Centro Stile Fiat and Abarth creates a stunning one-off based on the beautiful ‘60s Abarth 1000SP…

The slender original ’60s Abarth 1000 SP on the left, alongside the new one-off successor…

Sometimes, things happen which make the heart of a car enthusiast beat faster. Like an initiative taken by the people of the Centro Stile Fiat & Abarth.

They have now rolled out a contemporary interpretation of the superbly stylish and iconic Abarth prototipo Designed in 1966 by the Milan engineer Mario Colucci. Just look at the accompanying photo. Of course, we can only hope and pray that this will not limit itself to this one-off styling and engineering exercise.

A beautiful evocation of the purity of the original Abarth 1000SP…

The points and lines of the original car’s design were respected to ensure continuity between the ’60s sports car and the concept car of the new millennium.

The contemporary Abarth 1000 SP respects three fundamental design principles already seen in the ’60s model. First and foremost, the lightness of its forms, its volumes and of course its weight.

The second principle is aerodynamics: modern design technologies have made it possible to combine the iconic lines of the 1000 SP with an aerodynamic coefficient worthy of a contemporary sports car.

Finally, ergonomics, aimed at improving the user experience, to optimize the vehicle’s control and agile driveability.

A faithful evocation…

The Abarth 1000 SP echoes the lines and aesthetics characteristic of its forerunner. The sinuous body, with the soft surfaces of the fenders highlighting the position of the wheels, takes up the pattern of the spider with a central engine.

The cockpit glazing features shaped side deflectors, with their profile lowered towards the roll bar, the latter strictly “in view”, to highlight our being in the presence of a “no-holds-barred” spider.

Of course, today’s passive safety requirements make the car taller and more imposing…

The rear geometries of the Abarth 1000 SP accentuate the harmony between the lights and the exhaust pipes.

Of course, The livery is strictly red and the characteristic air intakes appear all over, from the front bonnet to the cooling slots in its rear counterpart. 

The headlights also follow the minimalist scheme of the historic 1000 SP, with point lights on the nose and a single pair of round headlights to accentuate the car’s remarkable breadth when seen from behind.

The present Abarth 1000 SP thus maintains a very similar identity to its forerunner’s, courtesy of the meticulous work to update the historic, no-holds-barred Abarth 1000 SP.

Despite modern safety requirements, the designers of Centro Stile managed to retain the character of the original…

Conversely, the tubular chassis under the “skin” of the historic Sport Prototipo gives way to a hybrid frame, with a central cell in carbon fiber and an aluminum front. The “new” Abarth 1000 SP features a powerful turbocharged 4-cylinder, 1742-cc central engine, capable of 240 hp. The sophisticated mechanics of the concept boasts overlapping triangle suspension in the front, with an advanced MacPherson strut at the rear.

We will tell you more about the original 1966 Abarth later, so stay tuned!

Hans Knol ten Bensel.

Laurin & Klement S series: The first high-volume model from Mladá Boleslav made its debut 110 years ago…

This is already the second series of the Laurin & Klement, enjoying also success in the middle east, besides the many buyers in the vast Austro-Hungarian empire…

The car manufacturer Laurin & Klement enjoyed first economic and sporting success with bicycles immediately after it was founded in 1895. Bicycles were the product to begin with. But already 4 years later, the product range was expanded to include motorbikes before the company presented its first automobile in the autumn of 1905 – the Laurin & Klement Voiturette A.

The Austrian sales center of Laurin & Klement was eagerly looking for dealerships in the UK and Commonwealth, for its Type S.

Lets not forget, Laurin & Klement was embedded in the vast Austro-Hungarian empire, and this meant a domestic market good 50 million people. In 1908, 90 per cent of all automobiles in the voiturette segment manufactured during the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary were made by Laurin & Klement. And voiturettes were quite popular too.

In addition to its high utility value, the vehicle also had a particularly attractive price-performance ratio and low fuel consumption.

