Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff

STEERING WHEELS I’VE LOVED

I DON’T PARTICUARLY like modern steering wheels. What with their buttons for everything from sound system to phone to navigation to cruise control to voice activation, not to say their airbag installation, they’re clunky looking. I grant they’re also highly functional with respect to today’s automotive needs. Yet there was a time when a steering wheel was just that: a wheel with which to steer one’s car. It could be beautiful as well.

Here’s a sampling of steering wheels I’ve loved, for one reason or another. Maybe you’ve had wheel loves too?

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The Mercedes Simplex 35 HP at the Nice-La Turbie huillclimb, March 29, 1901. Image from autoprova.net.

At the Nice, France, Speed Week, March 25 – 29, 1901, the future of automotive design was exemplified in the Baron Henry de Rothchild’s Mercedes Simplex 35 HP. Among other technical features, it had a steering wheel; this, when many other motors, as they were called, had tiller control.

Emil Jellinek, at the time Austrian Consul General in Nice, also dabbled in selling cars to European aristos wintering in the region. So impressed was he with Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft that he cut a deal to name its cars Mercedes after his daughter. This deftly solved one problem: Automaker Panhard Levassor owned the Daimler name in France.

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Engine controls of a 1920 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Image from eveningnews24.co.uk.

Until engine functions became automatic, the strength of air/fuel mixture and timing of ignition spark advance were driver responsibilities, controlled by levers conveniently mounted on the steering wheel. Many cars had an additional hand throttle controlling rpm. Imagine the chaos if today’s driving called for such multi-tasking!

I’ve always admired the labeling of these controls on the most luxurious car of its era, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, built between 1906 and 1926. Quite logically, its carburetion control options are identified as Weak to Strong; its Governor extremes are Slow to Fast. Quaintly, ignition advance is labeled Early and Late.

Calendar pages zip by with alacrity until my first personal drive, our family’s 1955 Ford Fairlane Sunliner convertible, a bright red one likely representing my dad’s midlife exuberance.

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1955 Ford Fairlane Sunliner. Image from boldride.com.

The Sunliner’s steering wheel did nothing but steer and, with moderation, of course, activate the horn. The Sunliner’s cool feature was its speedometer, the cowl of which had a tinted transparency highlighting the numerals (120, top, once probed in a bit of Ohio Turnpike madness, and more likely 100 mph in actuality).

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The classic wheel of my youth: the Bluemels Brooklands. Image from abingdonspares.com.

It was in this era that I discovered sports cars, and a steering wheel of choice then and remains the Bluemels Brooklands. The Brooklands wheel has spokes of spring steel, likely helping to counter the bump-steer encountered around the notoriously bumpy Brooklands circuit.

Many Morgans are fitted with Brooklands wheels. My Plus Four 4-Passenger Family Tourer, now residing with a fellow enthusiast in Long Beach, had one. So does another English sports car of my lust, the Dellow.

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A Ford Popular steering wheel, OEM on many Dellows. The particular Dellow of my dreams is fitted with a Brooklands wheel.

Dellows were cobbled up between 1949 and 1956, based on English Ford mechanicals though their chassis began life as World War II rocket-launching tubes. As I’ve previously noted, Dellows are so English they make one’s teeth ache.

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A classic Ferrari steering wheel.

The classic Ferrari steering wheel, typically produced by Italy’s Nardi, has a wood rim. Slippery and difficult to grip? Only, of course, for those not wearing stringback driving gloves.

A wood-rim steering wheel is a thing of beauty. Actually, it has a steel base of  hub mounting, spokes and rim. The wood is a lamination on either side of the steel rim, held together with multiple rivets.

Some of the best wood-rim steering wheels come from the British firm Moto-Lita. Its products have been fitted to Aston Martins, Austin-Healeys, Bentleys, Bristols, Jaguars, Jensens and on down the alphabet of sporting autodom.

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A prized bit of Arizona Copperstate 1000 memorabilia, with a pair of my de rigueur stringback driving gloves.

One year, the Arizona Copperstate 1000 Rally commissioned commemorative wheels from Moto-Lita France. Each wheel is inscribed with the participant’s name and Copperstate logo. The event is still going strong; its 26th annual run took place April 10 – 13, 2016.

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The steering wheel of my 2012 Honda Crosstour is well-designed, functional, albeit thus far not warranting a commemorative edition.

I suspect the 2016 Copperstate had more than a few wood-rim wheels and a goodly number of Brooklands wheels as well. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

8 comments on “STEERING WHEELS I’VE LOVED

  1. Mike B
    April 25, 2016

    The 3-spoke Mazda Miata wheel is quite nice, too, and can be found in some other Mazdas as well. It’s in my P5…

  2. Peter Ginkel
    April 25, 2016

    Dennis,

    Thanks for the photo of the 1955 Ford interior. I learned to drive on a 1955 Ford Country Squire so it does take me back. I, too, might have touched 100 MPH (I recall the needle was rather bouncy) on the Long Island Expressway!

    Peter Ginkel

  3. carmacarcounselor
    April 26, 2016

    So we’ve come full circle with steering wheels multi-tasking? I’ve been researching a presentation on the 40/50 Rolls-Royce (commonly called the Silver Ghost unless it’s a “London-Edinburg” or “Alpine Eagle”) and among the more fascinating images I’ll be using are those that show the profusion of controls, including the steering wheel levers as shown in your second illustration. Drivers were busy back then.

  4. kkollwitz
    April 29, 2016

    I’m fond of the wheel on my Olds Delta 88. https://i.ytimg.com/vi/MHKwqIolxG0/maxresdefault.jpg

  5. Heated steering wheel covers
    September 28, 2017

    Seeing the classic Ferrari steering wheel, we can only appreciate the skill of the designer. Even though its so vintage, it still looks classy even by today’s standards.

  6. gaspresure125
    October 8, 2017

    nice to read it. it’s an informative post.I shall enjoy wandering about the steering wheels in my hand.love that Ferrari steering wheel, its a classic.

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