Believe it or not, cars did not always steer via a circular directional control, A.K.A. the steering wheel. Hard to imagine, as the steering wheel is the philosophical autonomy of a car. No steering means no control of your destiny.
There were, however, other means to grant the driver freedom of will.
As we near a future where the steering wheel may go the way of the dodo, made obsolete by artificial intelligence, it’s important we look back at how we arrived at this simple solution and all the ways we complicated it over the years.
Before The Steering Wheel
When the first cars hit the road, then were abstractions of the horse carriage. The horses of said carriages, the driver guided with reigns, pulling left to turn left and right to go right.
Adopting a similar system to the first cars only made sense. Early engineers wanted to direct the carriage much the same way. The closest steering system to this at the time was the tiller, used in some boats.
In a boat, the tiller would direct the angle of the rudder behind the boat. A car tiller would redirect the angle of the front wheel.
Empowered with the accelerator and the brakes, a good tiller was all one needed to have complete control of the car, unless he (because women didn’t drive in the beginning) lost his grip.
The First Steering Wheels
If one searches the endless pages of online information, the first accounts of a steerings wheel in use go to one name over and over: Alfred Vacheron.
Others would independently develop the same system, but Vacheron beat them in annals time. He was the man who first used a wheel for steering his car in the 1894 Paris-Rouen race.
Although it took a few years, by the early teens most cars had steering wheels. Unlike the wheel in your car, which is not as mechanical as you may imagine, the first wheels were manual.
The first drivers would not know the pain of trying to turn a manual wheel against today’s steel-belted tires as they drove on something closer to bicycle wheels.
The grip of the road would give them a workout, but nothing like when your power steering fails.
Upgrades To Steering
For the first couple of decades, a driver’s options for steering were axle-direct or axle-direct. In other words, there were no alternatives.
Then, in the 1920s, an engineer named Francis W. Davis invented power steering for his truck. We already had power steering in boats, so logic followed that land vehicles should have it too.
The irony is that trucks would be the first place where we applied power to this feature, but logic is that turning the wheel of a truck would mandate some sort of solution first.
His invention would have hit late 20s Cadillac’s but the Great Depression backlogged the idea until the 1940s, and World War II. The military wanted easy-to-drive vehicles so they got ‘em.
Chevy was the first civilian manufacturer to offer power steering.
Other features like tilt steering, steering column cruise control features, showed up in the 1960s.
Today’s cars steering wheels have become captain seat control centers, where on can control climate, the audio features, take calls, and more. If automakers have their way, in 5-10 years this blog will be about a retired technology, a relic of history in and of itself.