Steering Wheels - What's your type? Which one do you connect with?
What's your closest contact and connection with a car? Yes, it's the steering wheel that you hold when you get into the driver's seat. A steering wheel is the central feature of any car's interior and by turning it you directly communicate where you want the car to go.
They don't make steering wheels like this piece of art anymore. Image source John Langdon on Unsplash.
Fascinatingly, the pioneering automobiles made in the 1880's did not use steering wheels, instead for change of direction they had a tiller, similiar to what is still used to steer motorboats. It was only in the early 1900's that the steering wheel as we know it, started being used in cars.
For well over a century the steering wheel remained largely unchanged with its primary role being to communicate the driver's directions. Of course the materials, colours, design, number of spokes, etc, all changed with time, but the purpose of the steering remained the same - to steer the car.
Modern day steering wheels have multiple functions. Image source Mos Sukjaroenkraisri on Unsplash.
It's only in the last 15 to 20 years, that we have seen a striking shift in the tasks of the steering wheel. Now most steering wheels house an airbag and also have many other switches and buttons for the cruise control, entertainment and navigation system, Bluetooth to make or answer calls, LCD dashboard adjustments and so on. Many cars also come with steering mounted paddle shifters and current Ferrari steering's even have switches for engine start/stop, headlights, turn indicators, windscreen wipers, vehicle dynamic assistance, suspension settings, and of course the Manettino, which is a little red lever or dial that allows the driver to select various driving modes to suit the road conditions, or his preferred driving style.
The steering wheel of a present day Ferrari is like a central command and control post. Image source Ixography on Unsplash.
And we are not even talking of steering wheels of modern Formula One cars that have around 30 different buttons or levers to operate things like brake bias, engine mapping, torque transfer and differential settings, chassis setting, start launch and pit lane controls, energy recovery harvesting, DRS (Drag Reduction System), radio, fuel lid, etc.
Now a driver has multiple controls at his fingertips enabling him to use various functions without taking his eyes off the road, or moving his hands from the wheel. While this may be good for safety purposes, it's certainly reduced the simplicity and purity of purpose, of the steering wheel.
The simplicity and purity of purpose has been lost in modern day steering's. Image source Kenan Kukalj on Unsplash.
If I drive any car for a reasonable length of time, I tend to establish a relation with the steering wheel. How close or intimate that bond is, depends on several factors like the touch and feel, and overall comfort. Does it have warmth, is it the right size, how does it respond to my inputs, does it get slippery with sweat, are there any finger groves that give a better grip and of course - does touching and holding it make one feel good? When it all comes together, I wish The Beatles had sung- "I want to hold that wheel; I want to hold that wheel".
Modern day steering's may be masterpieces of technology, but I just don't connect as well with them as I do with the older ones. Earlier steering wheels were made of materials like Bakelite and then more advanced plastics and polymers, which gave manufacturers the flexibility to make beautiful steering wheels in various attractive colours. Amongst my preferred steering wheels are the ivory colour polyurethane ones.
Wow. Got to drive it with Elvis's 'blue suede shoes'. Image source Joe Mannarino on Unsplash.
Some of the old steering wheels are like art pieces, carefully crafted with the horn button or horn ring, being used as a piece of jewelry for adornment. I am particularly fond of steering's with 3 metal spokes that have holes and a wooden rim. The spokes give the wheel a sporty feel and the wood not only looks good, but adds genuine warmth. Remember mankind has a close relation with firewood, and ever since we were cavemen, we have used it to keep ourselves warm and for cooking our food.
3 spoke wheel with wooden rim, it cannot get better. Note the matching wooden gear knob. Image Source Zach Wiley on Unsplash.
Another factor that aids the connection with steering wheels in older cars is the fact that you have to keep moving the wheel and make corrections, even while driving in a straight line! This is because the steering boxes and steering systems of older cars are not so precise and to counter the play, you have to keep 'sawing the wheel'.
Audi flat bottom steering with a combination of perforated and regular leather. Image source Wassim Chouak on Unsplash.
Nowadays steering wheels are made from various materials with the cheapest ones being moulded in plastic. Some are covered with artificial leather or rexine, while the more expensive ones have real leather. The truly premium ones use a combination of real leather and high quality wood. In some the leather is perforated, and I actually prefer this as it's nicer to hold. Due to various safety regulations, steering wheels are quite thick rimmed now. Finger grooves are rare too, and only found on few SUVs with off-road capability.
Of all modern steering wheels, I am fond of the ones covered with Alcantara, especially if they have thumb rests. I like Alcantara as it feels nice and provides a better grip than leather and it does not get hot, even if left in the sun. And since it's also used in racing and rally cars, Alcantara provides a real sense of sportiness.
Audi steering with Alcantara and leather. Note the thumb rests at the quarter to three position. Christian Wiediger on Unsplash.
My all-time favourite steering wheel though, has to be a Momo 3 spoke leather one with proper finger grooves, which I purchased sometime in the late 1980's and fitted on my Maruti Gypsy. I enjoyed driving with this steering wheel so much, that when I sold the Gypsy (after using it for over a lakh of kms), I removed the Momo steering and put it in my next vehicle, also a Gypsy. In fact, for a long time this particular steering wheel went from car to car and had impressions and indentations created by my fingers!
It has to be my most personalized accessory ever, and given the fact that steering wheels can be removed and reattached so easily (as demonstrated in F1 cars), I wonder why no manufacturer or accessory maker has thought of creating a personalized steering wheel that you can remove and take from car to car, or even carry to your bedroom!
Classic and colourful 3 spoke wheel. Image source Scott Webb on Unsplash.
As you must have realized by now, I am a big fan of steering wheels and for some 35 years now, I have also been wearing a made to order pendant, which is a miniature replica of the Jaguar E-Type's 3 spoke steering wheel! Some years back when I had the good fortune to meet the late Sir Stirling Moss, one of the greatest racing drivers of all time, he noticed my steering wheel pendant and said, "Ah, you have a steering wheel around your neck. My wife also wears one that I gifted her".
Rally drivers put a band on top of the steering wheel to show them the center position, even when the car is sliding around or on opposite lock. Image source Zieben VH on Unsplash.
With the inevitable introduction of self-driving cars, I wonder if future generations will ever know the significance of steering wheels. In autonomous cars driven by artificial intelligence, all you may have to do is give a command or use an App, to reach your destination. While the death of the steering wheel looks unavoidable, I know that at least in my lifetime, I will joyfully continue to hold it in my hand and drive with one of my favourite rock stars Jim Morrision singing, "Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel."