every bump in the road. And as many of those roads were dirt or gravel, that’s a lot of bumps!

Photo by paukrus on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo by paukrus on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

As cars became more ubiquitous, automobile manufacturers realized that they could sell more vehicles and make drivers happier by smoothing out the ride. They set to work designing mechanisms that would damper the impact of bumps in the road and minimize vibration.

Innovative manufacturers were attempting to smooth out their ride in the years leading up to the turn of the 20th century. A crude version of today’s shock absorber was invented in 1897. The next year, the French cyclist J.M.M. Truffault equipped his racing bike with shock absorbers. Truffault’s transformative bike addition caught the attention of American Edward V. Hartford, who decided to try and install a similar device in his new Oldsmobile in 1900.

Hartford’s vehicle upgrade spread like wildfire, and hydraulic shock absorbers were standard by about 1908 in the United States. Always pushing the boundaries of innovation, automakers then looked to horse-drawn carriages for additional inspiration. Some of the best were often equipped with leaf springs, making for a smoother ride, so automakers tried them out in cars. What they discovered was that, while leaf springs are cheaper than coil springs, they’re loud, require regular oiling and can significantly weigh down small vehicles, negatively impacting speed and performance.

In 1934, several industry giants, including Chrysler and General Motors, rolled out cars with a coil spring front suspension as well as balloon tires and hydraulic shock absorbers on some models. These additions were an industry game-changer, improving overall driver satisfaction and making cars more utilitarian than ever before. By the end of WWII, the use of front and rear coil springs in automobiles was standard.

How Do Shock Absorbers Work, Anyway?

Photo by Avsar Aras on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0.

Photo by KYB Europe GmbH / CC0 1.0.

While many drivers have at least a basic understanding of how the engine and transmission work, the suspension system, along with its components, is often a mystery. Despite the common misconception that modern shock absorbers, which are located between the car’s wheels and frame, support a vehicle’s weight, they actually function much like an oil pump.

 

A modern shock absorber controls spring and suspension movement by absorbing kinetic energy every time the spring coils or uncoils due to a bump in the road. This energy turns into heat and then moves throughout the shock absorber’s interior hydraulic fluid tubes, slowing down piston movement and smoothing out the ride. They are sensitive to velocity, essentially self-adjusting to roadway conditions as they provide more resistance the faster the suspension moves.

The most common type of shock absorber utilizes a dual-tube design, and it has two distinct movement cycles. The compression cycle occurs when the piston moves downward and compresses the chamber’s fluid. Parallel to the compression cycle is the extension cycle, occurring when the fluid above the piston is compressed due to upward movement.

Possible Suspension Issues that Require Your Immediate Attention

Even if your vehicle is equipped with a top-of-the-line suspension system, bumpy roads can wear it down considerably. Don’t put off a suspension system repair: You can cause irreparable damage to other parts of your vehicle and compromise its overall lifespan.

A damaged suspension system can also make it more difficult to control your vehicle, compromising your safety while on the road. Signs that your suspension system is in need of maintenance or a complete overhaul include the following.

  • Stopping Distance is Suddenly Longer – According to industry experts, a damaged suspension system can increase your stopping distance by upwards of 10 percent. While the number sounds small, it can make a big difference when you have to make a sudden stop.
  • Your Vehicle Nose Dives, Swerves or Slides – When a vehicle slides or consistently veers in one direction, drivers typically get an alignment. Unfortunately, this may not fix the entire problem. If your steering is erratic, it may be due to a damaged spring in your suspension system.
  • You Feel Vibrations Through the Steering Wheel – Unless you’re on a remote, rugged dirt road that hasn’t been maintained in years, you shouldn’t feel any vibration in your steering wheel. If you do, it could be a cry for help from your suspension system.
  • Bumps Cause Rocking and Rattling – In a similar vein, rattling sounds coming from your vehicle are usually cause for alarm, especially if they tend to occur when you traverse bumps. Often, bangs and rattles indicate a broken control arm or spring.
  • You Notice Uneven Tire Wear – When a suspension spring is damaged on one side of a vehicle, it puts excess weight on that side. Those extra pounds can wreak havoc on your suspension system and wear down one tire faster than the other. Tires with uneven tread, especially on only one side of the vehicle, are a strong indicator of a suspension problem.

Final Thoughts

Shock absorbers have been a part of cars since early in their history, and your ride is better for it. America’s first generation of drivers felt every rock, bump and hole in the road, but thanks to your vehicle’s velocity-sensitive shock absorbers, you’re assured of a smooth ride every time you get behind the wheel.

For the smoothest ride even as your vehicle ages, always check for warning signs that may indicate poorly-performing shock absorbers. And the next time you turn onto a bumpy road, take a minute to marvel at the power of your suspension system and its shock absorbers, which were just a dream to early drivers.

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