The steering wheel is a practical part of a car that has not changed much over the history of motoring, even though the designs of cars have progressed. There has been some evolution of the steering wheel, which has led to several different designs and mechanisms to steer the car.
Car steering wheel designs and mechanisms have remained similar for much of the history of the car. Some basic changes in shape, design, adjustability and safety features have resulted in 11 main types of steering wheels. The changes were mostly driven by changing safety standards in the industry.
Despite other steering mechanisms such as joysticks and handlebars, the steering wheel has remained the most effective way to steer a car. Some innovations in steering wheels have resulted in the development of several different steering wheel types.
Types Of Car Steering Wheels
Car designers have a field day designing a car’s exterior bodywork and internal comforts, but the functional aspects of a steering wheel have left little room for innovative design and creativity for the humble steering wheel.
This design drawback has not prevented some automotive manufacturers from putting their spin on steering wheel design without changing how steering wheels work.
Some manufacturers have tried replacing the steering wheel with different designs, as in the Honda EV-STER of 2012, which had levers instead of a steering wheel. However, this design has not caught on, and non-wheel steering types remain in the realm of concept cars that are built from time to time rather than for mainstream motoring.
We have compiled a comprehensive list of the different steering wheel types commonly used in cars and their main feature differences.
1. Single-Spoke Steering Wheels
The crossbars connecting the steering wheel’s outer rim to the steering column are called spokes. One of the more unusual steering wheel designs is a single spoke connecting the steering wheel to the central steering column.
The single-spoke steering wheel design is a rare configuration not often seen in the motoring world. It was originally developed by the French car manufacturer Citroen and included in the Citroen DS release in 1974.
This design was developed as a safety feature that allowed the steering wheel to collapse in a certain way to direct the driver to one side of the steering column to limit chest injuries in the event of a collision.
2. Dual-Spoke Steering Wheels
Dual-spoke steering wheels have two spokes connecting the outer rim of the steering wheel to the steering column. The spokes can be directly opposite each other forming a straight line across the steering wheel or angled to each other for a more stylish look.
Many dual-spoke steering wheels incorporated a horn ring of chromed metal that was depressed to activate the car’s horn.
An example of a dual-spoke steering wheel with a horn ring was the steering wheel fitted to the Plymouth savoy of 1958
Many modern cars use the dual-spoke design and include electronic controls on the spokes, keeping them close to the driver’s hands.
3. Three-Spoke Steering Wheels
Three-spoke steering wheels have 3 spokes connecting the outer rim of the steering wheel to the steering column. This was seen as a more sporty look in car steering wheel design and was often the design choice for the flashier sports models in a car manufacturer’s range.
The spokes in early models of this type were slender and made from metal. Modern versions are wider to accommodate electronic controls on the spokes. This design is a safety feature to allow the driver to adjust to the car’s internal electronic devices without taking their hands off the wheel.
4. Banjo Steering Wheels
Banjo steering wheels could be dual or three-spoke steering wheels, but the spokes were constructed differently.
The spokes in banjo steering wheels were made from thick steel wires, which looked almost like bicycle spokes. There can be 3, 4, or 5 of these wire strands in each steering wheel spoke. The strands of wires made the spokes look like strings on a banjo, from which the name of this design is derived.
The wire spoke design was created to reduce the amount of road vibration transferred from the road surface to the driver’s hands. The wires had a dampening effect on the road vibrations.
5. Telescoping Steering Wheel
The telescoping steering wheel was developed to give the driver a certain level of adjustment of the steering wheel’s height and distance away from the body.
These designs before World War II were only adjustable by a mechanic and set for the car’s main driver. Jaguar pioneered the first driver adjustable telescoping steering wheel on the 1949 Jaguar XK120.
The steering wheel could be adjusted from inside the car by loosening and tightening an adjustable sleeve around the steering column.
The telescoping adjustment allowed the steering wheel to be moved by a distance of 3 inches or 76mm further or closer to the driver. As the steering wheel was pushed away from the driver, the steering wheel became lower at the same time, and the reverse when the steering wheel was pulled out.
