The History of the Truck Suspension: Form and Function

Where Did the Suspension Start?

Amish Horse and Buggy

The need for vehicles that go anywhere has always existed, but before the 20th century, they were horses and buggies with high ground clearance. If you wanted more performance, you got a bigger horse. This concept still rings true in the 21st century.

With Ford's F150 being the best-selling vehicle year after year over the past two decades, Americans have an insatiable desire for trucks. We use them for work and play. And they are getting to be the priciest vehicles on the road, with average prices well above $50,000 for a new model.

Jeep was the First G.O.A.T.

Line of WWII Jeeps

Ford was initially contracted by the military to build these "Go Over All Terrain" vehicles and the soldiers fell in love with them. The Bronco became a concept off-road vehicle for Ford based on the technology used in the original Jeep. Oddly enough the first Bronco was designed to compete with the Jeeps that evolved after WWII. The interest in off-road vehicles hit its stride at this time when soldiers returning home wanted to buy the Jeeps and trucks they drove during the war. And there was a surplus of them. These vehicles, equipped with 4-wheel-drive, plowed through snow, mud, rocks, and steep terrain like it was their job. In a way, it was their job.

By the end of the war, Dodge introduced the Powerwagon, the first medium-duty pickup truck made for civilian use that came equipped with factory 4WD. These were a big hit in the rural areas and for farmers/ranchers. They were also popular with the working-class – construction workers, laborers, towing companies, and so forth.

Dodge Wasn't Going to Miss This Trend

Dodge Powerwagon with Lift and Upgraded Suspension

The Powerwagon is credited as being the predecessor of the modern four-wheel-drive truck. It was marketed as the WDX truck until around 1960 and was known simply by its engineering code T137. Enthusiasts still refer to it as the T137, which indicates it was the original Powerwagon.

By the early 1960s, other manufacturers wanted in on the Utility Vehicle craze, which only included a few players at the time. Land Rovers were built in the U.K. for more than a decade but only had a small following in the U.S. Jeep had the CJ but wanted a more family-oriented consumer, so it launched the Wagoneer as a station wagon that could go anywhere. The Bronco was introduced shortly after in 1964 to compete with Jeep and the International Scout. Toyota's version was the Land Cruiser (FJ25), which was introduced to America in 1958.

Long Dangerous Off-Road Races Tested the Need for Upgraded Suspensions

Baja Bug With Upgraded Off-Road Suspension
A "Baja Bug" Races in the Mojave Desert Race (MDR) Series in Southern California. By Devkotlan Photography - This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Pickups were primarily utilitarian in the 1960s, but near the end of the decade, desert racing began out West with the Baja 1000 event in 1967. This is significant because it marks the beginnings of long-travel suspension. The early Baja vehicles included a lot of Volkswagen Beetles with "Baja Bug" kits or purpose-built VW-powered buggies. But the production vehicles were Broncos, Jeeps, and some F100 pickup trucks with bigger tires. The suspension didn't travel very much, with their dual-beam and solid axle suspensions. But the vehicles were beefed up enough to support bigger tires and heavy-duty shocks and springs to handle the punishment of the desert for 1000 miles.

While Baja vehicles were built to perform in a grueling racing environment, it wasn't until the mid-1970s that lifted trucks became more common on the street. Some hardcore DIY'ers had built suspension kits that raised the rear axles with blocks between the solid rear axle and leaf springs. They used longer U-bolts and shackles to bolt it all together. But this method wasn't safe for running on the front axle due to the higher braking forces. So the DIY'ers came up with adding more leaves to the front suspension until it lifted the front end enough. However, the trouble with this method was the ride quality was often jarringly rough because the spring rates were dramatically increased. Around this time, some aftermarket companies got in on the action and produced leaf springs with the required lift built into them. This alleviated the rough ride and maintained a near-stock spring rate.

A Familiar Face in Lifted Trucks

Original F250 Bigfoot at Eureka MO Walmart with owner and Fan
Bigfoot #1, with Jim Kramer. By BigfootFan. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The most famous of all lifted trucks, and what truly started the craze, was a 1974 F250 built by Bob Chandler, who owned an off-road shop. He started lifting his truck a little at a time until he found the most outrageous lift he could build. In 1979, Chandler built his truck with surplus military parts, replacing the whole under-carriage with a modified suspension system to accommodate massive 48-inch tires. This truck gained a lot of notoriety as Chandler parked it in front of his store. He later videotaped himself driving over and crushing other cars, and the legend of "Bigfoot" was born.

Modern Technology Changes Everything, Except the Love of Off-Roading

Today's suspension lift kits have come a long way from their primitive ancestors. While some enthusiasts still use lift blocks and add-a-leaf suspension to increase the ground clearance, there are many other options on the market today for varying levels of performance and lifts ranging from 2-inches to 6-inches or more.

Manufacturing tolerances have improved exponentially over the past few decades, and the use of computer-aided design (CAD) has allowed companies to create lift kits that run the gamut from mild to wild.

Early suspensions were mostly solid beam axles with either trailing arms or leaf springs. These have given way to more independent suspension systems, which include dual wishbone and SLA (short/long-arm) for most light-duty trucks and SUVs. Trucks can also use a torsion bar suspension, which replaces the standard leaf or coil spring with a rod that twists at the desired spring rate. This saves room in tight quarters, but it is also more challenging to change than a coil or leaf.

The dual wishbone system can be found on a range of light-duty trucks and SUVs, from the revived Toyota FJ Cruiser to Jeeps. This is referred to as independent front suspension (IFS). Most modern 4WD trucks and SUVs have IFS, and some have IRS as well. But there are plenty of aftermarket kits on the market that allows you to swap out your old suspension systems for new Independent/Multi-Link systems. These improve the handling and allow the steering to maintain stock geometry, so you don't wear out the outside edges of your expensive tires.

The Evolution of The Truck Suspension Continues with Timbren SES

Finally, the modern suspension enhancement system (SES) is not a lift kit but rather a leveling kit. The Timbren SES is designed to keep your vehicle level when a load is added to it. No heavy load should ever be towed if it causes your truck to roll and sway because that is a dangerous condition to navigate. Whereas a lifted vehicle serves the purpose of providing ground clearance when traveling over rough terrain, these SES kits and Active Off-Road Bump Stops provide an extra layer of safety and security by giving the driver more control over their vehicle and any additional weight they may have in tow. Don’t fear taking a fully loaded truck off-road or towing that off-road trailer with it's Axle-Less Trailer Suspension to parts unknown when your vehicle is equipped with proper suspension enhancement systems in place.

We've come a long way since those post-War SUVs and pickup trucks with rock-hard suspension and almost zero travel. Today, you can have it all with many different budget-friendly options.

F150 Towing a Backhoe