Laurin & Klement presented its best-selling model, the S series, on 16 April 1911. It sold in high numbers: more than 2000 units had been built by 1924 in numerous versions, including the Lady coupé and the Kavalier ‘double saloon’.

Laurin & Klement’s vehicles also appealed to international customers, finding buyers as far afield as the British and Russian Empires. The S series performed well in the most demanding races and competitions, finishing 6th overall in the 1914 Targa Florio, for example.

The additional designation 12/14 HP resulted from 12 ‘tax horsepower’, a value calculated for tax purposes according to an officially defined formula, as well as from the actual output of 14 hp (10.3 kW). This was produced by a water-cooled four-cylinder petrol engine with a displacement of 1,771 cm3 and side valves.

The engine, with a flywheel positioned at the front, closely behind the radiator, formed a single unit with the clutch and the three-speed gearbox. This meant that only one oil level had to be checked and changed. In addition, the car manufacturer installed a special lubricator made by Friedmann, which served as an oil pump and oil reservoir. It ensured the supply of oil, thus increasing the service life of the mechanical assemblies. The Eisenmann magneto-electric system was used for the ignition.

There were several versions of the robust chassis, and the four-cylinder petrol engines with a displacement of up to 2,413 cm3 generated 30 hp (22.1 kW) at this stage of development.

The fifth series of the celebrated Model S was quite powerful and fast for its time.

The range quickly grew with the addition of models in higher vehicle classes, and the number of units produced in the individual model series soon numbered in the dozens or even hundreds.

A robust ladder frame made of U-shaped steel profiles riveted together formed the basis of the L&K S. The rigid axles at the front and rear were each suspended with two longitudinally mounted leaf springs. The pedal-operated main service brake acted on the cardan shaft behind the gearbox, while the drum brakes on the rear wheels were connected to the handbrake lever. The standard equipment included special spoked wheels, the steel rim of which was firmly bolted to a wooden hub cap. This made it easier to repair the 710 x 90 mm tyres when they were damaged, which was a common occurrence at the time. For an additional charge, the manufacturer also offered wire-spoke wheels, followed by full steel rims from Michelin after the First World War. The complete road-ready chassis of the Model S with a wheelbase of 2,688 mm weighed 650 to 700 kg.

Wide range of variants to meet all requirements

The early Laurin & Klement S reached a top speed of 50 to 60 km/h, depending on whether it was completed with a light commercial vehicle body or passenger car body. The basic versions could be adapted to the specific needs of each customer. At first, the open-top models with two or four seats were most in demand, but later the range was expanded to include other versions, such as the ‘Vienna’ landaulet, the ‘Karlovy Vary’ saloon, the ‘Kavalier’ double saloon and the ‘Lady’ or ‘Doctor’ coupés, each with a specific ladies’ or gents’ interior. The light commercial vehicle derivatives included the ‘Fortschritt’ platform truck and the ‘Express’ luggage carrier.

The “series” production of the sixth and last series of the Model “S”: cars and bodies were already on stands to make work easier…

Customer demand continued to rise, not least because of the regular modernisation of the Laurin & Klement S vehicles. Each stage of development was denoted by a type designation with a subsequent letter from Sa to So. The designations complemented each other, and there were overlaps in the production periods. Over time, the wheelbase grew in numerous steps from the original 2,688 millimetres to 3,220 millimetres. The basic configuration of the in-line four-cylinder engines was retained; however, the displacement increased from 1,771 cm3 to 2,413 cm3 over several stages. In turn, the power output increased from 14 hp (10.3 kW) to 30 hp (22.1 kW). In addition, the three-speed gearbox was replaced by a four-speed transmission to enhance the dynamic characteristics of the S-series vehicles. A modern electric starter became available from 1918 – initially only at the customer’s request – although it was still possible to crank the engine as before. Due to the larger displacement and the higher compression ratio, however, cranking was very strenuous. The original acetylene lights with carbide gas generators were replaced at the beginning of the 1920s by electric light bulbs, which were much easier to operate.

