The History of the Steering Wheel

Check out this link if you are wondering about how the steering wheel came to be and want to learn more.

The History of the Steering Wheel

It’s strange to think that the automobile has evolved so much that it’s possible future cars may not be equipped with many of the things we deem critical today. The steering wheel comes to mind, especially with all the self-driving cars.

But because the steering wheel has always been part of the automobile, it’s hard to imagine not having one.

I’ve often pondered just what is the history of the steering wheel. We see them in boats, buses, tractors, almost anything you can imagine that is a mode of transport.

So just where did the steering wheel come from? What is its history, and who invented it?

Let’s take a look.

It Started With the Ship Wheel

While the actual date is still unclear, the British Royal Navy takes the credit for the first ship steering wheel. It was in 1703 that ships were first documented to be using the steering wheel.

The early steering wheels sat above the tiller and behind the ship's mizzen mast. The wheel was designed to be operated by two men when faced with rough seas, but the men were often cramped for space. By 1740, ships began to include two wheels.

The Panhard

In Paris, in 1894, there was a motoring competition called the Paris-Rouen, which is believed to have been the first motor race competition in the world. Alfred Vacheron customized his four-horse power Panhard motor vehicle with a steering wheel in order to participate in the race. This is believed to have been the earliest known use of a steering wheel in automobiles.

By 1898, the Panhard et Lavassor vehicles were being equipped with the steering wheel, a standard piece of equipment. The first car with a steering wheel was imported to Britain, and designers now knew that the steering wheel was necessary for automobiles.

The Rambler

Early designs for The Rambler featured a left-hand side-mounted steering wheel and a front-mounted engine. But for their 1902 mass production of the vehicle, the automakers decided on a rear engine and steering layout.

By 1904, all Ramblers would feature the steering wheel, and ten years later, the steering wheel had replaced the tiller in all vehicles.

For the most part, steering wheels were simple devices; they were wooden circles connected to the wheel axis that was very hard to turn. They also posed a danger of severely injuring the driver during a crash.

During the 1920s, Francis W. Davis, an engineer, invented a power steering system that would make driving much easier. He signed a contract with Cadillac, but the contract fell through by the Great Depression in 1934.

It was during World War II that power steering really took off. The armed services needed combat vehicles that were easily maneuvered. In 1940, Chevrolet started putting power steering in armored vehicles for the British Army.

Over 10,000 vehicles would become equipped with power steering by the end of the war, both hydraulic and electric systems.

Power steering now gave drivers a much easier means of steering the car. While electrical and mechanical systems were used, it was the hydraulic systems that stood the test of time.

Steering Wheel Ad-Ons

As steering wheels advanced, several other features were added to them to make things even easier for the driver.

The Locking Steering Wheel

In the late 1960s, the US Department of Transportation required that all cars be fitted with a steering wheel lock. The wheel lock was fitted to the steering column and was used as an anti-theft device. The locks introduced by General Motors, Ford, AMC, and Chrysler reduced car theft at an impressive rate.

Collapsible Steering Column

By the late 1960s, safety regulations were implemented by the United States government, and a collapsible steering column was required in all vehicles. It was designed to protect the driver in the event of a crash. The column would collapse upon impact with a ring inserted between the internal and external parts of the column.

The Horn

Until the 1930s, most vehicles were equipped with the Klaxon Horn, which was used by hand. And honking was actually a polite thing to do at the time. If you honked at folks on the street, it was considered a nice way of saying hello, and it wasn’t thought of as being rude as it is today.

Automakers started to use electric car horns in the 1930s, and they haven't changed much since then. Mainstream automobiles like Ford, GM, and Subaru began incorporating the electric horn into their assembly lines.

The Adjustable Steering Wheel

Developed by Edward James Lobdell, the adjustable steering wheel made driving easier, giving the driver control over their view of the road by tilting up and down. There are many different kinds of adjustable steering wheels.

The Tilt Wheel

In 1963, General Motors introduced a seven-position tilt steering wheel. The tilt steering wheel was originally a luxury item in cars. The tilt function adjusts the steering wheel by moving it through an arc in an up and down movement.

Adjustable Steering Column

The adjustable steering column allows drivers to adjust the height of the steering wheel quite easily. The system works with compression locks or electric motors instead of ratchet mechanisms.

Swing-Away Steering Wheel

In 1961, Ford made the swing-away steering wheel available on the Thunderbird and other models. The swing-away wheel allowed the wheel to move 9 inches to the right once the vehicle was in park, allowing exiting and entering for the driver to be easier.

Telescope Wheel

In1949, Jaguar brought about a new steering wheel that was driver-adjustable by loosening a sleeve around the column. In 1942, a patent was developed by the Saginaw Steering Gear Division of GM, but they wouldn’t offer a telescoping wheel of their own until the 1965 Corvette and Corvair and the 1965 Cadillac.

Tilt-Away Steering Wheel

In 1967, changes were made to the federal motor vehicle safety standards. It was an update to the swing-away steering wheel, and Ford introduced the tilt-away wheel. While it added limited movement, it was convenient because of the automatic-pop over function.