of AC's post-war 2 Litre Saloon
Page 2


The front suspension is where the AC comes in for most criticism, but quite unjustly. AC had perfected beam axle/leaf-spring suspension to exclude all the old troubles people associate with that system. At the same time, there were none of the unwanted side-effects that early IFS was suffering on many other cars. In other words, the AC avoided the worst of both worlds!

Writers tend to measure engineering design competence based upon the trends of the day. Most post-war cars were appearing with independent front suspension (IFS), so the AC is dismissed as inferior. In reality, the AC's front suspension deserves merit. The same cannot be said of its rear axle! But, since most other makers also fitted live rear axles, writers do not even mention the AC's biggest fault!

Had AC gone for IFS, then a much more substantial redesign of the chassis would have been needed. Much greater torsional stiffness is required to gain the advantages of IFS, which either means a weight penalty in the chassis, or a much more efficient design. Even with sufficient torsional stiffness, the localised layout of the chassis around the suspension pivot mountings can ruin the suspension's performance. There were also new problems that would have to be resolved - or more realistically, compromises made. The lower roll-centre allowed more body roll when cornering. The roll axis would be steeply inclined, assuming a beam-axle was still used at the rear end. Suspension movements affect the steering and wheel-alignment, at a time when steering-racks were not very common. So many problems to iron out, which could be worked on experimentally for possible future models.

Incidentally, some of the most competent looking IFS chassis designs of the day came from MG. I must hitch a ride in an example one day and find out how good it is :)

While the AC's suspension may get criticised for appearing outdated, it is in fact the assumptions made about it that are outdated. The AC's suspension is devoid of those once common problems of axle-tramp/wheel-wobble/shimmy. This is partly due to the transverse stiffness of the chassis referred to on the previous page. It is also helped by the transverse mounting of the inclined dampers on the front axle. The leaf-springs themselves are virtually straight under static load, and are fairly low slung relative to the axles. This latter point reduces the effect of axle torque reaction on the springs. Straighter springs provide less under or oversteer induced by body roll. The front springs did away with conventional swinging shackles. Instead, sliding shackles (or "slippers") were employed, giving a more rigid location for the springs under varying loads. The AC is also blessed with a wide track (4ft. 7in.) and this minimises the tilting of the wheels as they pass over uneven ground.

The springs are also longer and wider than pre-war versions. The end result is a car that rides comfortably, yet is very stable, holds the road incredibly well, and hardly rolls at all. A basic advantage of beam axles is that the wheels remain (more or less) upright as the body leans on a corner. Pressed steel - rather than wire - wheels help to maintain this advantage by not flexing much under cornering loads.

Gyroscopic fallacy

Almost every textbook and article covering older front suspension design - that I've read - refer to problems that arose due to gyroscopic effects. They claim that both front beam axles and swing-axles suffered from these effects. Not only are these claims mis-guided, but even the theories to support them contradict established scientific knowledge about gyroscopes and gyrostats.

In simple terms, the alleged effect is that when a front wheel strikes a bump or pothole, the steering is momentarily deflected left or right due to the large mass of the revolving wheel(s) acting like a gyroscope.

To understand what really happens, consider a toy gyroscope with one end of its spindle suspended from a string. If its disc is then given a spin, and it spins fast enough, the gyroscope will appear to defy gravity, and align itself roughly horizontally, supported at one end by the string. At the same time, the whole thing rotates in the horizontal plane, with the string as the axis of rotation. This latter rotation is known as gyroscopic precession. Precession is cause by a turning couple (or torque) applied across the spindle, at 90 degrees to both the disc and to the precession. Articles often claim it is a change in angle/slope of the disc that causes precession, but it is really the turning couple mentioned. In this example, the turning couple is provided by the weight of the toy itself. If one prevents the gyroscope from precessing, then it will drop under gravity, and simply dangle from the string.

Now imagine the front-left wheel of a car travelling at speed, dropping slightly into a pothole. If the wheel tilts slightly as it lowers, then the vertical force that pushes it into the pothole, will create a turning couple. The vertical force (for a given pothole) depends upon the vertical acceleration of the wheel and its mass. This acceleration depends upon the vehicle speed, and wheel diameter. This force at the wheel (which momentarily reduces the weight it carries), is not fully reacted by the loads on the car's other wheels. Vertical accelerations cause the total weight of the car to fluctuate, albeit usually for just a split-second (unless you take a hump-back bridge really fast!).

The forces and couple set up, as this wheel drops into said pothole, will try to make the wheel precess, gyroscopically. This precession will try to turn the steering to the left. But if there is a positive steering offset, this will try to turn the steering to the right. The gyroscopic effect will also be resisted by the tyre friction. The end result is no reactions at the steering due to gyroscopic effects. While gyroscopic effects would be expected to become severe at higher speeds (faster spinning wheel), the AC's steering becomes more stable as speed rises.

