Step into a car and there’s probably no way you could think of driving it except for a steering wheel. Nothing else comes to mind and there’s almost an immediate assumption that the most natural way to control this four-wheeled machine is with, well, another wheel.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Prior to the invention of the automobile, everyone got around on horseback or a carriage, pulled by an animal or several. This was the reality of personal transportation - you’d pull on the reins to tell this living, breathing domesticated beast which direction to move in.
Nothing was precise and almost totally void of technology. But even when the world’s first production car took form, the three-wheeled Benz Patent-Motorwagen was steered by a rudimentary pivot-style tiller that altered the direction of its single front wheel.
Historians are still in debate about which car was the first to employ the kind of steering wheel (in principle) we use to this day, but it is rather clear that the idea was imported from the maritime world. Ships already used a large circular wheel to control either a rudder or sails, so it stands to reason that such a concept could work even better on land.
Some credit the first production car to implement a steering wheel, connected to a rack and pinion system, to the Panhard 4hp from 1894. The original car’s tiller steer system was replaced with a wheel prior to the Paris-Rouen race - a successful experiment that resulted in most Panhard cars adopting it soon after.
Slowly but surely, the steering wheel proved itself to be a superior interface device between man and machine and over the next decade would completely render the legacy tiller system obsolete. They were still fairly simple, though, and usually made of wood.
In the earlier years of the automobile, passenger car steering wheels were very large too; with rather thin grips. This was done so that the driver could exert more steering force over a wider area and move the (heavier) wheels and tyres of the era more easily as hydraulically-assisted power steering would only start to become prevalent in vehicles after the 1970s.
The Wild West Of Design
With more technology being jammed into cars with each passing decade, even the mid to late 20th century car designers would need to consider new criteria when creating a suitable new steering wheel.
Trouble was, nobody really had landed on an ideal design, which led to some interesting experimentation, especially because there wasn’t all that much by way of regulation or standardisation. It wasn’t entirely directionless, either, as automakers considered aspects of ergonomics, premium materials, performance, and yes, safety.
Two spoke designs, one spoke, three, four were all being used. The Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing’s cramped interior meant that the wheel would need to be detached (F1-style) to allow the driver to get inside and situated, Saab explored their fighter-jet making roots and made a prototype 9000 sedan without a steering wheel at all but rather a weird centre-mounted joystick where the gear lever would be.
By the mid-1990s, however, the exuberance of finding new and interesting ways to steer a car gave way to uniformity and refinement. The carmaking world sort of fell into an unspoken agreement that a combination of small, ergonomically sound wheel, usually with height and rake adjustment, fit the needs of most drivers. Too much deviation from this norm might turn away customers outright.
Airbags were also becoming commonplace in higher end variants but, because of many cars sharing common parts, even ones without airbags fitted would have steering wheels that bore the design cost of its inclusion - observable as a thick (but hollow) centre stow area just aft of the wheel hub. It also happens to be the most obvious area to smack at when wanting to honk at something on the road. Perfect.
Where We Are Today
In actuality, the steering wheel hasn’t changed all that much in the last 100 or so years and their core principles have remained unshakable. It’s still called a steering ‘wheel’, after all. We’d hazard a guess that even a time-traveler from the 1940s would likely still be able to adapt pretty quickly to driving a car fresh off the factory floor in 2020.
That said, automakers are back to their old ways of experimentation, though it’s not nearly as scatterbrained - so long as the safety and ergonomic needs are met. A common change can be rounded up, ironically, as the rise in flat-bottom (or D-shape) steering wheels, which was earlier seen as a motorsports-inspired design but is now widely available even in some family cars.
Other new elements, also taken from the world of motorsports, include paddle shifters mounted on the wheel itself or the steering column. Steering wheels these days are also almost always incorporating some sort of 'multifunction' button layout for infotainment purposes, making it so the driver would rarely need to take their hands off the wheel itself to make an adjustment.
However, perhaps the most extreme proponent of this steering wheel-centric concept is Ferrari, starting with the 458 Italia, who began integrating almost all stalk functions onto the wheel itself. From the wiper controls, to turn signal indicators, to low/high beam lights, to suspension control, to vehicle dynamics profiles.
It’s obviously a design heavily derived from Formula 1. Though some may call it a gimmick, it’s actually pretty impressive how much functionality they’ve managed to cram onto a steering wheel without overwhelming the everyday driver (once they’ve acclimatised) while still performing as a confidence-inspiring interface to precision control a supercar.
Of course, other manufacturers have gone in slightly different directions, for better or worse. In the main, different steering wheel designs and concepts are being used to define a brand identity and stand out from the competition over providing a purely objective advantage in vehicle control.
Let’s run through some of the more interesting ones seen in cars today:
2010 Audi R8 V10 - A classic example of Audi's popular flat-bottomed steering wheels.
2019 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 - They've got a strong brand identity. This wheel and dashboard design is so recognisable.
2019 Volvo XC40 - Again, like Mercedes-Benz, Volvo uses its steering wheel design as an identity piece.
2018 Peugeot 508 GT - The French automaker designed this smaller wheel in tandem with their i-Cockpit dashboard concept. Unique indeed.
And who can forget KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand). A futuristic vision, even though it was all fiction.