During the 14 years that the Laurin & Klement S models were built, the car manufacturer achieved numerous motor racing successes with the series. Among the most noteworthy are the victories in the Trieste – Opicina and Troppau – Moravian Ostrava races (1911) as well as the Grand Gold Medal at the race in Parma, Italy (1913), 6th place in the overall standings at the challenging Sicilian mountain race Targa Florio (1914) and the special prize awarded by the Chairman of the Czechoslovak Automobile Club Prof. Otakar Kukula for the ‘L&K Se’ model in the 2,000-kilometre reliability race of 1921. In the same competition, the larger ‘L&K So’ model was awarded the silver plaque. In addition, the cars drove to victories in the Zbraslav – Jíloviště and Ecce Homo hill climbs as well as in the Schöber race (1922).

By the First World War, the Laurin & Klement company had become the largest car manufacturer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A significant proportion of the vehicles produced in Mladá Boleslav went to foreign customers on all continents.

Tradition of volume models from Mladá Boleslav

After more than 2,000 vehicles of the S series had been produced, the Laurin & Klement / ŠKODA 110 model became the best-selling model of the Mladá Boleslav-based manufacturer; a total of 2,985 units were produced between 1925 and 1929. These were the last cars to be developed in the Laurin & Klement era, though they already bore the ŠKODA logo.

The tradition of affordable volume models, which began 110 years ago with this Laurin & Klement S series, continued after ŠKODA entered as a strong strategic partner.

The ŠKODA 422 was the brand’s first vehicle to be produced on an assembly line using efficient production methods and was available from the spring of 1930 at a starting price of 33,000 crowns. The average annual salary of a civil servant at that time was 18,000 crowns. Between 1930 and 1932, 3,466 customers opted for the Š 422.

In March 1934, the Baťa company took delivery of the first model of a completely new generation of cars from Mladá Boleslav – the ŠKODA POPULAR. The model was the answer to the economic crisis at the time. The POPULAR’s technical innovations included its central tubular frame and independent suspension. The price of the vehicle, which was also in high demand abroad, started at just 17,800 crowns. This was one of the reasons the car won over more than 22,500 customers between 1934 and 1947.

Other milestones in the Czech automaker’s history include the introduction of rear-engined vehicles (1964: ŠKODA 1000 MB), and transversely mounted front engine and drivetrain (1987: ŠKODA FAVORIT). In 2020, ŠKODA presented the ENYAQ iV, the first series-production model based on the Volkswagen Group’s MEB platform for battery-electric vehicles.

Hans Knol ten Bensel

Bentley celebrates the production of its 200.000th car…


The Bentayga Hybrid, destined for a Chinese customer, met the oldest surviving Bentley, EXP 2, and a number of long serving colleagues, as it rolled off the production line at the home of Bentley in Crewe this week.

Things have taken off for the inconic brand over the last 18 years. Thanks to the success of the Continental GT and more recently the Bentayga SUV, daily production has soared. Indeed, over that period, over 75 per cent of 101 years of production has been hand-built at the Crewe factory, more than ever the home of Bentley. Current daily production, 85 cars per day, equals monthly production numbers of two decades ago.

The Bentley Continentals – then and now…

I vividly recall the interview I made at the Frankfurt Motor Show more than a decade ago with Franz-Josef Paefgen, then CEO of Bentley Motors and Bugatti Automobiles, posts he left in 2011.

During his time as the Chief Executive Officer of Bentley Motors Ltd., he was responsible for the Bentley Mulsanne and the Bentley Continental series of cars. From 2003 to 2005, Dr. Paefgen was responsible for the development of the Bugatti Veyron.

