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

Alfa’s: Italy’s invincible and iconic police cars…

We vividly remember them when I drove in the historic Mille Miglia with my father. The olive green Alfa Giulia Supers of the Carabinieri coached us along the way, watched over crossroads, helped to control traffic along our route, kept overenthusiastic spectators at bay.

The Carabinieri had not only taken out their fifties’uniform complete with riding boots, they also had polished their Giulia Supers. And of course, mechanically, these Alfa’s were in top form. What a delight it was to hear their 1,6 thoroughbred DOHC four cylinder revving up when they joined with panache and screeching Michelins again our fast moving column of Millia Miglia cars. Only to pass us swiftly with the blue police light flashing on the roof, with their engine on full song.

The beautiful Alfa 1900 was in 1952 immediately an iconic intervention car for the Italian Polizia…

Delightful, simply delightful. On the return leg from Roma back to Brescia, on the lunch stop before Siena, me and my father took (too much) time to chat with Stirling Moss, and we forgot our schedule a bit. This meant we were late, and had to do some massive catching up through the field. As there were timed sessions ahead, and we had to be within our time slot again. Easier said than done, with the power of a Mercedes 180 D ponton. Fight your way past birdcage Maserati’s and the like with 40 HP. Also the normal traffic was busy and held us up too much, as it took always time to accelerate for us to our top speed of 120 km/h at best.

The Giulietta was in the mid-fifties the police car par excellence… to be replaced by the Giulia Super.

Then we saw the olive green Giulia Super at a crossroad. We waved frantically and threw our hands in the air, shouting “siamo in ritardi!” We are too late!    

“Okay, Okay”, they shouted back, starting their Giulia, putting swiftly their Alfa in front of us. “Siguici da vicino, follow usse close” they commanded us in their marvelous Italian accent, and so we went as a two wagon speed train through traffic, and passed the field of surprised Mille Migla participants. Lancia Aurelia, BMW 328 and Jaguar XK120 drivers couldn’t believe their eyes. But we got after 30 minutes of frantic speeding again in our slot. We waved at the carabinieri thankfully, and they responded with two signals on their beautiful Fiamm horn.

So when the dynamic PR people of FCA came up with te story about the fast, invincible Alfa’s in the service of the law, our delightful memories came back again, and we had to tell you here this story.    

Of course, the Polizia/Carabinieri Giulia’s were totally iconic and omnipresent in the sixties, but the love affair of the servants of the law with Alfa’s started already in the early fifties with the formidable Alfa 1900. We show you here the photos, and dream on with us…

Hans Knol ten Bensel

Citroën looks back on 100 years of creature comfort…

One of the most legendary qualities of Citroën cars have been – certainly from the legendary “Traction” and the 2CV onwards – their comfort, which went arm in arm with just as unique roadholding qualities.

No small wonder, as one knows that Citroën had been taken over early 1935 by Michelin, and that since that day the genius of engineer and Pierre-Jules Boulanger was the inspiration behind the revolutionary design of Citroëns. Boulanger was the deputy of Pierre Michelin, who became the chairman of Citroën in 1935.

The long wheelbase version of the “Traction” offered superb comfort…

Pierre-Jules Boulanger became vice-president and chief of the engineering and design departments, and had a strong hand in the development of the 2 CV. He put his engineering know how to work with the revolutionary suspension, introducing the revolutionary concept of combining roadholding with a comfortable, very elastic suspension. They also made the world’s first radial tyres…for the 2 CV.

In the late stages of the life of the Traction, Michelin and the team of Pierre Boulanger also reached  a helping hand with developing the revolutionary hydropneumatic suspension for the long wheelbase version of the Traction, which then later was adopted for the “Déesse”. Actually, this long wheelbase Traction served as a test bed for the revolutionary DS. Michelin then was at the basis of the development of the whole hydropneumatic system.

This high-pressure hydraulic system would form the basis of over 9 million Citroëns, spanning from including the DS, SM, GS, CX, BX, XM, Xantia, C5, all through the still so beautiful and iconic C6.

Revolutionary also in developing inboard space…

But of course there are more aspects to just suspension. Citroën has long emphasized the benefits of adaptable seating arrangements and maximum cabin space and storage.

In 1923, the B2Type offered buyers the choice of more seats or greater luggage capacity, with an early attempt at modular cabin design. The C3Type ‘Torpédo’ was a two-seater, yet offered a folding third seat behind the driver, creating more luggage capacity or passenger room as required.

In 1924, a new ‘Trefle’ (three-leaf clover) three-seat configuration was introduced, with a fixed third seat mounted in the middle of the cabin behind the two front seats, with cargo areas either side.