This adjustment feature, although not dramatic, gave shorter and taller drivers the option to adjust the steering wheel to some degree for a more comfortable and safer driving position.
6. Tilt Steering Wheel
Tilt steering wheels have been available on cars since the early 1900s. Many cars were manufactured with several fixed tilt positions for the steering wheel, such as most General Motors passenger vehicles produced in 1963 that featured 7 tilt-position adjustments.
The tilt mechanism works on a ratchet system which the driver can release to tilt the steering wheel to a more comfortable position.
The steering wheel can tilt in an arc, either up or down, from the centered position. This motion does not change the distance from the driver, as with the telescoping steering wheel.
The tilt steering wheel was introduced as an optional extra feature in the luxury vehicle lines for most manufacturers. The popularity of the feature and the increased safety factor prompted manufacturers to include the feature in their non-luxury vehicle ranges.
7. Steering Wheel With Adjustable Steering Column
In the other adjustable steering wheel types, the steering column remains in a fixed position while the steering wheel adjusts in relation to the steering column.
In this type of adjustable steering wheel, the steering column itself is movable to make small adjustments to the steering wheel position.
The range of movement with this type of adjustment is not as large as with the other types, and compression locks and later electric motors were used to make the adjustment.
The use of electric motors gave the advantage of allowing the steering wheel to be adjusted electronically with a “memory” for the favored position for different drivers of the car. This feature allows the favored position to be programmed to a button, whereby the steering wheel can be adjusted to the programmed position at the press of a single button.
This mechanism also allows the steering wheel to be raised out of the way when the car is parked, promoting easy entry and exit for the driver.
8. Swing-Away Steering Wheel
The swing-away steering wheel was another design for convenience rather than improving the driving position for the driver.
The design was first seen on the Ford Thunderbird manufactured in 1961. The steering wheel and steering column could be moved a full 9 inches or 229mm to the right when the transmission was in park mode.
The design intended to promote easy entry and exit of the vehicle rather than a more comfortable driving position.
9. Quick-Release Steering Wheel
The quick-release steering wheel was another popular design that allowed the steering wheel to be detached from the steering column with the push of a button.
Initially, the design was marketed as an anti-theft device, allowing the steering wheel to be removed and stowed in the car’s trunk, discouraging would-be thieves from attempting to steal the car.
The motor racing community adopted the quick-release steering wheel to allow easy entry and exit from racing cars with limited cockpit space or for racing drivers wearing bulky safety gear.
The easy removal of the steering wheel allowed emergency personnel to quickly and easily remove the steering wheel to extricate the driver after an accident. The quick release avoided delays on the track after an accident trying to wrestle an injured driver past the steering wheel.
This steering wheel style is no longer considered street legal, especially with the development of a steering wheel airbag to protect the driver in a major collision.
10. F1 Steering Wheels
In the early days of motor racing, steering wheels were large and circular, providing better turning power for the drivers as they wrestled the car around the track.
Power steering and smaller spaces for the driver in F1 cars required a re-design of the steering wheel for these race cars.
Formula 1 or F1 cars have specially designed steering wheels with a quick-release design and other features. These steering wheels are not completely round, with the top third and bottom third of the circular outer rim removed.
This cut-down steering wheel leaves the left and right sides of the steering wheel only for the drivers to grip and turn to steer the vehicle. The steering wheel is packed with sensors and readouts to give the driver up-to-date information on the car’s performance.
The steering wheel in the F1 cars usually has to be removed for the driver to enter or exit the narrow cockpit of these race cars.
11. Custom Steering Wheels
At the height of the muscle car and street racing era, many cars were fitted with custom-designed steering wheels. A classic custom steering wheel design for these cars was a chain with the links welded together into the circle and the steel chromed to a mirror finish.
These types of custom steering wheels have been all but outlawed in most locations in favor of steering wheels designed according to minimum safety requirements for the automotive industry.
The function of steering wheels does not allow much room for innovation in design. However, some car manufacturers have made innovations in this car component and remained within the bounds of safety and functionality.
Most steering wheels in modern cars are more of an integrated control center rather than a simple steering device for the car.