Every Bentley is actually a four wheeled chapter in automotive history…

I asked him then whether a hybrid Bentley was not on the cards, as Bentley’s could be considered the pinnacle of engineering and an electrified Bentley would be proper. It clearly was not in the strategy of the VW Group then, as the idea was immediately brushed aside by Mr. Paefgen as unrealistic, customers not wanting this at all…

Well times have changed quite a bit since then, as we now read that Company aims to be end-to-end carbon neutral by 2030 with entire model range switched to battery electric vehicles(!). Bentley will move to full electrification – PHEV or BEV only – by 2026, then switch the entire model range to battery electric vehicles by 2030. The industry-leading Beyond100 Strategy will transform every aspect of the business as Bentley accelerates into its second century of luxury car production.

Six cylinder Bentley engine production in the ’50s in Crewe…

What this means for the retail value and depreciation of the existing and historic Bentley’s remains to be seen…

But back to the production history.

The Continental GT was the first landmark…

In 2003 the introduction of the Continental GT represented a transformative moment for the brand, and this Bentley alone, has represented 80,000 sales of the total of 200,000, and created both a new segment, and a contemporary image foundation for the Bentley business.

The Crewe factory in 1940…

…followed by the Bentayga

The success of the Continental GT has been mirrored by the Bentayga, offering a true Bentley driving experience and unparalleled luxury. Launched in 2015, when it established the luxury SUV sector, the fastest SUV in the world has reached its 25,000 production landmark. It is expected that the Bentayga could surpass total sales of the Continental GT within a decade and become the biggest selling Bentley model in history.

And now in 2021…

Since 2005, the company has also built 40,000 examples of the Flying Spur, the most successful luxury sports saloon in the world.

We show you here some photos, lifting a veil of the very interesting and multifaceted production history of the brand, and then we have told nothing of their sporting achievements…

Hans Knol ten Bensel

My unforgettable drive with the Giulia Super over the Alps on the way to the Monza Grand Prix in September 1970…

Here I stand proudly as a 23 year old behind the driver’s door of the Alfa Giulia Super, with my nephew looking into the ravine of the Great Saint Bernard pass…

There are epic moments, already in the young life of a car enthusiast. I was barely 23 at the time, when I accompanied my father on a drive to attend the 1970 Monza Grand Prix. My father had a Olive Metallic Green 1,6 Giulia Super press test car for the occasion, and I have been smitten for Giulia’s and Alfa’s ever since, as the drive was so magnificent.

My father had his faithful Leicaflex with the 90 mm Summicon – R f 1:2  lens along, and this is the perfect camera to make impressive shots. You see them here.

My father and I had also taken my nephew along, and so we went on our drive, with me doing most of the driving, as my father found that I understood the car very well. Of course we were keen to let the Alfa perform. This meant cruising on  the German Autobahnen and the A27 through Switzerland and the Italian Autostradas at speeds between 150-160 km/h in fifth gear, when the law allowed it of course.

On our route, we decided not to take the Simplon Tunnel, but take the historic road winding over the Great St. Bernard pass itself, which lies a few hundred metres from the Swiss border with Italy, and is only passable from June to September.

Not only was the old classic pass road a dream for the Giulia, with its pleasantly short second and third gears, and I gladly helped the somewhat weaker synchromesh of the gearbox with expert double declutching. Descents were also epic, as this Giulia had already four disk brakes…

I still recall the eager sound and crisp exhaust roar of the 1,6 litre twin cam engine, and, as said, am totally smitten by Alfa’s ever since.

The Monza Grand Prix was rather dramatic. We arrived in Monza on the fifth of September, going down to the track after having got our press permits and parking voucher for our dear Alfa. Only to hear that Jochen Rindt had killed himself during the practice session on that day. He spun into the guardrails after a failure on his car’s brake shaft. He was killed owing to severe throat injuries caused by his seat belt. He was way ahead in points over the rest of the F1 field, so he became the only driver to be posthumously awarded the Formula One World Drivers’ Championship.

