Gears are used for transmitting power from one part of a machine to another. In a bicycle, for example, it’s gears (with the help of a chain) that take power from the pedals to the back wheel. Similarly, in a car, gears transmit power from the crankshaft (the rotating axle that takes power from the engine) to the driveshaft running under the car that ultimately powers the wheels.
You can have any number of gears connected together and they can be in different shapes and sizes. Each time you pass power from one gear wheel to another, you can do one of three things:
Increase speed: If you connect two gears together and the first one has more teeth than the second one (generally that means it’s a bigger-sized wheel), the second one has to turn round much faster to keep up. So this arrangement means the second wheel turns faster than the first one but with less force. Looking at our diagram on the right (top), turning the red wheel (with 24 teeth) would make the blue wheel (with 12 teeth) go twice as fast but with half as much force.
Increase force: If the second wheel in a pair of gears has more teeth than the first one (that is, if it’s a larger wheel), it turns slower than the first one but with more force. (Turn the blue wheel and the red wheel goes slower but has more force.)
Change direction: When two gears mesh together, the second one always turns in the opposite direction. So if the first one turns clockwise, the second one must turn counterclockwise. You can also use specially shaped gears to make the power of a machine turn through an angle. In a car, for example, the differential (a gearbox in the middle of the rear axle of a rear-wheel drive car) uses a cone-shaped bevel gear to turn the driveshaft’s power through 90 degrees and turn the back wheels.
Whether you drive a 500-hp sports car or a 96-hp economy hatchback, all that potency under your car’s or truck’s hood is useless if the engine’s torque doesn’t get to the drivewheels through a complex maze of gears. Here’s a primer to help explain that mystery under the floorboards: what really happens when you press down on the accelerator.
Though front drive can be found in such classics as the 1929 Cord, the overwhelmingly popular modern configuration is based on the 1959 Mini. Its creator, Sir Alec Issigonis, put the small engine transversely–sideways–under the hood, mounted the transmission and differential in one unit called a transaxle, and installed that underneath and to the rear of the engine. While some front-drivers have a longitudinally–front-to-rear–mounted drivetrain, all the components are still up front. Because the front wheels must steer as well as propel, they are connected to the axle halfshafts via complex universal joints, called constant velocity joints, which can transmit power smoothly while severely articulated.
• More room for people and cargo.
• Better fuel economy due to reduced weight.
• Improved wet-weather traction thanks to the weight over the drivewheels.
• Increased wear on front tires and suspension.
• Cramped engine compartment makes service difficult.
• Limits to amount of power the front wheels can handle without making steering unpredictable.
• Reduced wet-weather traction on upgrades.
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