These are the 13 coolest steering wheels of all time
GRR’s resident photographer Tom Shaxson came back from a photo shoot recently, enthusing about the early 1980s mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo.
Keen to know more, Tom asked me about these slightly barking homologation specials, aware of my own personal interest in the car, as I’ve owned one of these Alpine Dieppe-built Renaults (or rather the remains of a severely shunted example) for some years now.
My own Renault 5 Turbo is the more-prolific and less extreme Turbo 2 model, which differs from the purer (and considerably more sought after) first-generation Turbo in a number of ways, one of which is the Turbo 2’s mainstream interior, lifted straight from a regular, contemporary production Renault 5.
The interior of the original 5 Turbo was a totally bespoke affair, with unique high-back seats in lurid colours, matched by a ‘Lego-brick’ style dashboard and distinctive duo-tone steering wheel – both designed by Bertone’s legendary stylist, Marcello Gandini, the creator of the Lamborghini Miura and Countach.
The rare 5 Turbo photographed by Tom was even rarer, in that it retained its original Gandini steering wheel. Over the years many of these steering wheels were removed and fitted into all manner of other Renaults, from the R4 upwards, making the wheel extremely desirable today, with examples in good condition commanding values of up to £8,000, and really enhancing the desirability and value of the complete car!
In this age of the anonymous air-bag steering wheel, when they all look virtually the same, the Renault 5 Turbo’s uber-cool steering device set me thinking about some of the other great and distinctive steering wheel designs. Here’s a baker’s dozen of my personal favourites.
1. Citroën DS
As revolutionary as the car it steered at its launch in October 1955, the single-spoke steering wheel of the landmark Citroën DS had not been seen before. This iconic design became a distinct Citroën trademark for many years to follow, with variants fitted to most models, as diverse as the 2CV, Ami, GS, SM and CX. Citroën itself evolved the single-spoke wheel design to the extreme for its 1980 central-driver seat concept - the Karin - with Bertone also inspired to ape the design for its 1976 Alfa Romeo 33-based Navajo prototype. Sadly, due to the constraints of packaging airbags and control buttons into the steering wheel, modern Citroëns are no long able to retain their distinctive single-spoke design, although the first-generation C4 did at least have a funky fixed steering wheel centre, with the wheel rim turning around it!
2. Lancia Stratos
The purposeful, menacing stance of the 1970s Lancia Stratos is reflected in the car’s functional interior. Framing the model’s aluminium dash and Fiat 124 Coupe-sourced gauges is a chunky four-spoke, matt black leather-wrapped steering wheel, with six exposed flat screw heads, plus a small Lancia-badged horn push in the centre of the wheel. Simple, but effective.
3. Subaru XT
As distinctive and crazy as the car it was designed to steer, the Subaru XT’s unsymmetrical wheel is a unique example of style over substance. An inverted L-shape, the XT’s plastic wheel housed two buttons to control the cruise control, with a pronounced left thumb rest to encourage a comfortable ‘quarter-to-three’ driving position. Subaru reverted to normality for its SVX coupe successor to the XT, with a conventional (and dull) four-spoke airbag wheel.
4. Ferrari 250 GT Lusso
Ferrari’s legendary 250 GT Lusso, along with many of its late 1950s/early 1960s Italian GT peers, was fitted with a classic three-spoke thin wooden rim steering wheel, large enough in diameter to steer an ocean liner. The GT Lusso’s three-spoker was unusual in that the spokes were solid, and not drilled with round holes as is the case with most of its contemporaries (the 250 GTO, etc.), in the style of the appropriately-named and iconic Nardi Classico wheel.
5. Chrysler 300J
The hideous (in my view) Virgil Exner-styled 1963 Chrysler 300J dispels the myth that the infamous ‘quartic’ steering wheel of the Austin Allegro that followed a whole decade later was the pioneer of the semi-oval, flat-bottomed steering wheel. The Chrysler Group had been using squared-off oval wheels for some years by the time the 1963 300J appeared, with the 1960 Imperial being fitted with a particularly unpleasant version, followed by over-styled wheels of a similar shape in the 1961 Plymouth Belvedere and Fury.