The Great Saint Bernard Pass was gruesome in winter, so prayer to our Lord was certainly appropriate…

We show you the photos, and dream away with you on the joys of holding the wheel of this magnificent four door Gran Turismo, which the Giulia was and still is right to this day…

Your servant would love to make a repeat edition of this drive on the Great Saint Bernard Pass with today’s Giulia… that would be truly great!

Hans Knol ten Bensel

Some early photos from my automotive beginnings…

In Corona times, some days are spent delving into archive boxes, and of course, treasures are found. I will show them in several reports here on my site.

They tell us about unique moments, and also learn us also how fast time goes…

Here above you see a photo of me in my early twenties, behind the wheel of the much underrated 914-6 VW Porsche, with its 2 litre six cylinder boxer, a necessary ingredient in making it a “true” Porsche.

We drove quite a few Porsche test cars from the D’Ieteren press fleet, here you see me at the wheel of one of the earlier 911’s, which I loved very much and was able to drive to their limits without the slightest mishap. Indeed, I never ever lost control of these early 911’s. I still love them… and their characteristic road manners, which still call for a talented and sensitive driver to master them. Note also the absence of headrests!

Much more to come!

Hans Knol ten Bensel

Alfa Romeo celebrates its female racing drivers – part 2: the glamour and the speed…

Liane Engeman, from the race track to photo modelling for Alfa…

In the first part of our story where Alfa Romeo pays tribute to its glorious queens of speed, we took you back to the ‘30s, but now we guide you to more recent times. First we start off with a good looking racing driver, who later became even a …photo model for Alfa: The super-fast Dutch driver Liane Engeman, she excelled herself in the Toine Hezemans team’s Alfa Romeo 1300 Junior.

Liane Engeman with Toine Hezemans…

The photo here above let’s you understand fully why she became later an iconic model for Alfa…

Then there is Christine Beckers, who I came to know personally. Her heroic days were in the ‘60s, the era of the Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GTA. Its results, victories and importance in Alfa Romeo’s history are well-known. Less known, however, are the events of the (supercharged) Alfa Romeo GTA-SA. Prepared in ten units for Group 5, it was equipped with two hydraulically operated centrifugal compressors that boosted output to 220 hp, resulting in a top speed of 240 km/h.

It reached peak performance, but as historical test driver from Autodelta Teodoro Zeccoli explained, the GTA-SA had “an unpredictable boost of power would kick in suddenly without notice, making the SA an unpredictable vehicle, hard to govern on curves or when maneuvering.”  One able to govern this ill-tempered vehicle better than any other was the young Belgian driver Christine Beckers, who won in Houyet in 1968 and went on to achieve excellent results the following year: in Condroz, at the “Tre Ponti”, at Herbeumont and at Zandvoort. But there are more heroines…

Maria Grazia Lombardi & Anna Cambiaghi

To follow Maria Teresa de Filippis in the 1950s, the second Italian woman to drive in a Formula 1 race – in as many as 13 GPs – was Maria Grazia Lombardi, known as “Lella”.

Between 1982 and 1984, she took part in the European Tourism Championship with the Alfa Romeo GTV6 2.5, together with Anna Cambiaghi, Giancarlo Naddeo, Giorgio Francia and Rinaldo Drovandi, and helped to bring in multiple titles. She remains the only female Italian driver to have improved her standing in a Formula 1 race.

Tamara Vidali

In 1992, Vidali won the Italian Tourism Championship (Group N) in an Alfa Romeo 33 1.7 Quadrifoglio Verde, set up by the brand’s newly established Racing Department.  Just as unforgettable is the fully yellow livery of the Alfa Romeo 155 that she drove in the Italian Superturismo Championship (CIS) in 1994.

Last but not least there is Tatiana Calderon.

Born in 1993 in Bogotá, Colombia, Calderon took her first steps in motorsport in 2005, winning a National Championship in the Easy Kart Pre-Junior series. Just three years later, she would become the first woman to win the JICA class of the Stars of Karting Championship East Division in the United States.

