We Live In The Golden Age of Steering Wheels

I’d like to devote today’s column to a topic that doesn’t get enough press in major automotive circles. To be clear, I am not referring to the Cannonball Run record, which I wrote about last week. That got a lot of press in all circles, a fact I’m sure of after I received an e-mail from every single parent in America expressing their utmost concern for such lawbreaking, what with all the children playing hopscotch along the interstates. Presumably, these e-mails were sent from an iPhone while commuting to work.

Instead, I’m going to talk about steering wheels. Before I go any further, I’d like to mention that today’s column idea came to me from a reader. I like to get column ideas from readers, largely because it means I can devote less time to thinking up column ideas, and more time to sitting around my house and racing those pull-back toy cars you can buy at the grocery store. I also appreciate reader ideas because if you don’t like the column, I can provide you with the name, e-mail address, and home telephone number of the reader who made the suggestion, and you can blame him.

So like I said, today we’re going to cover steering wheels. More specifically, I’m going to talk about how we currently live in the golden age of steering wheels. But before we do that, grab the steering wheel of your mind, because we must take a short drive down memory lane.

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: For those of you now thinking “Maybe you should spend less time racing pull-back cars and more time working on your metaphors,” I would like to remind you that some crazy lunatic drove across the country in under 29 hours a few weeks ago, and you should focus your criticism on that.)

Anyway: the steering wheel got its start in the early years of the automobile. Of course, back then, they weren’t wheels so much as they were direction changing sticks, and the cars were so slow and poorly designed that the direction changing stick was approximately as effective as a strong gust of wind. But the point is, they existed, and they remained largely unchanged for years, until Porsche offered a leather-wrapped version for $400 extra.

The direction changing stick remained standard practice until the 1910s or 1920s, when it finally became an actual wheel. I’d look up some more details on this changeover myself, but I have no doubt that regardless of which car I credited with the first steering wheel, I would be corrected by at least one commenter, and more likely four. So I’ll leave it to you guys to duke it out.

Now, the first steering wheels were pretty crappy. For those of you who don’t have any experience with Depression-era cars, here’s a little outline of what early steering wheels involved:

1. A thin, rather small, generally circular wheel.
2. Four tiny spokes connecting the wheel to the hub.
3. A large, sturdy steering column that, in the event of a minor collision or heavy braking, would puncture your skull.

As time went on, the car evolved. For example: someone, somewhere, decided that maybe aerodynamics would improve slightly if the windshield was no longer directly perpendicular to the body. Automakers stopped building wheels out of wood. And it fell out of fashion to show everyone that you have spare tires by displaying them on your running boards.

But here’s the thing: even as cars evolved, steering wheels stayed exactly the same. Through the 1940s and 1950s, the wheels remained thin-rimmed – and they kept the tiny spokes that branched out from the hub. Sure, some clever automakers put their logo in the very center, ensuring it would be the last thing you saw before the doctors pulled a horn pad out of your amygdala. But generally speaking, not much had changed.

As you know, the car continued to evolve throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Tail fins and white wall tires were out, while creating a vehicle that was sized like a member of the Pacific Fleet was very much in. But guess what? That’s right! The steering wheel stayed exactly the same, except that some now had two spokes instead of three or four. Oh, and the back of the wheel had little ridges, just in case you didn’t know where your fingers were supposed to go.

Now, I admit that the steering wheel finally began to change in the 1980s – though I’d submit to you that these changes were for the worse. Recall, for instance, that Porsche steering wheel with a large rectangle in the middle of two horizontal lines. Or the Pontiac wheel whose center was filled with about one square foot of buttons. Or how about the two-spoke steering wheel from the first Ford Explorer that was always frowning at you? It was rough out there, if you were steering your automobile.

Until today. Today’s steering wheels are awesome.

Jump in my Cadillac, for instance, and you get a thick-rimmed, fuzzy steering wheel with a cool-looking horn pad, a multi-color “V” logo on the bottom spoke, and paddles that can change gears. You also get buttons that change the track, or turn down the volume, or prepare the car to start listening to you. Imagine if you had a button like this for your spouse.

It goes even further in a modern Ferrari. In addition to all the stuff the Cadillac’s wheel has, a Ferrari’s steering wheel also includes controls for the turn signals and the headlights. That means you never have to take your hands off it to do anything, except of course check your hair, which I imagine Ferrari owners do pretty often.

But you don’t need an expensive performance car to get an amazing steering wheel. The image at the top of this article is the steering wheel from a Kia Optima SX. Think about that for a second. This is a thick-rimmed, flat-bottom, three-spoke wheel with shift paddles and dozens of buttons… on a Kia. And not just a Kia: a midsize sedan.

This is how far we’ve come, folks: to the golden age of steering wheels. And they just keep getting better. Maybe some day, the steering wheel will have so many functions that you’ll just park your car at night, detach the wheel, and use it in place of all sorts of household electronics, like an alarm clock, or a television remote. It could do anything! But it still won’t be as entertaining as my pull-back cars.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He operates PlaysWithCars.com. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.