History and evolution of the automotive steering wheel

Although it may not seem like it, the steering wheel of the car has had a great evolution since it was invented in 1900. In fact, the invention of this part of the vehicles came …

Although it may not seem like it, the steering wheel of the car has had a great evolution since it was invented in 1900. In fact, the invention of this part of the vehicles came to revolutionize the industry because before that cars were driven by a crank or a steering rod. During the years following the birth of the automobile courtesy of Carl Benz in 1886, vehicles did not equip a steering wheel as such because the mechanism of horse-drawn carriages was replicated. So, the cranks worked in the same way as the reins in which they were pulled to direct the horses according to the direction you want to take.

With the aim of making the orientation of cars easier, in 1894, the French engineer Alfred Vacheron invented the steering wheel, which was installed for the first time in a vehicle that participated in the first automobile race in the world in which the route between the French cities of Paris and Rouen had to be covered.

Thanks to the elimination of the cranks to impose a steering wheel on his Panhard & Levassor, which was powered by a Daimler engine, the inventor managed to give the vehicle better control, because the steering movement of the front wheels could be distributed over several turns of the steering column.

Obviously, this allowed for more precise steering and therefore greater control at higher speeds. Although the car that carried this invention was in 11th position, the steering wheel is here to stay.

In 1900, the  Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft company  also equipped its Phoenix race car with only a steering wheel with some improvements.  In this case, the steering column was tilted, which facilitated its operation. Even with this solution, every steering movement required a great deal of effort. On Mercedes Simplex models introduced in 1902, there were additional levers on the steering wheel to regulate essential engine functions such as ignition timing and air/fuel mixing.

Thanks to the advances of the engines, these levers for manual adjustment became obsolete. However, there is an additional function that from the early days of the car has remained on the steering wheel until today: the horn. This form of auto-to-car communication began with a bulb horn mounted on the steering wheel ring, followed by the horn button on the steering wheel hub. This horn ring  on the steering wheel spokes made its debut in the 1920s and was present until the 1970s when it got a redesign.

In 1949, the horn ring also assumed the function of activating the spin signals that were common until the mid-1950s. To turn, simply turn the ring to the left or right. Then, an indicator arm about 20 centimeters long unfolded laterally outside the body and indicated the direction of rotation.

Such indicators, which seem odd from today’s perspective, were replaced by orange-yellow flashing lights that were activated by turning the ring through a central control unit.

A further evolution of the steering wheel originated in the 1950s, when Mercedes-Benz introduced a gear lever in the steering column in the 300 “Adenauer-Mercedes” (W 186) and 220 (W 187), which meant greater comfort for the driver and front passenger. This solution allowed the front seats to be transformed into a continuous bench that could accommodate up to two co-pilots.

In the 1960s, the steering wheel and steering column got a redesign to reduce the risk of injury in the event of a collision. At the same time, he saw the arrival of the levers to turn on the lights, turn signals and activation of the windshield wipers.

Already in the 1970s, the steering wheel obtained a wide padded plate with shock absorber and a redesign to absorb forces and were transmitted in such a way that the steering wheel ring could not be broken. Also, the horn ring disappeared, and the buttons for the horn were positioned back to the center of the steering wheel.

In that same period of the 70s, the steering wheel saw the arrival of the buttons of the cruise control system and years later -1981- had the incorporation of an airbag. By 1998 another technical revolution materialized with the multifunction steering wheel that allowed to operate some operations of the car (radio, telephone and center console).

Repeating the formula of the gear lever in the steering column, in 2005, Mercedes-Benz again imposed the gear selector only in a more simplified way. At the end of this, we have digital flyers with a huge number of functions.

Thus, in 120 years the steering wheel has gone from being the steering control to being a command of operations of the car.

The steering wheel is an element that is of great importance in a vehicle, we can not imagine controlling our car without it. In fact, it is the prolongation of the mechanical characteristics of the car before the skill of its driver, hence the importance that only a mentally competent and adult person is the one who directs a car. In addition, at the wheel we owe that pleasure and control that makes us feel the driving. However, at the beginning when the first vehicles began to be produced, the steering wheel did not have the shape and comfort with which we know it today, those first cars of the late nineteenth century that looked like a carriage without horses were directed by an archaic crank or lever that were made of wood and for their curve-shaped appearance they were called ‘cow’s tail’.

