Some of the earliest automobiles had tiller type steering like a wagon, but that didn’t last very long. Automakers switched to a steering wheel early on in automotive history and have pretty much used them ever since (except for a Mercury dream car or two).
A steering wheel just seems to go best with the four other circles that cars ride on and has become an iconic symbol of cars and trucks made throughout the world.
I started thinking about this while I was listing a 1941-1947 Buick steering wheel on eBay the other day. What a beautiful piece of workmanship this wheel is with its just perfect ivory plastic rim and its shiny chrome “banjo string” style spokes. The wheel came in a collection of parts I purchased last summer and I can’t even tell you if it’s a New Old Stock part or just a very well-preserved take-off. It’s that nice, condition-wise, and it is truly a beautiful piece of industrial art.
That’s not to say that there aren’t beautiful modern steering wheels. For the most part, the wheels of today are smaller and fatter, partly because they have to house things like redundant radio controls, Blue Tooth system controls and air bags. Still, you can find real beauties out there wrapped in soft leather with gorgeous stitching up the seams. Some look pretty in stark gray or tan colors. Others come all dressed up with badges and pieces of chrome.
If you attend a trade show like SEMA (www.SEMAshow.com) or Hot Rod & Restoration (www.hotrodshow.com) you’ll see custom aftermarket steering wheels hanging on poles and looking like pieces of jewelry. They come in all colors and design variations and, in some cases, you can pick a rim from column A and a hub from column B (like ordering Chinese food) and create your own personalized steering wheel design. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
Maybe the real attraction of the steering wheel is that it's never-ending, like our passion for automobiles. Start at one point on a steering wheel rim and keep turning it through your hands and you can just keep doing that forever.
And that’s just the way we feel about cars. Once you fall in love with them, it goes on forever.