For the 1930s and beyond, the Traction Avant offered various seating layouts. These included a long-wheelbase sevenseat model, and a variant with a wagon-style rear lift-up door – possibly the world’s first production hatchback.

Even the 2CV ahd an adaptable, modular cabin. With removable seats, a convertible roof, wash-down floor, and an extendible cargo area, the 2CV could well be seen as the car that started the trend for functional or technological cabin design – more than half a century ago.

Both the DS and the CX were sold as wagons (or ‘breaks’), offering maximum living comfort with intelligent seating layouts, long before more recent trends for six- or seven-seat cars.

The multi-seat CX Familiale was unique in its market class and it took many years for its competitors to catch up.

Citroën has also produced a series of design concepts as ‘one off’ show cars, with living comfort key to their motor show stand appeal, notably the 1980 Citroën Karin concept. This pyramid-shaped three-seater, built with composite materials, featured new storage ideas, moulded seats, and a stunning control ‘pod’ and steering wheel interface with fingertip controls. Such ideas are now familiar in the company’s production cars.

There is much more to come on Citroëns unique story around creature comfort, so stay tuned on these columns, and enjoy the photos here with us…

Hans Knol ten Bensel

Miami wheels…

Noblesse Oblige: a Rolls Royce is the car for shopping at Worth Avenue in Palm Beach…

Before Corona hit our shores, we went in February to Florida to soak up the early sun. Undoubtedly this proved to be a wise choice, as at the moment of writing, we are still not allowed to travel. We visited Miami and made a drive to Key West, in a rented Nissan Altima. A very comfortable mount with a well pulling and smooth 2,5 litre 188 HP four cylinder petrol engine coupled to a soave CVT transmission. This CVT performed well, raising the revs gradually following the push of your right foot, and restraining fussy revving even when you accelerate full throttle. Once above 4,000 rpm, it will make crisp upshifts.

With lots of support from the power steering the Altima is very easy to steer, stable and comfortable, and offers lots of room for its occupants. An ideal, and stylish travelling machine, which left little to be desired.

On Florida roads, the usual pickups abound, but there is a lot of room left for supercars and European (noble) brands. Indeed, Florida is the realm of the well to do, and also one of the states with a 56,14 % majority of foreign brands in its total car market. It counted in 2018 some 7,6 million registered vehicles. California is actually the top car state with not less than 14,6 million registered vehicles, and a foreign car market share of 64,9 %.

Go in the posh shopping and hotel areas of Miami beach, and you will see it is the home of Lamborghini’s, Maserati’s, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Range Rover, Bentley, Rolls Royce. Many buyers of the noble European brands opt for SUV’s as well as cabrio’s and coupés.

On the road, big SUV’s and pickups from American and Japanese brands abound, with the open Mustangs being frequently seen too, as well as Chevy Camaro’s.

Every now and then an American built classic meets you, as a fifties or sixties open Ford or Thunderbird. Indeed, Cuba is not far away…

Of course, there are the Cinquecento’s. We saw a new one on Miami Beach, and a vintage or “classic” Cinquecento used by a Sicilian Ice cream vendor…

Also a two decades old SUV was totally sculpted in sand, if there ever was a beach car, this is the one…

We just let you enjoy the photos here, and dream with us of these sunny shores and their nice cars…

Hans Knol ten Bensel       

The Fiat Panda is now 40 years young…

In iconic black, the original Panda is still very modern…

Your servant remembers it vividly. Back in 1980, photographing a brick stone red Panda in the Galerie de la Reine in Brussels, on an early Saturday morning. Those were the times when you could pull this off, without asking anybody. Of course we had to be quick. To make our presence a bit more official, I asked also some garcons of the nearby restaurant Aux Armes de Bruxelles – who were just putting out the tables in the early morning – to pose for me, putting some of their ornamental flower trays in the opened hatch of our Panda.

My test car’ had the zesty four cylinder 903 cc engine in the front, borrowed from the Fiat 127. It was fast with it. Top speed not less than 140 km/h.

The original Panda had soon also a4WD version…

I just loved the design of this Panda, both inside and out. Its elegant, simple, rectangular shapes, its perfectly balanced proportions still inspire. Just drive it now in chique black with beige interior through our cities.

It still is a beautiful, modern car. The car is also up to this day brimming with practicality and genial storage solutions. Fast, zesty, compact.

The future car within this same lineage of geniality is the Centoventi. We stood eye to eye with the prototype in the Centro Stile last year. More about this car later.

The Centoventi breathes the same practical spirit as the original Panda…

The present day Panda is eminently capable. We recently drove the hybrid version, just read our report… This Panda lives in the heart of many, and is since 2003 the most sold city car in Europe. And has a bright future for many years to come…

Hans Knol ten Bensel

Stirling Moss, the most iconic racing driver ever, has left us….

