How Car & Truck Axles Work: “It Floats” 1935 Chevrolet Auto Mechanics

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An axle is a central shaft for a rotating wheel or gear. On wheeled vehicles, the axle may be fixed to the wheels, rotating with them, or fixed to the vehicle, with the wheels rotating around the axle[citation needed]. In the former case, bearings or bushings are provided at the mounting points where the axle is supported. In the latter case, a bearing or bushing sits inside a central hole in the wheel to allow the wheel or gear to rotate around the axle. Sometimes, especially on bicycles, the latter type axle is referred to as a spindle.

image/text credit: Jeff Quitney

On cars and trucks, several senses of the word “axle” occur in casual usage, referring to the shaft itself, its housing, or simply any transverse pair of wheels. Strictly speaking, a shaft which rotates with the wheel, being either bolted or splined in fixed relation to it, is called an “axle” or “axle shaft”. However, in looser usage an entire assembly including the surrounding “axle housing” (typically a casting) is also called an “axle”.

image/text credit: Jeff Quitney

An even broader (somewhat figurative) sense of the word refers to every pair of parallel wheels on opposite sides of the vehicle, regardless of their mechanical connection to each other and to the vehicle frame or body. Thus, transverse pairs of wheels in an independent suspension may be called “an axle” in some contexts. This very loose definition of “axle” is often used in assessing toll roads or vehicle taxes, and is taken as a rough proxy for the overall weight-bearing capacity of a vehicle, and its potential for causing wear or damage to roadway surfaces.

Axles are an integral component of most practical wheeled vehicles. In a live-axle suspension system, the axles serve to transmit driving torque to the wheel, as well as to maintain the position of the wheels relative to each other and to the vehicle body. The axles in this system must also bear the weight of the vehicle plus any cargo. A non-driving axle, such as the front beam axle in heavy duty trucks and some 2-wheel drive light trucks and vans, will have no shaft, and serves only as a suspension and steering component. Conversely, many front wheel drive cars have a solid rear beam axle.

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In other types of suspension systems, the axles serve only to transmit driving torque to the wheels; the position and angle of the wheel hubs is an independent function of the suspension system. This is typical of the independent suspension found on most newer cars and SUV’s, and on the front of many light trucks.

These systems still have a differential, but it will not have attached axle housing tubes. It may be attached to the vehicle frame or body, or integral in a transaxle. The axle shafts (usually constant velocity type) then transmit driving torque to the wheels. Like a full floating axle system, the drive shafts in a front wheel drive independent suspension system do not support any vehicle weight.

VIAJeff Quitney
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