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Part Two

At the time, only one vehicle was really comfortable: the Roman litter. The body, luxuriously finished, rested smoothly on a complex system of connecting rods serving a dual purpose: driving power and suspension - this means, of course, the arms of a gang of burly slaves. Though it was very refined, the process permitted only very reduced speeds and the rapid wear of the suspension elements made standard replacements necessary too frequently. 

Above A Roman chariot

Below Chariot race. Roman mosaic from Tunisia.

Armenian tributaries. Bas-relief from Persepolis.

Miniature of the Garden of Delights. 11th century.


Another system had to be found. It was discovered towards the beginning of the VIIIth century with the first, hesitant, but noisy attempts at an iron chain suspension on the ox-drawn carriages of the kings. A straw-covered basket was attached to the four corners of a wheeled platform. The travellers had to be immune from sea sickness in this sort of cage which ceaselessly jolted and heaved to and fro, making a terrible din. 

Nevertheless, this primitive system was to be the basic principle of all suspensions for nearly a thousand years.

Pierro della Francesca: Allegory of the Triumph of the Duke of Urbino.

Divinity on a chariot. Angkor-Vat bas-relief

In the 15th century, the coach, originating in the kingdoms of Bavaria and Hungary, came into general use. The chains were replaced by four leather straps and later on developed into the under-carriage. Finally, in the 17th century, the metal spring appeared, followed by the leaf spring. The carriage bodies were still suspended on leather straps, but the straps were now attached to the end of the C-shaped leaf springs, the other end of the springs being fixed to the under-carriage. By the friction between the leaves, these springs reduced the jolts. But the result had to be robust, as many carriages weighed over ten tons.

Hunting scene. French print. 18th century.

© 2000 Julian Marsh