Steering through space and timeApr 19th, 2020
A car’s steering wheel is far more than a functional tool; it’s a window into the philosophy of its maker.
In the grand scheme of a car, its steering wheel seems like a fall, fairly inconsequential piece compared to big things like the engine, gearbox, brakes, aerodynamics or styling. A simple hoop with a handful of spokes, more recently with an airbag in the middle for your safety, the steering wheel serves a utilitarian purpose, and it doesn’t add horsepower or performance.
Yet, in some ways, the steering wheel is everything. Yes, it serves a basic purpose, but that purpose is actually pointing the car in the right direction – aside from stopping and going, about the most important thing you can do. As one of just a handful of actual touchpoints with the car (the seat, pedals, and shifter being the others), the way a steering wheel feels in your hands in large part dictates how the car feels when you drive it, its responsiveness to your touch, and ultimately the car’s emotional appeal.
Throughout automotive history, there have been good steering wheels, there have been bad steering wheels, and there have been plenty of interesting ones. We thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the most unique steering wheels we’ve sold or offered at Pfaff Reserve – and what those steering wheels tell us about the cars they’re connected to.
Ferrari, past and present
If you want to track how a company’s philosophy has changed over the decades, you need only look at its steering wheels. Take vintage Ferraris, for instance, like the beautiful brown 246 Dino. Elegant and simple to look at, with purist mechanicals and a lightness of touch throughout the design, everything you need to know about the Dino is summed up in its thin, wood-rimmed, three-spoke wheel. Contrast that with the helm of a modern Ferrari, such as a 488, upon which seemingly every control – from engine start button to drive mode selector to wiper-washer switch to turn signals and more – has been packed into its centre. Higher-end models even have a row of shift lights integrated into the rim, a visual representation of how much technology – electronic differentials, dual-clutch transmissions, the world’s most sophisticated traction and stability control systems – has been packed into bodies sculpted purely by aerodynamic principle.
The three points of Porsche
In the transition from air-cooled to water-cooled, Porsche began a transition from four-spoke steering wheels (common on G-body cars, 964s, some 993s, and a handful of 996s, the latter with big airbag housings) back to three-spoke designs reminiscent of the Momo Prototipos that graced so many of the brand’s legendary early 911 race cars and sports/racing prototypes. While modern Porsche steering wheels have evolved over time – the airbag housing has continued to shrink, the spokes have moved from plastic to leather to open metallic surfaces, switches and controls have been added on more mainstream models – they’re unified by rims of perfect diameter and thickness, and their connection to the world’s best mainstream modern steering. The best modern Porsche steering wheel has to be the slightly smaller wheel from the most recent GT cars – its metallic spokes blacked out but still solid, a subtle 12-o’clock marker stitched into the rim, short-throw shift paddles, and no extraneous infotainment controls.
BMW’s extroverted M wheels
If Porsche’s steering wheels are all about subtlety, BMW’s M wheels, particularly the most modern ones, are pretty in-your-face – well, as much as a steering wheel can be. If you have small, or even average-sized hands, modern M steering wheels feel aggressively thick and chunky, their rims puffed up to almost exaggerated proportions, decorated with three colours of stitching, a reminder that you bought a real M car and not one of the halfway-house models that have the little M badge on the side. Modern M wheels are also festooned with controls for technology features from infotainment to driver-assist systems and more. The niftiest features of new M wheels, though, are the “M” memory buttons, which let you save your favourite throttle response, shift speed, stability-control, and steering settings, allowing you to call up max-attack with just one button-push.
What makes McLaren different
Like the most focused Porsche wheels, McLaren’s steering wheels are delightfully free of distractions and buttons – the most exotic McLaren of modern times, the P1, had two, while all other McLarens have none at all. But it’s the shaping of their rims and the way the paddles work that make McLaren wheels unique. The side spokes are positioned low, allowing your thumbs to hook in at nine and three exactly, with perfect cutouts, and stitching that wraps around where you hold. And the upshift and downshift paddles are actually a single unit, connected behind the airbag housing so that they hinge on a common axis, giving you amazing flexibility in how you use them. To upshift, pull on the right-hand paddle like you conventionally would, or push forward on the left-hand one, if you’re turned into a corner already. It’s brilliant.
Mercedes-AMG and the technology of touch
Given their constant push to lead the industry in technology – and, it seems, screen real estate – is it any surprise that Mercedes-Benz has already begun to include touch controls and even digital displays on the steering wheels of its higher-end models? Instead of wheels and buttons on a modern G-wagen or E63 AMG, you get a couple of glossy touch-sensitive pads that let you effortlessly swipe through the options on the two giant dashboard screens. And the latest AMG models, such as the four-door GT 63, even have drive-mode controllers with screens in the middle that update themselves instantly when you twist their surrounding knobs.
When a steering wheel is a work of art
Sometimes, you do something “just because.” And Horacio Pagani’s creations, from the shape of their side-view mirrors (inspired by his wife’s eyes, you know), to their extravagant carbon bodywork, to their exquisite interiors, are all about “just because.” So are his steering wheels, which are as much works of art that you could put on display in a museum as functional devices for directing an automobile. The Huyara tiller is decorated with knobs and switches made by artisans that normally produce pieces for high-end Swiss watches (they’re priced like it too), with glowing, crystalline turn-signal buttons in the spokes. Choose a track-only model like a Zonda R and the instrument panel, which normally sits behind the steering wheel, moves to the middle of the wheel itself, in digital form, surrounded by perfect switches, marked not with paint or ink but beautiful engraving.