The real cause of certain bad steering reactions over bumps, was due to too much castor angle. The reason that this fallacy persists, is that these steering problems disappeared at about the same time that IFS became standard practice, and it was assumed that it had cured the 'problem'. In fact, wider tyres largely resolved indifferent steering troubles (good tyres can hide a multitude of sins), plus better control of castor angle.

An excellent assessment of this can be read in an article by L. M. Ballamy in the journal of the 750 Motor Club, January 1960, entitled "Some Thoughts on Vehicle Suspension". He had extensive practical experience of building suspension systems, and this article was mainly about swing-axles for IFS. Swing-axle IFS is of interest here because AC converted a 2 Litre Saloon to this arrangement in a simple but effective design (retaining the leaf springs). Ballamy maintained that he had never encountered any gyroscopic kicks with swing-axle IFS, as wheels strike bumps or potholes, despite experts theorising that this system should be awful! Apparently the experimental setup on the AC worked extremely well. In the 1950s, swing-axles were reputed to give the greatest road-holding. Sadly, swing-axles have been cursed with a bad reputation due to problems with many front engined cars using it for the rear suspension.

The AC has a relatively modest castor angle of 2.5 to 3 degrees, although this has to be related to the rolling radius of the wheel to find the castor trail at ground level (about 0.6 to 0.75 inches). Actual castor trail is reduced by the distortion of the tyre as it rolls forwards. Note that if you fit wheels/tyres of a smaller rolling radius, castor trail will reduce and steering offset will increase.

It is often claimed that IFS reduces unsprung mass, but I am not convinced! Most of the unsprung mass is made up of the wheels, brake assemblies, and stub axles. In case you're wondering, a low ratio of unsprung mass to sprung mass (i.e. the chassis/body) helps to keep the tyres firmly on an uneven road. Thus road-holding on bumpy roads is helped. It can be a disadvantage to reduce unsprung mass too much, because (depending upon tyre choice) it can give a harsher ride as the tyre fails to soak up road irregularities.

One noticeable drawback of retaining front beam axle/leaf-springs is that the distance between the front springs is limited due to steering lock clearance for the wheels. With springs close together, they need to be stiffer than the rear ones to provide roll resistance and the required effective spring rate at each wheel, for single wheel bumps. This makes the ride harsh if both front wheels strike a bump or ramp. It also promotes pitching of the body on some road surfaces.

So how does the AC achieve a comfortable ride, despite not being 'soft'? Quite a large outside diameter to the tyres (although a common sort of size in its day) reduces road shocks compared to cars with smaller wheels. This is an issue overlooked by all the textbooks I've read. The rearward slope of the front leaf-springs also helps marginally, although the reason for the slope was to achieve the required castor angle. The AC's long wheelbase and wide track also makes the ride less choppy.

Postscript: Having mentioned L. M. Ballamy (creator of the LMB swing axle in 1933 and the only person I've come across who truly understands suspension), I came across another of his articles in the 750 MC journals, this time dated July 1951. It was topical for AC 2 Litre front axle debates, because he was looking at the IFS systems coming into production for numerous makes, referring to the "...mental outlook of the average British car designer today, which has resulted in the production of some of the most dangerous motor vehicles ever"!

Rear Axle/Suspension

Using a live rear axle may have been common for years after the AC 2 Litre was phased out, but it is still one of its worst features! Firstly the high unsprung mass. Secondly, the mass of the differential in the centre. This acts like an imaginary pivot, because of its inertia. When, say, the right-hand rear wheel strikes a bump in the road and rises, the mass of the differential is reluctant to move. The actual 'pivot' point will be somewhere between the differential and the left-hand wheel. Therefore, that left-hand wheel will be pressed downwards and loaded more heavily. Not a bad thing, one might think? Until, that is, the right-hand wheel descends the other side of the bump, becomes more lightly loaded, and the reaction on the left wheel is reversed. The left wheel is thus unloaded at the same time as the right wheel and roadholding is reduced for a moment. If one is cornering, then the rear end may hop to one side.

AC 2 Litre Saloon

Another drawback of the live rear axle is the indirect effect it has on the front axle design. The rear wheels have to be upright (i.e no wheel camber), and this limits the choice of front wheel camber. Positive camber of the front wheels was partly a compromise to reduce steering offset (distance between centre of tyre/road contact patch and the point at which the king-pin axis meets the road) without an excessive king-pin inclination. This front camber was also needed to help provide understeer, since there was no option to apply negative camber to the rear wheels.

Ideally, a De Dion arrangement would have been much better. A dead beam axle would solve the above problems, and possibly permit greater axle to chassis clearance. However, given a fairly smooth road, the road-holding of the AC is far better than most people expect.

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Website started 29th December 2006