It’s our direct connection to the road, the focal point of any car interior. And in the last 20 years or so, it has become an ever-more complex piece of technology, required to perform multiple tasks in adjunct to its core reason for being, steering the car where you want to it to go. Its primary task is in its name, after all – steering wheel.
Interestingly, while the wheel-shaped steering device seems completely logical to us today, it wasn’t always like this. Early motor cars, including the very first – the Benz Patent-Motorwagen – used tillers, much like that used to direct boats.
But, in 1894, Alfred Vacheron attached what is believed to be the first known steering wheel to his Panhard 4hp model to take part in the Paris-Rouen race. He finished 12th.
By 1898 all Panhards were equipped with a steering wheel as standard and by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the steering had replaced the tiller entirely.
The name Thomas B Jeffery might not be instantly recognisable today, but the founder of American car company Rambler made a decision that changed the automotive world for ever.
Up until 1903, most car’s tillers (or steering wheels) were located centrally in the car or, on the right-hand side. But Jeffery insisted that starting with the production of Rambler’s 1903 model, all steering wheels should now be located on the left.
Henry Ford followed suit, but it wasn’t until 1908 when production of the Model T began, Ford reasoning it was the safer option for a country were cars were driven on the right-hand side of the road. By 1915, other manufacturers were following Ford’s lead, urged on by the success and popularity of the Model T.
Those early steering wheels typically featured flour spokes and a circular wooden rim, simple but effective designs. The first extra function of any kind to appear on a steering wheel was used to activate the car’s horn, typically a pad on the hub of the wheel. As design evolved, a decorative horn ring, usually made of metal, began to make its appearance.
In 1966, the Ford Thunderbird came with optional cruise control. Dubbed, the Highway Pilot Speed Control Option, it was activated by a set of rocker witches mounted on the steering wheel. Ford’s luxury brand Lincoln followed suit in 1974, but it wasn’t until 1988 that what is now commonplace, first appeared, when Pontiac offered a steering wheel with 12 buttons for controlling various audio functions on its Trans-Am, 6000 STE and Bonneville models.
The proliferation of steering wheel-mounted controls accelerated in the 1990s until we reach today where dials, switches, touchpads, and buttons control myriad of a car’s functions. The steering wheel, no longer a simple device for directing the vehicle, has today become an ever more complex central command post.
And yet, while they are more functional than ever, and with more technology literally at your fingertips like never before, their clinical design married to a function over form design principle has come at a cost.
The emotional appeal of a well-designed steering wheel cannot be underestimated. It is, after all, our tactile connection to the road, to the car itself. And a well-designed wheel has visual appeal too, whether it’s through the use of materials or simplicity of design.
It needs to feel comfortable and comforting under the hand, a reassuring touch that leaves you feeling confident and connected to the road.
Some of the best steering wheel designs in history have also been the most simple, a far cry from some of the overwrought designs of today where multi-function trumps simplicity.
And who knows if the humble steering wheel will even survive into the future? Self-driving cars are still very much on the future agenda for many car makers and there will come a tipping point where all cars will be autonomous, rendering the wheel obsolete.
Before then, though, let’s celebrate some of the most iconic steering wheel designs that have come before.
From the simple design of 1960s Volkswagen Beetles, to the only contemporary wheel on our list, the 992 generation Porsche 911, these steerers evoke a visual emotion often lacking in contemporary steering wheels.
The Beetle’s tiller remains a lesson in functionality, its simple two-spoke design offering an understated elegance. The metal horn ring, resplendent with its Wolfsburg coat of arms on the hub, adds some visual interest as well as purpose.
The Alfa Romeo Montreal’s three-spoke, wood-rimmed design is typical of the era, but what sets it apart is its ‘deep-dish’ design. Also atypical of the era are the three horn buttons, one on each spoke. In an interesting quirk, RHD Montreals were fitted with a wider and thinner steering wheel, making ingress and egress just that little bit trickier.
The original BMW M3 wheel remains a masterpiece, its simple and chunky three-spoke design offering a harmonious connection to the road. Only the discreet M tri-colour on the bottom spoke hints provide any clue to the car’s provenance. It’s about as simple as steering wheel can get, free of frills and distractions, meaning the connection between driver and road is as pure as it gets. And kudos to BMW for resisting the flat-bottomed steering wheel trend to this day, its modern-day tillers retaining the traditional round shape.
There’s nothing traditional about the Citroen DS, its avant garde design still stunning today, some 66 years after its release. And yet, while its exterior receives all the attention, and deservedly so, its interior is also what we can only describe as ‘automotive art’. And it starts with the single spoke steering wheel framing a dash and instrument cluster that must have seemed positively space-age in 1955.
