We all take it into our hands: the history of the steering wheel…

The dynamic PR people of the Mercedes-Benz Museum have recently launched a so-called “33 Extras” exhibit series. These “33 Extras” bring the history of personal mobility and motoring culture to life highlighting details and aspects that are often surprising. Here they focus on the steering wheel, and we found their story interesting enough to present it here to you…

Hans Knol ten Bensel

The world´s first car race from Paris to Rouen, 22 July 1894. Alfred Vacheron´s vehicle with petrol engine. Vacheron was awarded joint 4th place in the contest.

It all started in in 1894: the steering wheel made its debut in the first motorsport competition in history – the race from Paris to Rouen. French engineer Alfred Vacheron equipped his Panhard & Levassor vehicle, powered by a Daimler engine, with a … genuine steering wheel. Compared to the control levers that had been used up to that point, the steering wheel allowed him to steer more accurately – and therefore also to increase his speed. His steering wheel consisted of a circular grip ring connected to the steering column by spokes – a basic principle which is still valid to this day.

Mercedes-Simplex in the Mercedes-Benz Classic Insight Nice-–La Turbie in 2017. The steering wheel was equipped with additional levers for adjusting various engine functions.

The end of the handlebar…

Before the steering wheel became the norm at the turn of the century, there were many solutions, including some that resembled bicycle handlebars. In his three-wheeled Patent Motor Car of 1886, Carl Benz used a rotary crank that transmitted the driver’s steering action to the steering column. Gottlieb Daimler equipped his four-wheeled motor carriage from 1886 with a cross-shaped handle.

In the end, the steering wheel prevailed quite simply because it could be operated intuitively. Along with the pedals and seat, it is the most important interface between the driver and the car. Key advantage: It was possible to determine the exact driving direction much more accurately than with levers because the wheel principle allowed the steering lock to be translated through the gearing into several revolutions.

Additional functions already 120 years ago…

Sectional view of a steering wheel with airbag from 1992. The folded airbag (white) can be seen above the propellant charge.

On the Mercedes-Simplex models, from 1902 on, the steering wheel was equipped with levers that were used to adjust important engine functions ─ in particular, ignition timing and mixture formation. In the 1920s, a steering wheel ring for operating the horn was added – an early implementation of Car-2-X communication, so to speak.

…and now

Today’s steering wheels are used to operate numerous systems, such as the on-board computer, voice control, telecommunications and multimedia. In addition, there are a number of stalks arranged in the immediate vicinity. In the summer of 2020, Mercedes-Benz will be presenting the next generation of the steering wheel as a command centre – the capacitive steering wheel with digital control zones.

Touch, “feel” and emotion…

There are considerable technical demands placed on the steering wheel – and the tactile experience. If the steering wheel is not perceived as pleasant to touch, this can have an effect on the way the vehicle is driven. In addition to the materials, the design also plays an important role.

Steering wheel and instrument cluster from the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, model series 221. Photo from 2005.

Steering wheel ergonomics also includes its position in the vehicle. The Daimler Phoenix racing car from 1900 and the innovative Mercedes 35 hp from 1901 had already proved this point: Their steering columns were inclined much more than before. This made it possible to steer the cars much more effectively and more dynamically. This contributed both to driving safety and also to the overwhelming sporting success of the Mercedes 35 hp in Nice Week in 1901.

Steering wheel from a Formula One Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport racing car. Photograph from 2018.

Size did matter…

The first steering wheels provided a fair guide as to how big and heavy a vehicle was. Trucks and  buses initially needed enormous steering wheels. It was not until the advent of power steering that it became possible to make steering wheels smaller in large vehicles. Power steering was first fitted on the Mercedes-Benz 300 saloon car, in 1958. From the 1960s onwards, Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicles were also equipped to an increasing extent with power-assisted steering.

Passive safety started in 1959

As part of the safety concept implemented in 1959 in the W 111 model series, the “tail fin” or “Heckflosse” saloon was the first to feature a steering wheel with a large, padded impact cushion, which reduced the risk of injury. In 1967, Mercedes-Benz introduced safety steering with a telescopic steering column and impact absorber as standard equipment for all vehicles. Then, in 1981, the driver’s airbag fitted in the steering wheel was introduced. This world-first innovation in production cars was introduced by Mercedes-Benz in the S-Class model series 126.

Im Forschungsfahrzeug Mercedes-Benz F 200 Imagination wird 1996 die Fahrzeugsteuerung über Sidesticks erprobt. The Mercedes-Benz F 200 Imagination concept vehicle from 1996 tested the use of side-mounted joysticks for steering.

Cars without a steering wheel?

Mercedes-Benz has toyed with this scenario at least in test and research vehicles. The F 200 Imagination concept vehicle presented in 1996 was controlled with the aid of side-mounted joysticks. The innovative system worked perfectly. However, the steering wheel remains the preferred option, which applies just as much to production cars as to modern racing cars with their highly complex control systems. Perhaps tomorrow’s autonomous cars will be able to do without a steering wheel completely. Until then, however, the new Mercedes-Benz capacitive steering wheel supports autonomous driving functions more comprehensively than ever before. A brief history of the steering wheel is also given in a press release from Mercedes-Benz Cars.

Hans Knol ten Bensel

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