In 2017, Calderon became a development driver for the Sauber Formula One team. One year later, Sauber promoted her from F1 development driver to F1 test driver for Alfa Romeo Racing.

We enjoyed reading about all these (very) fast women, and we trust you did too…

Hans Knol ten Bensel

Alfa Romeo is celebrating their female racing pilots on international women’s day…

Odette Siko in her Alfa 1750 6C…

International Women’s Day is an ideal occasion, Alfa Romeo found, to put its female racing champions behind an Alfa sportscar wheel into the spotlight. The material they put forward is so abundant and interesting, that we make (at least) a two-part series of it.

We start here with the early, very elegant protagonists, who combined female elegance with panache and excellent racing qualities…

We start here with Odette Siko, you see her elegantly here in the photo above.

She takes you back to the 1930s, where Alfa Romeo asserted itself as one of the main protagonists in motorsport. This was partly down to extraordinary vehicles, but also to drivers who became part of the legend: these were the years of Nuvolari, Varzi, Caracciola and Sommer. The latter won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1932 behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300, but the Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 SS driven by the striking Odette Siko finished fourth overall and won the 2.0-liter category! A young Parisian, Siko quickly became one of the stars on the track, displaying her elegance both in the paddock and in her racing performance, often accompanied by another female French racer whose path also crossed Alfa Romeo’s several times: Hellé Nice.

Hellé Nice, see the photo here, was a model, acrobat, and dancer. Her real name was Mariette Hélène Delangle, but was more commonly known as Hellé Nice. Renowned for her outgoing personality, Nice was good friends with the Rothschilds and the Bugattis. She raced in Europe and America and became one of the first drivers to display the logos of her sponsors on the bodywork of a single-seater racing car.

She took part in the 1933 Italian Grand Prix at Monza in her own 8C 2300 Monza; in the same race, Campari, Borzacchini and Czaikowski tragically lost their lives. In 1936, she won the Ladies Cup in Monte Carlo and took part the São Paulo Grand Prix in Brazil, where she fell victim to a dreadful accident, then miraculously came out of her three-day coma.

Further on, there was Anna Maria Peduzzi. In her time, the years of Scuderia Ferrari marked a crucial chapter in Alfa Romeo’s history. The drivers of the “Prancing Horse” included Como-born Anna Maria Peduzzi, the wife of driver Franco Comotti, who was nicknamed the “Moroccan”.

After her debut aboard her own Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Super Sport, which she had purchased from Ferrari himself, Peduzzi almost always raced alone and only occasionally with her husband. In 1934, she won the 1500 Class at the Mille Miglia and, in the post-war period, raced in the Alfa Romeo 1900 Sprint and the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

We conclude our first part here with Maria Antonietta d’Avanzo.

The forerunner of female Alfa Romeo drivers, Baroness Maria Antonietta d’Avanzo made her debut in the interwar years. A pioneer of Italian motorsport, aviator and journalist, d’Avanzo won third place in the Alfa Romeo G1 at Brescia in 1921, and proved her worth in many competitions as a formidable opponent for the best drivers of the time, including a young Enzo Ferrari.

Baroness d’Avanzo in her Alfa 20-30 ES

Baroness d’Avanzo raced until the 1940s in a variety of vehicles and races, traveling all over the world to do so…

In the next part we will tell you more about our national champion Christine Beckers and her more contemporary colleagues… Stay tuned!

Hans Knol ten Bensel

Volkswagen celebrates its history in Autoworld…

Traditionally, in February and March, the Brussels based Autoworld Museum organizes a special for Volkswagen historical exhibition, culminating in a Beetle love parade on St. Valentine’s day.

However, the parade will not take place in 2021 for obvious reasons, but the exhibition organized in collaboration with Volkswagen is very special indeed!

The exhibition is dubbed “Volkswagen Milestones” and reflects the historical zeitgeist of the car of “Everyone and everbody” on the basis of the three important models in the history of the brand: the Beetle from the 50s – 60s, the Golf from the 70s to the early 80s and last but not least, the “Electrical Age”, with the new ID.3.

