TCS Daily

The Most Important Fifth Wheel

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - May 17, 2005 12:00 AM

It's the steering wheel, of course.

Lot of buzz about steering wheels at all the auto shows this winter and spring. It's suddenly been discovered that the wheels are "command centers," laden with all kinds of controls for our increasingly sophisticated cars.

There was a big story in USA Today, exploring all the buttons being put on steering wheels to control heating/cooling, sound system, telephone, cruise control, etc. But there's really nothing very new about it. Let's look back for a few minutes and consider the evolution of the steering wheel on our cars and see how automotive history has a habit of repeating itself with each new technological nuance.

The first automobiles, more than a century ago, were driven with "tillers," basically a steel shaft with a brass or wood handle on top. In 1900, Packard was the first American car to introduce a steering wheel instead of a tiller. Most European cars had already adopted the wheel as a superior way of guiding increasingly heavy cars with ever more sophisticated steering mechanisms.

The steering wheels themselves, big brawny laminated oak, walnut and mahogany affairs that filled a man's fist, rapidly drove tillers out of the market. Indeed, tillers looked downright effeminate and survived only on electric cars which quickly became stigmatized as "ladies cars." (See TCS 6/13/03 "The ICE Age Isn't Over")

One holdout against wheels was the magnificent, though quirky, Lanchester, built in England, which persevered until 1909 with a unique steering device -- a "side lever" which nestled horizontally under the right forearm of the driver. Drivers of these superbly built cars rested their elbow on the lever and gripped the end of it in their hand to "direct" the machine.

Incidentally, most American cars, like the European ones, had right-hand drive until the end of the first decade of the 20th century. Then it apparently began to dawn on everyone that the driver no longer had to lean out the right side of the vehicle with his whip hand. The only "horses" were those under the hood, and since the left side gave better visibility on American roads... hey, why not?

A few manufacturers began moving the steering wheel to the left side, but it was Henry Ford who sealed the thing in 1908, putting left-hand drive on his Model T, the car that would literally change the world and be the runaway best-seller for many decades.

As steering wheels became virtually universal after 1910, they naturally became the operations center of automobiles, with the many and various controls and devices clustered on, under or close around them.

I've seen, for instance, a huge and impressive 1911 Panhard y Levassor touring car -- one of France's pioneer automobiles -- with an interesting arrangement on its polished wood steering wheel. Attached to the center of the wheel and stretching across its diameter was a horizontal metal bar with a black twist grip at each end, not unlike those on a motorcycle. With these the driver could control the throttle and advance the spark while maintaining control of the steering wheel.

A word here about the concentration required to control a car in those early days. Once you had hand cranked the engine, got it chugging and quickly jumped back into the driver's seat, you released the hand brake, depressed the clutch pedal (which might also be the brake pedal, but let's not get into that), put the car into gear and lurched forward.

There was no "gas pedal" to press with your foot. The so-called "accelerator" pedal on the floor merely released the engine governor which kept the motor turning no faster than a "decent" 650-700 rpm. You used that pedal sparingly and only when in top gear.

Meanwhile, using a series of brass levers on some device in the center of your steering wheel you would then try to slow the engine down enough to make a proper gear change by "retarding" the spark. On some cars you might have a lever that allowed you to crudely adjust the flow of fuel through the carburetor. Forget the cell phone! See if you can get into high gear and achieve, say, 20 miles per hour without wrecking.

Look closely at most early cars and you will see that their massive steering wheels usually had one or two brass wheels within the wheel, which were employed to adjust carburetion, spark, throttle and ignition. These were obviously the first "command centers" on steering wheels.

One of the earliest steering wheel gadgets, introduced in 1907, was the "Warm Hand Steering Wheel," a thin wire heating coil wrapped around the wheel at the driver's normal hand position. It was a popular winter accessory at a time when most autos were still open to the weather. Heated wheels have returned now as a luxury option

Another accessory that came a little later, but was much more popular, was the "necker's knob," which allowed a man to steer with one had while his other hand... Figure it out.

