The steering wheel is the only part of the car you’re touching. Your backside and feet don’t count really. So, if the wheel doesn’t have a good feel to it, then you’re not comfortable driving and it’s not an enjoyable experience. The wheel is your connection to the car.
I’ve been looking around some of my cars and the variety of steering wheels is amazing. The Cord was the first car ever to have a horn ring. The ’56 Chrysler Imperial had a steering wheel with a clock in the centre; every time you turned a corner it would wind the clock. In fact Chrysler had some of the most unusual steering wheels. My ’67 Imperial has a translucent one; they also used those weird wheels from the 1950s that were sort of oblong.
My 1918 Cadillac has a ‘fat man’ wheel. You get in the car and pitch two levers and the wheel folds out of the way, to make it easier for a fat guy to get in. The sales pitch said: ‘For men of girth. For successful men of business, who have earned your place in society’. They were quite popular back then. Cars were expensive and big fat guys drove them.
Certain steering wheels I hate, such as chainlink wheels, the ones that are all welded together. I know they’re not going to break but subconsciously I can’t grip them because I think I’m gripping a chain and the whole thing is going to fall apart and I’m going to crash. The worst ever were probably GM’s in the 1970s and ’80s. Your steering wheel just had a big flat pad in the middle, where there would be an airbag, and I hate the horn symbol embossed in it.
I love the classic Ford banjo wheel. That was very popular in the late ’30s: essentially three spokes and a hard rubber or plastic outer coating. The Fords of the early ’60s had a very attractive faux-wood wheel. The Mustang had a great plastic simulated-wood wheel, so did the Galaxie, but the fun was over by ’67 when they put a giant pad in the middle of it. I love the thin-rimmed wheels of Bentleys and Rolls from the ’60s to the ’80s. I bought the very first Turbo R in the US, back in 1988. It’s a pre-airbag car and it has that thin wheel and electric gearshift.
My ’63 Porsche Carrera has a lovely oversized wooden wheel. Before power assistance, you needed a wheel that was big enough to manoeuvre the car. My ’58 Lancia has an oversized wheel too, a lovely thing, wood-rimmed with an aluminium centre and it’s just got a nice design on it.
One of my all-time favorites is the folding wheel of the Mercedes Gullwing. I never understand why people change those and put on a fixed wheel when Mercedes-Benz made that beautiful folding wheel to make access easier. It’s one of the defining moments of the Gullwing.
My 8-liter Bentley has a flexible steering wheel; it’s hard rubber and has the ignition advance and retard built into it. The wheel itself flexes. I think maybe the idea is to take some of the pounding out of your arms. As you’re going down the road you can move it from side to side and in and out. You get used to it. The Citroen DS has the famous single-spoke wheel; my fire truck has the biggest steering wheel of all my vehicles. It’s 21 inches across.
Both the Doble Steam Car and the White Steam Car have interesting wheels: there are two, concentric, the larger for steering and a smaller inner wheel, which is the throttle. You find yourself doing this odd dance, turning the wheels different ways – your arms crossing each other all the time – because you’re looking at 600-800 pounds of pressure all the time. If you had a butterfly flap the pressure would hold it closed so you need a screw-type throttle to hold it open.
To me, the advent of the airbag ruined the steering wheel. Its heyday was the mid-60s; before 1967 designers could do whatever they wanted. Safety regulations put the kibosh on that. I was driving the McLaren MP4-12C and realised how much I like an uncluttered wheel; no buttons, nothing. I almost don’t realise the airbag is in there because it’s so compact. Some of the Ferraris, with all the buttons on the wheel, I find confusing. I don’t want to be pushing buttons or adjusting the radio from the wheel. I’d rather just reach over.
A good steering wheel you can tell by touch. The CitroΫn DS is one of those cars you can identify by the steering wheel, with your eyes closed. Also my 22-liter Fiat, which has an enormous wheel; certainly the Lancia B24 and the ’63 Carerra GT. I would also know the 8-liter Bentley, with that flexible wheel. I could tell that blindfolded. Easy.