Let's Get One Thing Straight!
The steering wheel is the one item on our cars that we are in constant contact with, keeping our cars on the straight and narrow and occasionally driving them ‘round the bend’. The steering wheel is a seemingly simple device, round and attached to a column that connects to the front wheels and is used to steer the car as directed by the driver. As we learned in a previous article, steering wheels can be located on the right, left or even the center of the car but the one constant is they are round, right? Well it hasn’t always been that simple.
In the dawn of the automobile, way back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, it was common for a ‘horseless carriage’ to be guided by a tiller, similar to that found on a small boat. Larger boats and ships were guided by a ship’s wheel, also known as the steering wheel. I suppose it’s natural that cars and watercraft share similar controls. Before the horseless carriage became horseless, its four-legged motive power was guided by the reins or a harness, not really appropriate for an automobile. Where would you put the bit?
One of the earliest recorded use of a steering wheel was in 1894 when Alfred Vacheron fitted a steering wheel to his French Panhard 4 hp, which he raced in one of the early city-to-city races, Paris-Rouen. Proving that racing improves the breed, all Panhard cars were fitted with steering wheels starting in 1898. By 1915 all cars were guided by steering wheels.
Steering wheels are connected to the steering column by spokes. Steering wheel spokes usually number between two to four. One of the more eccentric marques, the French Citroen, is know for it use of just one steering wheel spoke. Citroen claims it is safer and there’s no denying there is no obscuring the gauges by the spokes!
Many cars used what is referred to as a ‘banjo wheel’ which has as many as five wire spokes that provide some isolation for the driver’s hands from the vibration of the road.
The steering column poses a threat to the chest area, risking skewering the driver with the column in the case of a severe head on crash. A collapsible steering column was invented in 1934 but didn’t catch on until the U.S. government mandated their use in 1968 (FMVSS Standard No. 204). I continue to be astounded at the lack of judgment of the design of the Jaguar XK120 steering wheel hub.
Before power steering came along, steering a heavy car or truck meant lots of twirling the wheel in order to have acceptably light steering. It wasn’t unusual to have to rotate the wheel 4 times to go from lock-to-lock. In 1936, a clever Wisconsin ‘Cheesehead’ by the name of Joel R. Thorp came up with the idea of mounting a knob to the rim of the steering wheel which allowed the driver to quickly spin the wheel with one hand while using the other hand to tend to other things such as the gear shift lever, the radio or his passenger. This clever aftermarket device was known by many names; steering wheel spinner knob, suicide knob, necker knob, knuckle buster, granny knob and Brodie Knob. This last name refers to Steve Brodie, a predecessor to Evel Knievel, known for his death defying stunts that included jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886. Today these knobs can be found on cars, trucks, farm tractors, fork lifts, boats, lawnmowers and ice resurfacers. In case you were thinking of purchases one of these knobs, they are legal for use on private vehicles in most states, including Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. Naturally our ‘Big Brother’ in Washington restricts the use of suicide knobs on certain construction vehicles.
With the advent of power steering, steering wheels have shrunk in diameter, conveniently providing extra room at the bottom for growing waistlines. The smaller diameter provides less mechanical advantage but makes the steering inputs faster, an advantage on race cars which tend to use impossibly small diameter wheels. Formula 1 cars use a squarish shaped wheel festooned with a myriad of gayly colored buttons and knobs used to adjust various aspects of the engine performance and car handling characteristics. Check out this illustration of the 2016 McLaren Honda Formula 1 wheel.
Speaking of steering wheel mounted controls, the horn button was the first of these. It could be a simple button in the middle of the wheel, a ring a finger reach away from the rim or even actuated by a squeeze on the rim. The ‘Rim Blow’ horn was used on some U.S. cars starting in 1969. $37 would buy you one of these on your AMC Hornet. Alas the design was fraught with technical problems and wasn’t widely accepted by buyers so it was short lived, going out of production in 1974.
Starting in the 1990s it has become common practice to put more and more control functions on the steering wheel. This is great for keeping the driver’s hands on the wheel but it can be confusing keeping straight which button does what, especially at night. Am I the only one that has problems with this?
Steering wheels also pivot upward to allow ease of entry and more comfortable arm position. You may think this is something new but not really. The first recorded tilt steering wheel was invented by Edward James Lobdell in the early 1900s. Fast forward to 1963 and we see the advent of the modern 7-position tilt wheel available as an option on GM cars.
It is common on British cars, starting prior to WWII, to offer a telescopic function on their steering wheels. This usually required loosening a locknut on the steering column, moving the wheel in and out to a comfortable position and tightening (an important step!) the wheel in place. In 1949 the British wheel manufacturer Bluemel supplied the Douglas ASW (Adjustable Steering Wheel), used on the Jaguar XK120, that the driver could adjust merely by twisting a collar on the steering column. The Ford used this design on their 1955-57 Thunderbirds. In July 1942 GM’s Saginaw Steering Gear Division patented the telescoping steering wheel but it wasn’t put into production until the tilt/telescope wheel was offered as an option on the 1965 Cadillac. On today’s cars the tilt and telescope function is commonly powered with a memory feature.
And who could forget the “Swing-away” steering wheel introduced on the 1961 Ford Thunderbird and used on other Ford products in the ‘60s? This popular option cost just $25.10 when it was introduced and later became standard equipment on the 1962 Thunderbird. This feature allowed the steering wheel and column to move nine inches to the right when the transmission was in park, greatly aiding entry and exit. Jaguar uses an automatic power motor to raise the steering wheel and telescope it in while simultaneously moving the driver’s seat rearward when the transmission is in park and the ignition key is removed. Very accommodating!
In 1968, changing safety regulations made collapsible steering column mandatory and this spelled the end of the “Swing-Away” steering wheel. Ford countered with an innovative design for the 1967 model year called the “Tilt-Away” steering wheel. This clever design incorporated a collapsible steering column and a steering wheel that pivoted at the top of the steering column instead of moving the entire column to the right. With transmission in park, the wheel automatically moved to right when the driver’s door was opened and offered nine adjustable tilt positions. The “Tilt-Away” steering wheel was standard on the 1967 Thunderbird and optional on the Ford Mustang and Mercury Cougar. The “Tilt-Away” wheel was only offered in 1967, 68 and 69. Its demise was likely triggered by moving the ignition switch, steering and transmission selector lock to the steering column in 1970. In 1970 just the tilt function was offered.
Removable steering wheels are common in race cars; every Formula 1 car has a removable wheel otherwise it would be very difficult if not impossible for the driver to get in/out of the car. I can think of a couple of modern sports cars that could do with a removable wheel but I’m sure the safety regulations wouldn’t allow it.
A simple device for moving the steered wheels has come a long way from the tiller, hasn’t it?