Taking care of the undercarriage

Bashed, battered and bruised, light commercial steering and suspension systems often lead a hard life, reports Steve Banner

When fitted to a van used by a carpet fitter which spends most of its time parked outside someone’s house while woven or tufted floor coverings are laid, then the operational life of a suspension might not be too painful. However, if they are installed in a light commercial on stop-start home delivery work, then they can expect an unremitting hammering.

Under pressure to get goods delivered to the consumer’s front door, drivers will bounce their vans up over pavements, whack the wheels against kerbs and hit potholes at speed.

If they are dropping off packages and parcels, then there is at least the consolation that the light commercial concerned is not being asked to shoulder a lot of weight. If they are delivering ambient, chilled and frozen food in a refrigerated body, however, then the weight of an insulated box, the fridge unit and the load can impose a substantial burden.

The best way of avoiding steering and suspension problems is to adhere to the routine service intervals recommended by the vehicle’s manufacturer, advises Chris Woolsey, UK technical quality and warranty director at Stellantis. Brands the group embraces that market light commercials in the UK include Vauxhall, Citroen, Peugeot and Fiat Professional. “With a Fiat Professional Ducato, for example, the service interval is 30,000 miles,” he says. If its duty cycle is an arduous one, however – and home delivery is likely to fall into that category – then that might have to be reduced to, say, 20,000 miles to forestall trouble.

The importance of keeping to the suggested schedule means that fleets should log the mileage of each vehicle and ensure it is taken off the road and into a workshop when necessary, he says. Postpone doing so and minor faults could snowball into larger ones.

“Our steering and suspension systems are maintenance-free these days, with no need for anything to be greased,” says Woolsey. “It’s simply a case of inspecting them and replacing items as and when necessary.”

If components need to be replaced, then that could be the consequence of damage sustained while the van was out on the motorway.


When technicians service a van at a VW van dealership, the steering and suspension parts that are inspected include the constant-velocity joints, axial bearings and coupling rod bearings, says Neil King, UK fleet aftersales manager at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles. Also examined are the track rod ball joints, swivel joints and suspension link mountings, front and rear coupling rod bearings and anti-roll-bar rubber bushes, and the rear rubber bush for leaf springs.

“They are all visually inspected for leaks and damage, large cracks, tears or cuts in the rubber material and the complete separation of rubber and metal parts,” King says. “Technicians also physically check if there is any play between any mountings and suspension links,” he continues. If there is play, then it can affect the way the mounting works.

Simply walking around the vehicle can give an indication that there may be problems, says Woolsey. “Take a look at the tyres,” he advises. “Are the sidewalls damaged? Has all the lettering been rubbed off? Are the wheel rims showing signs of damage, too?” If that is the case, it may be because the wheels have been repeatedly bashed against then scuffed along kerbs: bad news for steering, wheel, and tyre health.

Components such as suspension mountings and wheel bearings are checked every time a van or chassis cab is serviced at a Toyota dealership regardless of how it has been used, says UK light commercial vehicle manager, Gareth Matthews. It is also open to operators and dealers drawing up a servicing schedule tailored to an individual van fleet’s duty cycle.

Toyota customers have a strong incentive to ensure that their vehicles are serviced at a Toyota outlet, Matthews adds. Every time they do so, the warranty on them is extended, up to a maximum of ten years/100,000 miles.

Toyota employs a fleet technical support manager who investigates instances of repeated warranty claims by an operator caused by a particular component failure and hopefully identifies the cause. “We had a case where Hilux 4x4 pick-ups were suffering a high number of driveshaft failures,” Matthews recalls. “We found that what was happening was that the undersides of the vehicles were not being washed off as they should have been every time they left muddy building sites.” Driveshafts were becoming entombed in a mixture of mud and concrete dust as a result. Washing the chassis regularly made the problem go away.


Evidence of repeated wheel and tyre damage should trigger a wheel alignment check, especially if accompanied by an uneven pattern of tyre tread wear. If the wheels are misaligned then tyre life is liable to shorten, and fuel consumption rise.

Says Tom Coad, technical director at Automotive Equipment Solutions UK (AES UK): “Wheel alignment should be checked once a year. It should also be checked if steering components have been replaced, if the tyres have been changed and if the vehicle has sustained accident damage and been repaired.”

A check should be carried out during a new van’s pre-delivery inspection, too, he advises. AES UK supplies commercial vehicle alignment equipment and distributes the Josam range.

Failure to keep an eye on alignment could result in fuel usage increasing by anywhere from 2% to 5% depending on the level of neglect, says Coad. Tyre life could be cut by 10%, and the driveability of the van will be affected by the steering pulling to the left or the right.

A check is likely to take no more than ten minutes, he says, and carrying out the necessary adjustments may take up to half an hour, depending on how much work needs doing. However, more time will be required if an unexpected problem – tyre damage that was not previously spotted, for instance – is detected and need rectifying.

The longer vans remain in service, the more urgent regular attention to their steering and suspension become as components age and the level of wear and tear and exposure to damage they suffer increases. MOT test and servicing chain ATS Euromaster highlighted this concern last year as fleets extended lease agreements because they could not obtain replacement vehicles. Aging vans that would have otherwise been pensioned off had to keep working.

The strain on them increased, says the company, as more and more of them were double-shifted, and mileages spiralled ever upwards. In consequence, it saw an uplift in the demand for suspension maintenance and wheel alignment as well as for replacement brake discs, pads and brake fluid and puncture repairs, says operations director Mark Holland.

At the same time, ATS Euromaster also experienced a rise in the demand for emergency repairs and same-day servicing because fleets had neglected regular preventative maintenance, he adds. Comments Holland: “I’d urge all fleet managers to think ahead and ensure their vans receive proper service, maintenance and repair attention before they experience critical failures.” They can lead to unnecessary vehicle downtime and increased costs, he adds; problems all operators should be eager to avoid.

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