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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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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