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Steering wheels: How times have turned!

2014-11-24 08:15


GREAT PLACE TO BE: Who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to drive this Ferrari – even if it is of the left-hand drive persuasion? Image: Newspress


An off-road driver has more than a little trouble taking on a hill during a competition in Iceland. Watch as he takes on a hill-climb only to have his steering wheel pop off!

Steering-wheels today are highly efficient and do their job admirably but when cars were first thought of steering accuracy wasn’t at all important.

A little more than a century ago cars were steered by a tiller arrangement – an idea taken from the boating world. A steering wheel, let alone any fantasy of an air bag, multi-function switches and the like, was something of which there had been no thought.

With the ancient tiller arrangement – basically a horizontal stick in front of the driver, to be moved left or right as required, needed constant adjustment to maintain a straight course. Today it’s all too easy – something of a work of art if the cockpit of the Ferrari seen alongside is anything to go by.


Cars can, of course, even steer themselves these days by scanning road lane-lines.

Fortunately, in Edwardian times (1901-10ish), there were a few men with vision – among them Frenchman Amédée Bollée. The rudimentary but recognisable steering wheel and column he fitted to his car of the same surname seemed to annoy the gendarmerie who hadn’t seen anything like it and issued him with nearly 100 traffic citations during his inaugural 18-hour trip from the village of Le Mans to Paris while showcasing his Bollée car.

Around 1895 Karl Benz had fitted a similar arrangement to an automobile – an ornate piece of cast iron decorated with arabesques – similar to those found on sewing machines that grandmas the world over used to own. It was only a matter of time before steering wheels were tilted towards the driver – probably brought on by race drivers’ needs of the day.

Steering wheels back then were extraordinarily large to improve leverage while manoeuvring through the streets. They shrank as steering mechanisms improved and in America were soon moulded in plastic material; Europeans preferred them to be made of alloy and beautifully crafted wood.


In the mid-1950’s French automaker Citröen created quite a stir because the steering wheel fitted to the DS (one seriously forward-looking car in its time) model was affixed to the steering column by only by a single curvy. Ten years later, after-market aluminium-spoked wheels became the “car fashion accessory to have” for your tuned-up Mini, Anglia or Morris.

If you watch F1 GP racing – and who didn’t enjoy seeing Lewis Hamilton out-drive team mate Nico Rosberg on Sunday (November 23 2014) – you would have noticed the detachable wheel fitted to all the F1 cars. It houses a multitude of buttons, switches and light-emitting diode lights – each operated by the left or right thumb – well, you wouldn’t want to take your hands off the steering wheel at 320km/h, would you!

While on the subject of steering, have you ever wondered why only a quarter of the world drives on the left, as we do right here in South Africa? Then let me enlighten you… way back in Roman times that was the most sensible option when robbers frequented the dirt tracks of Europe because most people were (and still are) right-handed and soldiers preferred to keep to the left in order to have their sword arm at the ready.


Change occurred in the late 17th century when European farmers began using huge wagons pulled by teams horses or oxen. The farmer would usually sit astride the last beast on the left and keep his right arm free to whip the animals to keep them moving along. Because he was on the left he preferred everybody else to pass him on that side so he could see the oncoming wagons – and their wheels – all the easier.

That meant keeping to the right-hand side of the track.

• Sunday September 3 1967 must have been a day to remember for folk living in Sweden. On that day the whole country converted from driving on the left to driving on the right. The whole process took a month to implement and at times bordered on chaos.

Even the army was called in to help…

Great Britain seriously considered changing over in the 1960’s as well but, true to form, they couldn’t quite decide and the idea was quietly dropped. Today only four European countries still drive on the left: the UK, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus.

Globally only Japan, Australasia and South(ern) Africa have stayed with  the minority – I’m glad about that, aren’t you?

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