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News: How Have Steering Wheels Evolved Over The Past Century?

FEB 22, 2024

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen produced in 1885 by Karl Benz is always considered the first car in the world, featuring a unique steering system without a steering wheel. Instead, it used a crossbar with a handle attached to a vertical bar that we now call the steering column. This vehicle had three wheels with steel-spoked rims and solid rubber tires, operated with a single gear and a chain drive. 

It wasn't long before cars with designs closest to today's cars appeared that were more complete with four wheels equipped with air-filled tires, a multi-gear transmission, floor-mounted pedals for the brake and accelerator, and a round steering wheel.

Automakers have tried developing rectangular steering wheels, but until now every steering wheel is round, but let's explore interesting things about the formation and development of steering wheels through this article.

1890s: Steering wheels were introduced for the first time.

While it's challenging to identify the exact origin of the steering wheel, a significant milestone can be traced to a Panhard 4 hp model driven by Alfred Vacheron in a race in France in 1894. Panhard began incorporating steering wheels into their production cars in 1898, and by 1914, steering wheels had become the standard method of steering a car. In 1898, the founder of the Rambler brand, a British inventor, positioned the steering wheel on the left side of the car. This practice became a standard in Europe by 1910, with American automakers adopting the left-side steering wheel configuration shortly thereafter.

1915: Introduction of Center-Mounted Horn Button

When steering wheels started to become popular, the idea of installing warning buttons was also born. The first car to have a horn button in the center of the steering wheel was identified as The 1915 Scripps-Booth Model C. The car was equipped with an electric switch instead of a pneumatic bulb. 

Scripps-Booth innovatively introduced a spare wheel, first push-button door lock for the first time on the Model C.

Founder James Scripps Booth departed from the company in 1916. Chevrolet acquired Scripps-Booth in 1919, and General Motors (GM) ultimately discontinued the brand in 1923.

Since then, various horn button layouts have been experimented with, but none prove as effective as placing them directly in the center of the steering wheel. Ford's "Rim Blow" steering wheel, featuring horn buttons on the rim, stands out as a particularly unique transformation.

1949: Introduction of Telescopic Steering Adjustment

Tilt adjustment for steering wheels became widespread with the growing popularity of the steering wheel. Initially, it involved loosening a lock nut before resetting the wheel to the desired position. The introduction of telescopic adjustment, allowing the wheel to be brought closer or further from the driver, occurred in 1949 with the Jaguar XK120 roadster. Ford later adopted a similar design, bringing it to the public with the 1955 Ford Thunderbird.

1951: Introduction of Power Steering in Cars

The idea of power steering was floating around in the 1920s to reduce the effort needed to steer cars, trucks, and buses. American inventor Francis W. Davis initially developed it and quickly signed a contract for the technology with GM. Unfortunately, the Great Depression delayed it being used on Cadillac cars and Yellow Coach buses. 

The delay carried on after due to World War II, so it wasn't until 1951 power steering made it onto a production car, the Chrysler Imperial. Since then, hydraulic power steering has been the standard, but we're currently in a transition to fully electrical systems.

1960: Introduction of the First Steering Wheel-Mounted Control Button

Legend has it that Ralph Teetor, an American engineer, invented car cruise control in 1948. Despite being blind since childhood, he got the idea while riding with his lawyer. Initially operated by a lever, the 1958 Chrysler Imperial was the first car with Teetor's system. Automakers began mounting the control on the steering wheel in 1960. The 1966 Ford Thunderbird featured a sleek steering wheel design with cruise control switches, whether it was the first or not.

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