It's fun to see all the fuss about "luxurious" wood or wood "accented" wheels as a mark of expensive sophistication in today's luxury cars. At one time, all steering wheels were wood, usually beautifully-made laminates. Here's a description from the brochure for the 1914 Oldsmobile limousine:

"STEERING WHEEL -- Special Oldsmobile design, Circassian walnut. Probably the most expensive laminated steering wheel made, the Circassian walnut being imported from Asia. Spider black enameled to avoid reflection in the driver's eyes."

Ah, well, even though the chauffeur couldn't enjoy the look of that expensive walnut, he was protected from road glare, and knew he was gripping perhaps the most expensive steering wheel around.

The time came, in the 1940s, when plastic steering wheels (Tenite) became the mark of luxury, their gleaming black or ivory tones putting the "crude" wood or hard rubber wheels to shame. Steering wheels had become much more slender then -- not as thick in the hand -- but they were still of a much larger circumference than today's and were often advertised as "shoulder wide" for driving comfort.

Now, as to the matter of buttons, levers and various controls on or about the wheel. This has been an on again, off again thing for decades and decades. Turn signals were one of the first devices to be attached to the steering column. The next big thing was the movement of the gearshift from the floor of the car to the steering column or "tree."

This began in the 1930s. Until then, the gearshift, a long slender shaft with a knob on the end, protruded from the transmission hump on the center of the floor along with the hand brake. (Manufacturers finally began moving the handbrake over to the left of the driver around 1936.)

The floor mount gearshift was deemed to be aesthetically unsatisfying, a nuisance to the middle passenger on the front bench seat, and an absolute annoyance to "neckers" as they sat in each other's clutches at the drive-in theater or some lonely "parking" spot.

In 1932, Nash introduced its "Syncro-Safety Shift," which operated the gears from a little lever on the dashboard. In 1933, Reo came up with a "Self-Shifter," a semi-automatic transmission operated by a T-shaped handle just under the dash.

By the mid-30s, American cars were switching to the column mounted shift -- a triumph of aesthetics and passenger comfort over engineering logic because it required a convoluted linkage to translate shifting motions into actual gear changes. But the advent of the true automatic transmission (the justly famed GM Hydramatic, introduced on Oldsmobile in 1940) soon obviated any engineering heartburn. Ford was the last American maker to give up on floor shift, switching to the column in 1940.

In 1937 you could slip behind the steering wheel of a Buick and be greeted not only by the convenience of column shift but by a brilliant chrome ring inside the steering wheel's circumference. This was the first horn ring, allowing the driver to reach the horn from virtually any position on the wheel with just a touch of thumb or finger. They quickly became a popular option, growing ever more stylized and gaudy. Their heyday was the 1940s and 1950s.

They added a great look to the dash area, and a sure sign of a budget car was a lowly horn button at the center of a plain Jane wheel. The rings were extremely convenient and their demise during the early Ralph Nader safety crusade days of the 1960s was loudly lamented by drivers. But the safety purists had some traction in this case. The rings easily broke in crashes, leaving jagged ends of pot metal to cause lacerations and stabbing injuries.

One of the "new" items being touted recently is the placement of transmission buttons on the steering wheel. The new Mercedes R-Class SUV is an example. But, hey, it's at least a half-century-old technology. The Edsel, yes the Edsel, Ford's ill-fated modern-baroque new car of 1958, had an automatic transmission shifting from a set of buttons arranged in a circle at the center of its steering wheel. It was called "Teletouch Drive" and was actually a pretty good idea.

Well, enough. Thanks to modern microelectronics you can slip behind the wheel of your car now and change radio stations, adjust the climate control, set the cruise control, make a telephone call, or who knows what all, with just a slight movement of your thumb or finger, even as your power steering helps you easily negotiate the turns ahead.

And while you're driving, why don't you give a thought and a thanks to those nameless engineers and designers who have devoted so much attention to this most important fifth wheel.


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