The MacPherson strut is a type of automotive suspension system that uses the top of a telescopic damper as the upper steering pivot. It is widely used in the front suspension of modern vehicles and is named for American automotive engineer Earle S. MacPherson, who originally invented and developed the design.
Earle S. MacPherson was appointed the chief engineer of Chevrolet’s Light Car project in 1945, to develop new smaller cars for the immediate post-war market. This gave rise to the Chevrolet Cadet. By 1946 three prototypes of the Cadet design had been produced. These incorporated the first MacPherson strut independent suspension both in front and rear. The Cadet project was cancelled in 1947 and the disgruntled MacPherson was enticed to join Ford. Patents were filed in 1947 (U.S. Patent 2,624,592 for GM) and in 1949 (U.S. Patent 2,660,449 for Ford), the 1949 patent citing designs by Guido Fornaca of FIAT in the mid-1920s. The strut suspension of the pre-war Stout Scarab could have been an influence and long-travel struts in aircraft landing gear were well-known by this time. French Cottin-Desgouttes utilized a similar design, albeit with less sophisticated leaf springs, however the Cottin-Desgouttes front suspension was in turn inspired by American engineer J. Walter Christie‘s 1904 design.
MacPherson designed the strut for all four wheels, but it is normally used for the front suspension only, where it provides a steering pivot as well as a suspension mounting for the wheel.
The first production car to use McPherson struts is often listed incorrectly as the French 1949 Ford Vedette, but it was developed before MacPherson with an independent front suspension based on wishbones and an upper coil spring. Only in 1954, after the Vedette factory had been purchased by Simca, did the revised Simca Vedette switch to using front struts.
Following MacPherson’s arrival at Ford, the first production car to feature MacPherson struts was the British-built 1950 Ford Consul and later Zephyr.
A MacPherson strut uses a wishbone, or a substantial compression link stabilized by a secondary link, which provides a mounting point for the hub carrier or axle of the wheel. This lower arm system provides both lateral and longitudinal location of the wheel. The upper part of the hub carrier is rigidly fixed to the bottom of the outer part of the strut proper; this slides up and down the inner part of it, which extends upwards directly to a mounting in the body shell of the vehicle. The line from the strut’s top mount to the bottom ball joint on the control arm gives the steering axis inclination. The strut’s axis may be angled inwards from the steering axis at the bottom, to clear the tyre; this makes the bottom follow an arc when steering.
To be really successful, the MacPherson strut required the introduction of unitary construction, because it needs a substantial vertical space and a strong top mount, which unibodies can provide, while benefiting them by distributing stresses. The strut will usually carry both the coil spring on which the body is suspended and the shock absorber, which is usually in the form of a cartridge mounted within the strut (see coilover). The strut can also have the steering arm built into the lower outer portion. The whole assembly is very simple and can be preassembled into a unit; also by eliminating the upper control arm, it allows for more width in the engine compartment, which is useful for smaller cars, particularly with transverse-mounted engines such as most front wheel drive vehicles have. It can be further simplified, if needed, by substituting an anti-roll bar (torsion bar) for the radius arm. For those reasons, it has become almost ubiquitous with low cost manufacturers. Furthermore, it offers an easy method to set suspension geometry.
Many modern implementations replace the lower control arm by a wishbone. An anti-roll bar is optional and if present is attached by a ball-jointed rod to the spring-damper or by a ball or elastomerically jointed rod to the wishbone.
Advantages and disadvantages
Although it is a popular choice, due to its simplicity and low manufacturing cost, the design has a few disadvantages in the quality of ride and the handling of the car. Geometric analysis shows it cannot allow vertical movement of the wheel without some degree of either camber angle change, sideways movement, or both. It is not generally considered to give as good handling as a double wishbone or multi-link suspension, because it allows the engineers less freedom to choose camber change and roll center.
Despite these drawbacks, the MacPherson strut setup is still used on high performance cars including manufacturers such as Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW.
Porsche 911 up until the 1989 model year (964) used a similar strut design that does not have coil springs, using torsion bar suspension instead.
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- US 2624592, Earle S. MacPherson, “Vehicle wheel suspension system”, published 6 Jan, 1953, assigned to General Motors Co.
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- Setright, p.1236.