First flyer in history

Other vehicles used manubios similar to those used by motorcycles located perpendicular to the floor of primitive cars. This steering system did not convince the designer Alfred Vacheron, so he decided to look for an alternative to those reeds or cow tails to make them easier to operate. This search had the best result in 1894 when in the Paris-Rouen race and in the Panhard 4hp model it occurs to mount an element in a round shape, so this becomes the first steering wheel in history.

The ease with which he drove the Panhard vehicle during the 1894 race meant that by 1898 all Panhard and Levassor came equipped as standard with steering wheels. This component quickly gained popularity and began to be used all over the globe. In Britain, Charles Stewart Rolls acquired a Panhard from France and brought to his later designs the implementation of the steering wheel. Another who also took great advantage of this invention was Henry Ford and when he took out his large production model, the Ford T turned the steering wheel into a part that could never be missing in his cars from that moment on. It is interesting to know that in the race cars and in those luxurious ones a steering wheel made of bronze was incorporated and many were decorated with small strips of leather or rubber. For the trucks there was some difficulty, and that is that as they were very heavy and there was still no power steering had to be placed larger steering wheels and these came to occupy up to half of the cabin, so their handling was something not very simple.

First generation of the multifunctional steering wheel

It was not until the decade of the 30s when the steering wheel begins to develop and become as we know it today, in them the different functions that would help in driving begin to be incorporated. First of all appears the electric horn whose button was located in the center of the steering wheel, so that indifferently the driver was turning the steering wheel, he could touch the horn if necessary. Thus disappears the well-known by then, the air horn that was activated by squeezing a kind of pear-shaped sack. Another element that was added was the ignition advance, the hand throttle and the gear lever. During these years the steering wheel begins to be considered as a decorative element for the interior of the vehicle, hence those pearlescent or colored steering wheels begin to appear making the combination with the upholstery or body of the car.

Already by the 50s, the steering wheel incorporates the electronic advances for the time, among them was the lever to turn on the headlights and put the windshield wipers to work. In very large countries such as the United States, where crossing a road from one region to another took long hours, cruise control was created by means of a button that was also attached to the steering wheel which maintained constant speed without having to keep the accelerator pressed, over the decades this device was replaced by an electronic one.

By the time of the 60s the steering wheels are reduced in size and become more sporty, those with circular holes in the spokes and the logo of the vehicle manufacturer in the center begin to appear, the ring becomes thicker and padded synthetic coatings begin to be used to increase the grip and comfort of the steering wheel. In the following decade, the 70s, safety systems began to be developed, the column or rod was divided into several parts, which allowed the steering wheels to be more adjustable in terms of height and depth. Cadillac, manufacturer of luxury vehicles was the pioneer in carrying out these advances in favor of driver comfort.

Second generation of the multifunctional steering wheel

During the decade of the 80s the airbag device is incorporated into the steering wheels and from the 90s to the present day those with different buttons and controls were appearing to control the various functions of the car such as speed control, cabin temperature, radio control and music player and even to make a phone call from our mobile through Bluetooth connectivity,  so the driver can concentrate more on driving instead of taking their hands off the wheel to perform another function of the vehicle.

More advanced flyers

As we have seen so far, thanks to technology, automotive steering wheels are no longer mere elements that transmit to the wheels the direction where we want to go, many have even become authentic computers where their pilots control almost all the elements of the vehicle. We refer to the steering wheels used in Formula 1 cars, the pinnacle of motor vehicle racing.

It is interesting to note that unlike conventional steering wheels, they are not round but tend to be a bit rectangular in shape; in this way it allows the pilots to make the changes with ease. They have more than 40 buttons and knobs and some even have a central screen where all the information generated by the car is transmitted such as its speed, engine management, condition of the gearbox or different modes, battery charge and a host of other functions. In this era in which there are already prototypes of autonomous vehicles which are already being tested, a new chapter in the history of the steering wheel is written, within a few decades in the future it could even disappear and the control of the vehicle would be taken over by some artificial intelligence system. For now we can conclude that comfort, safety and control have been the main lines that has drawn that component that began its history being just a crank to turn the wheels. So the next time you board your vehicle think about the whole process of transformation that the steering wheel has undergone for more than 100 years of history so that you today enjoy driving your car.

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