When I saw the cars on the exhibition, via a magnificent photo portfolio shot by Yves Noël, I couldn’t help reflecting back to my early days of motoring. Because, of course, I started out myself behind the wheel of a Beetle. I had bought, as a student, this ’55 (I believe) Beetle De Luxe Export from the famous and iconic television, arts and performance critic and column writer Johan Anthierens, who had learned the craft of journalism from my father, then Chief Editor of the illustrated weekly magazine “De Post”. He had hired Johan to write the Television column in “De Post”. Johan Anthierens bought a new car, and he sold his Beetle to me for the modest sum of 500 Belgian Frank, which is the equivalent of…some 12,5 Euros.

This Beetle is the exact same car as figures here on Yves Noël’s magnificent shots, with – if I recall well, the indestructible 30 HP 1200 cc version of the famous boxer in the back. Indestructible, well, almost. At higher mileages the third cylinder suffered unavoidably rather more from lean mixture than the others, and compression losses in this cylinder due to worn exhaust valves were often de result. This situation was however not bad with this one.

This beetle, with dark green livery, had soon its hubcaps removed and its wheels painted silver, and looked the part! We drove four years with it with the greatest joy throughout Europe, from Copenhagen to Bordeaux, over Routes Nationales and Autobahnen, and our greatest admiration for Porsche and its designs was born then.

Then, I stumbled on another bargain Beetle, the exact self same car as the black one here on the photo. It still had the 30 PS (manual choke) engine, but an “American type” steering wheel, with a big chromed claxon ring, and, progress, the bigger rear window.

Performance was basically the same as the first one, but I adorned the dual exhaust with slightly bigger diameter tail-end pipes, and this gave a deeper, throaty exhaust note, very similar to a 356 Porsche.

Boy, did I love driving this Beetle with zest… I drove it for another 3 years, until I got engaged to my present wife. Her father changed cars, and so I became as a “welcoming present” suddenly the happy and proud owner of the famous big Volkswagen 411 L, donned in dark British Racing Green paint, which suited it very well. That was my (big) Volkswagen during the Golf era, being also the last creation by VW within the air cooled boxer engine at the rear philosophy. A very comfortable and fast car, which would have merited an even greater success than it had. But other times were coming, also for the “bigger” VW’s. Not only the Passats were soon to come, but in those days also another beauty which was born on the drawing tables in Neckarsulm, the VW K70. This car fitted better in the Golf era, where thermal efficiency, economy, light construction and excellent road manners together with style became the norm.

The Golf era started in 1974, and these cars changed the perceptions about what a small car could do. Winners, I found, were the Golf GTD, which could cruise along all day at 140 km/h and consume still only 6 litres/100 km or thereabouts, with its 1,5 litre Diesel being a pleasant and eagerly revving machine. Then, there was the ultimate Golf, the GTI. Originally 110 PS, but what zest and panache. Also the styling details are absolutely iconic, to say nothing about its handling and performance.

There were also the three spoked steering wheel, the chequered seats, the wheels, the paint scheme, the throaty exhaust note…

Of course, there is also VW’s electric future on display, and indeed the ID.3 is a very convincing car. Just read our test report in these columns. We have just left hospital last week after two major operations, but around easter we are able to take the wheel again. The new VW hybrids are cars we are looking forward to. We will ask Joke Boon, Press Events Coordinator and VW Press and PR Director Jean Marc Ponteville to have a look in their calendar… and thank Joke Boon here for all the Autoworld photo’s she sent me!

Just some practical info: Autoworld – Jubelpark 11 – 1000 Brussels. Open every day, also Monday, from 10 AM to 17 PM (Saturdays and Sundays until 18 PM)

Admission: €12/adult – €10/senior – €9/student – €5/child (6-12 yr) free for children below 6 yr. Tickets bought online cost 1 Euro less.

Hans Knol ten Bensel

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