“Thick. They want a thicker wheel,” said David Yavel, a client adviser at Rallye BMW in Westbury on Long Island. “Not in terms of diameter or circumference, but in terms of a thick Nappa leather grip. And heated. A heated steering wheel is now a must for most customers.”
For an invention that a couple of decades ago seemed essentially straightforward, the modern steering wheel is really quite complicated. It has sprouted a vast array of buttons, levers for cruise control and headlamp flashing, paddle shifters, chopped-off bottoms, containers for airbags and, yes, heat coils.
It wasn’t always like this.
The patent motor car of Carl Benz was “steered” with a crank, or tiller-like mechanism, that pulled the wagon to the right or left. That was 1886. By 1894, the French engineer Alfred Vacheron had devised a more “futuristic” method of control: His Panhard, entered in the Paris-Rouen road race that year, was equipped with a steering wheel. Vacheron finished 11th; the wheel was a sensation.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Vacheron invention had become ubiquitous in the motoring universe. A bulb horn was installed on the rim — back then, it was needed to warn oncoming horses as well as pedestrians and cyclists. But the evolution was just beginning.
Later on, the steering column was afforded a tilt, easing entry and exit, and a turn-signal lever was added to the horn ring. In the 1950s, the column-mounted gearshift lever — affectionately known as the “three on the tree” — took center stage behind the steering wheel, where it lived until migrating to the floor after bucket seats became popular a couple of decades later.
Much more was coming. Automotive historians regard the modern airbag from Mercedes in the 1981 S-Class as the first to adopt a restraint system rather that act as just a seatbelt replacement. In today’s cars, “we have worked very hard to optimize the airbag,” Mr. Fiege said. “We have made it a very small, round package. I think there will be further development there.”
Luddites who may regret the loss of Vacheron’s simple vision — a ring — have no choices today, where the steering wheel in a modern vehicle must comply with federal safety standards to be street legal. But on the racetrack or in a concours, that’s another story.