“I saw you were having fun, going flat out behind me all the time” Stirling Moss said to me with a broad smile in the Mille Miglia historic edition I drove with my father. We drove the ponton Mercedes 180 D, he drove the Mercedes 300 S, the Le Mans winning car.


Mille Miglia 1955 in Italy from 30 April to 1 May 1955: Stirling Moss won the legendary road race with his co-driver Denis Jenkinson in a Mercedes-Benz racing sports car 300 SLR (W 196 S) in the best ever time achieved.

The Mercedes Classic Racing team mechanics had advised us. “Sie gehen Stirling hinterher”, “die Strassenlage in schnellen Kurven ist mit dem 180 D ganz gut, also wenn Stirling geht, vollgas hinterher, sie fahren genau dieselbe Linie, das ist spektakulär, auch wenn sie nicht so schnell sind.”

“Go behind Stirling.” “The road holding in fast bends is very good with the 180 D, so when Stirling goes into the curve, follow his ideal line, on full power, just floor the throttle, go flat out behind him”… This is what we did, much to the delight of the tifosi and thousands of bystanders along the route. And also Stirling liked it. What a dream come true it was for us, to be in the same Mercedes Works Racing team as the legendary winner of this iconic race. He with close to 300 horsepower, we with at best 45 from our 1,8 liter Diesel.

Stirling at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2015, at the wheel of the W196 R Formula 1 racing car…

An honour we will never forget. The be in the same team, to stand as team members face to face with the man who sped to victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia, a 1000 mile or 1,609 km long race, which he drove from start to finish in merely 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds in the 300SLR.

He passed away on Easter Sunday, April 12, this year, after a long illness.



Picture taken in 1955 at the end of test drives with the Mercedes-Benz racing sports car 300 SLR (W 196 S) at the Hockenheimring. The vehicles were then brought to Italy for training on the route of the Mille Miglia. Look at the beautifully chromed lettering and star. Even a lightweight racing car remained a true Mercedes…

We will never forget this gentlemen driver, who embodied perfectly the sportiness and fair play of a true racing driver. He will remain an icon for us for ever, and many stories will be told, also by us in the coming months, about his long career and wonderful, long and eventful life. We could be part of it, albeit shortly, and it is an unforgettable memory for us.

Hans Knol ten Bensel

Sweet memories

In Corona times, we all now spend more than enough time behind our laptops and in our homes. A delightful occasion to delve now in our old archives and finally give them a thorough cleanup. Of course, true gems are found. Like a photo my father took when I must have been about 7 years old, behind the wheel of a 1950 MG TD.

I just want to share this with you. It clearly shows that my love for cars started very early on. Actually, at the age of four I surprised my Dutch grandmother in Helmond with my knowledge about car makes. When there was a beautiful British limousine parked in the street of their home, I could whisper to her that this was an Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire. I already appreciated then as a very young boy that this was a very exceptional quality car.

The beautiful radiator of the Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire…

My deep love for British powerful cars with elegance and panache was born then. My grandmother’s daughter was married to an eye doctor Harry Donders, who owned then a black Austin A90 Westminster.

The A90 was remarkably compact and had some modernity about it… just look at the simple rear/indicator lights…

A remarkably austere interior for a British car I found, with Austin definitely having a good throw at some modernity.

The car itself was also remarkably compact.

The Austin logo was beautifully placed on the bonnet of the A 90…

But my heart was then already taken by Jaguar. The Mk 1 Saloon was totally awesome in my mind, and dreams. So as soon as I earned my first money, the Jaguar MK II was bought, as faithful readers know…

On the photo you see me then behind the wheel of this MG TD in front of my parent’s house. My father took the picture with his Rolleiflex with the fast 2.8 lens. I still own the camera, and here I took a photo of it today for this article.

My uncle, the brother of my father, is actually still is in good health and well into his nineties and had hired the car to drive it to our home for a visit. The Belgian cobblestones got the best of it during this trip, as the whole fuse board had fallen on the slender legs of his surprised wife, while speeding along on the Belgian roads!   

Hans Knol ten Bensel       

Unique “Abarth Stories” tell about Abarth driving passion for the Belux market…

FCA journalists launch gripping Abarth short stories series, starting with a visit to Thierry Boutsen in Monaco…

The dynamic PR and marketing people of FCA Belgium come up with an unique formula to keep the passion for the “Scorpione” alive. They launch mini-video stories that testify to the Abarth passion. The first episode shows the Belgian pilot Thierry Boutsen at the wheel of the Abarth 695 70 ° Anniversario…

This “Abarth Stories” concept was specifically devised for the Belux market. With good reason: since the launch of the brand in 2008, Abarth has achieved increasing success in Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and is even about to become a reference in our shores when it comes to sporting cars.