There’s nothing space age about the Ferrari F40’s classic Momo wheel, its utilitarian three-spoke design as simple as they come. The F40 was designed to be a race car that could be driven on the road and that’s reflected in its no-frills interior, where raw Kevlar and a felt-covered dashboard with minimal gauger and switches. Air conditioning? Forget it. There isn’t even a radio. And framing it all is that oh-so-classic Momo three-spoker, small in diameter and without any form of adjustment. Or power-assisted steering. Like a race car then.
Momo also provided the tiller for the original Honda NSX but unlike the F40’s, the Honda version offered some refinement with a padded rim and thumb grips at the quarter-to-three position. Still, its simplicity remains, and it remains a beautiful and uncomplicated execution of the art of the steering wheel.
The Fiat 124 Spider was usually equipped with a three-spoke Nardi-designed wheel, but some examples came with a simpler – and rarer – two-spoke design, With the drilled spokes finished in either black or bare metal, the wood-rimmed wheel exudes style and intent. Classic.
The original Ford Mustang changed the automotive landscape for ever, ushering in the era of the Pony car. Like the Alfa Romeo Montreal, the Mustang utilised a three-spoke, deep-dish style steering wheel. And while there were options for wood-rimmed wheels, the classic ivory-coloured Bakelite wheel accented with metal spokes, sets off the rest of the ivory interior perfectly.
The Jaguar E-Type is regularly named as one of the most beautiful cars ever created and that’s an accolade that could easily be applied to its tiller. Three metal spokes, drilled to perfection and encircled by an elegant wood rim simply ooze classic sports car. The hub, with its snarling Jaguar logo is simply icing on the cake. If ever a steering wheel demanded perforated leather gloves, this is it. Timeless.
Another timeless beauty, the Lamborghini Miura stunned the world when it was first shown at the 1966 Geneva motor show. With its low-slung stance and curvaceous body, the Miura joined the Jaguar E-Type on the list of most desirable cars ever made. Inside, the Miura offered a purposeful cabin with two large Jaeger dials – speedo on the left, tacho at right – and a swathe of minor gauges housed neatly in a centre stack. And a chunky, leather-wrapped steering wheel, with three drilled metal spokes took centre stage.
But, thanks the Miura’s low-slung seating position, the wheel obscured much of the dials and nestled itself between the driver’s knees for all but the most diminutive drivers. Still, even that slightly compromised setting has done nothing to diminish the timeless grace and beauty of the Miura. Bellissima.
From timeless Italian to Teutonic elegance, the 1960s era of Mercedes-Benz provided a masterclass in elegance. And that extended to its steering wheels, at once elegant and functional. And the apogee of that design ethos can be seen in the precursor to the S-Class, the W108 series 280SE 3.5.
Featuring a Bakelite rim and two-spoke design, the spokes set off-centre, the Merc’s tiller is augmented by a flat-topped horn ring, nestled around a padded hub and the three-pointed star logo. It simply oozed class. Sadly, the next generation of Mercs ditched the classic design in favour of a moulded plastic wheel and altogether more modern design, nowhere near as inspirational or as nice to hold in hand.
Meanwhile, over in Zuffenhausen, Porsche’s first 911 featured an unusual wheel design, although it too remains a classic, Wood-rimmed and with four spokes, the ‘hockey puck’ hub features one of the best horn rings ever, in our opinion. Later versions featured a leather-trimmed rim, the first time Porsche had used hide to cover its steering wheels.
The newest 992-generation Porsche 911 has remained true to the simplicity of the original steering wheel, a three-spoke design with only the barest minimum of modern accessories. Just two scrollers and six discreetly integrated buttons are joined by a rotary dialler for selecting drive modes. It’s modern, yes, but it also remains uncluttered and minimalist in execution.
Toyota’s in-house design team trod the path of minimalism when it came up with the steering wheel for its iconic AE86. Three metal spokes and a rim wrapped in polyurethane (Australian-delivered AE86s featured a leather-wrapped wheel), the ‘deep-dish’ design afforded a more engaging driving experience, thanks to positioning the rim closer to the driver.
Today’s steering wheels are no longer just about the simple joy of driving. They are a control centre, offering inputs to any number of the car’s functions. They are also a safety device, housing mandatory airbags, and that requirement has seen form make way for function. Yes, today’s tillers are technological marvels, but there’s an essence to those older, altogether less complicated wheels that tugs at the automotive heartstrings.
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