No area of car design has advanced more than this in the past 90 years, and it’s easy to see why.
While the internal combustion engine was a child of the late 19th century, the leaf-sprung ladder chassis used by almost all cars in 1928 differed little in concept from that used by wagons dating back to the mid-18th century.
Yet so little was known about chassis design that even in the mid-1930s the Mercedes-Benz racing team was shocked to learn that the primary springing medium of its state-of-the-art W25 grand prix car was not its suspension but flex in its chassis.
There had been cars with what we would recognise as modern unitary construction before the war – notably the 1922 Lancia Lambda – and the Americans were far ahead of most of Europe in this regard duringthe 1930s. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that this stiff, light, space-efficient form of chassis became common, alongside the spaceframe construction that was simpler for low-volume manufacturing.
This was also the time when most manufacturers replaced their leaf springs with coils and designed truly independent suspension, at the front at least. Independent rear suspension took far longer, with designers preferring to mitigate the worst effects of non-independent rear axles with devices such as the Panhard rod, Watt’s linkage and De Dion tube. To this day, almost all small hatchbacks, and an increasing number of family hatchbacks, feature non-independent torsion beam rear axles because they are cheap and easy to package.
But if we’re looking for landmarks, there was none more striking than the Lamborghini Miura that dropped jaws at the 1966 Geneva show, thanks to an engine mounted neither in the front nor at the rear, like many small cars of the era and all Porsches. Mid-engined design was nothing new in racing circles, but centralising the car’s major mass in a road car was something else (even though, like so many developments we think of as pioneers in their field, it wasn’t actually the first mid-engined road car – take a bow the Matra Djet).
The Miura’s configuration was not without issues, notably the low polar moment of inertia that resulted and what then happened once the car started to slide, but the benefits in grip, response and steering could not be ignored. Two years later, Ferrari introduced its Dino and proved that, with a bit more thought and a bit less mass, a mid-engined car could be the sweetest-handling device imaginable.
But even if by the 1970s manufacturers had (largely) sorted out suspension and construction, cars were still being prevented from realising their true potential in the most fundamental way: simply put, those four little patches of rubber that connected them to the road simply weren’t fit for purpose. True, tyre technology hadn’t stood still since the 1920s and Michelin’s successful introduction of the radial tyre as standard equipment on, of all things, the 1948 Citroën 2CV was a huge step forward, providing as it did a more stable footprint while actually improving ride quality.