The first «Abarth Story» of 2020 brings viewers to the principality of Monaco, where they meet Belgian pilot Thierry Boutsen. He was so impressed with this latest creation from Turin, the Abarth 695 70 ° Anniversario, that he decided to buy one!

Thierry Boutsen has lived in Monaco with his family for years. The Festival du Cirque De Monte Carlo is in full swing, and with a bright blue sky outside, the FCA journalist meets Thierry Boutsen in the lobby of the Columbus hotel. Boutsen has devoted more than 23 years of his life to car racing and motor sport, a man with a true passion for cars.

In the original Cinquecento, Thierry Boutsen taught his mother to drive…

“I taught my mother to drive,” he tells our journalist quietly. “It was aboard a Fiat 500.” This undoubtedly explains his enthusiasm for the thoroughbred version the current model, sold under the brand name Abarth. «I have purchased this special edition in honor of the brand’s 70th anniversary, and it has been finished in the same color scheme as the 1957 Fiat 500 that I also own. So the circle is round! » he smiles.

Following him in the narrow streets of Monaco towards the corniche that takes us to the motorway towards Menton, one immediately sees that Boutsen has immense driving talents as a pilot, and they amply show behind the wheel of these new toys. «This new Abarth has everything one could wish for: it is light, agile, powerful, has perfect handling and powerful brakes. Everything was developed to achieve the best », Thierry smiled.

For more than 20 years, Thierry Boutsen has been involved in aircraft mediation with his company Boutsen Aviation, which is also based in Monaco. But his passion for cars is still well alive. “I still remain a car enthusiast,” he adds. «That is why I recently set up a new company specializing in the sale of collection cars, cars suitable for public roads and competition cars. Our specialty? Find rare vehicles that meet the specific criteria of the customers, from a Lancia Stratos or Porsche 904 to a Ferrari F1 in running order! » And now he relives also the passion for Abarth…

A thriving market for the cars with the “Scorpione” in Belgium…

With 1,700 cars sold in Belgium in 2019 and around 21,000 in Europe, Abarth is the sporting jewel in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group. Born from the heritage of Carlo Abarth, the newest 695 70 ° Anniversario is a unique model that complements the range of models 595, available in the Turismo and Competizione versions. This Abarth 695 70 ° Anniversario impresses with its new rear spoiler, which is manually adjustable,and this “Spoiler ad Assetto Variabile” can be adjusted in twelve positions, with a slope of 0 to 60 degrees…

Abarth remains active in the competition, for example through the participation of the Abarth 124 Rally in the ERC Championship, and also takes part in the F4 Championships in Italy and Germany.

This is how new pilots are discovered, such as the young Arthur Leclerc, brother of F1 pilot Charles Leclerc, who started his career at Alfa Romeo, before making the switch to Ferrari.

We just let you enjoy further the photos here…

Hans Knol ten Bensel

The Abarth 695 70 ° Anniversario premiered at Interclassics Brussels 2019 from 15 to 17 November

Driven personally from Turin across the Alps to Brussels…for a unique premiere

The people from Abarth Belgium have their car loving heart at the (very) right place. In order to treat the Belgian public with a very special gem, the Interclassics Brussels 2019 salon seemed to be the perfect stage to present the new Abarth 695 70 ° Anniversario for the first time in our country.

Staring from the Turin based FCA heritage HUB …

They drove personally the Abarth show car across the Alps from Turin to Brussels, and not only that. They filmed it too.

Indeed, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the brand, an accompanying video of the model was created with a perfect mise-en-scene. The ideal setting of FCA Heritage in Turin, where all collection cars are housed, served as a perfect setting and bears witness to the immense prestigious heritage that served as a source of inspiration for this unique model.

This exclusive video was produced specifically for Interclassics Brussels 2019.

One sees a pilot who takes place at the wheel of a vintage model and then takes a seat in the new Abarth 695 70 ° Anniversario.

It then follows the road from the Heritage Hub of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in Turin to arrive at the Interclassics salon in Brussels.

The iconic lights of the “pure” historic Abarth 500…

A route of approximately 1,000 kilometers to reach the European capital. You can see it by using the following link: https://vimeo.com/372916951

On his way from the Turin Heritage Museum to Brussels…

This video will of course serve to promote the presence of this exclusive model in avant-premiere in Brussels.

Starting away in Turin…

The production of this model is limited to 1949 copies, this number refers to the year that Abarth was founded…

Hans Knol ten Bensel