When British Leyland re-visited the idea with the Allegro in 1973, it claimed that the quartic wheel shape enhanced driver knee space, making it easier to slide in and out of the driver’s seat. Fine, but only if the wheel was left in the straight-ahead position!
6. ItalDesign Maserati Boomerang
Granted, it’s a concept car, so Giugiario could afford to take risks and stretch the envelope with his 1972 ItalDesign Maserati Boomerang prototype. The Boomerang experimented with housing all of the Citroen SM-sourced dials and command switches in a circular binnacle, surrounded by a close-fitting four-spoke wheel that had to be steered by the palms of the driver, rather than clutching the wheel with the fingers in the conventional manner. ItalDesign’s rival Bertone took this ‘steering-by-palms’ approach a major leap forward in 1978 with its Sibilo concept car, with no space provided for the fingers and thumbs!
7. Lotus Elan
Early examples of Colin Chapman’s inspired 1960s Lotus Elans could be specified with the option of a Colin Chapman Design-branded thin-rimmed, wooden steering wheel, with three ‘bullet hole’ alloy spokes. This classic 1960s wheel perfectly matched the simple, less-is-more approach of the Elan and Chapman’s engineering philosophy. It’s like an early Jaguar E-Type’s flat, bullet hole wheel, but even more stylish.
8. Matra Murena
The roomy three-seater interior of the early-‘80s mid-engined Matra Murena predicted the style of the 1980s perfectly – awash with cheap-looking (and usually brown) shiny plastic trim. The Murena’s thick-rimmed plastic steering wheel, with cascading twin lower spokes and a semi-flat base, also pre-dated a raft of wheels later in the decade, often fitted to Japanese sporting machines such as the 1982-86 Toyota Supra and 1983 Datsun/Nissan 280 ZX.
9. Lancia Beta Trevi
The infamous ‘Swiss cheese’ dashboard of the short-lived third-series Lancia Beta Berlina, and its booted Trevi saloon variant, was complimented by an equally unusual steering wheel, with the straight horizontal strip replaced by an odd, curved plastic spoke that looked like it had melted in the warm Italian sunshine. Strange, but strangely pleasing too.
10. Alfa Romeo SZ
Alfa’s ‘so-ugly-it’s beautiful’ (ES30) SZ gets more than its fair share of regular mentions here in my Anorak column, as I’m a huge fan of the car. The SZ’s challengingly aggressive exterior styling in soothed by a classier and calmer interior than one might expect for a such a car, with its inviting beige leather contrasting nicely with the stark red inner door panels and part-carbon dash. The black leather-trimmed Zagato-designed three-spoke Momo steering wheel fulfills its role admirably, being both sporty, chunky and luxuriant. Nice work Zagato.
11. Bertone Lamborghini Athon
The ex-Turin design house Bertone had a fine track record of creating one-off prototypes with steering wheels as extraordinary as the concept cars there were attached to. The afore-mentioned Sibilo is a good case in point, as is its 1967 Lamborghini Mazell and production Espada, both with very funky and hip-1960s wheels. Bertone’s 1980 Lamborghini Athon has one of its most distinctive wheels, however, with a Citroën-esque single spoke leather-clad device jutting direct out of the matching dashboard, making it tricky to distinguish one from the other.
12. Alfa Romeo Montreal
The classic, deeply-dished wood rim 1960 and 70s Alfa Romeo wheel, as found in the 105-Series Giulia Berlina, Bertone coupes and Spider, plus the Montreal, still takes some beating. All that’s missing are the holed Italian leather driving gloves and the cool ‘70s shades…
13. SEAT Ronda
Based on the Fiat Ritmo/Strada, and briefly sold in the UK as the Malaga hatch (they sold about three!), the mid-1980s SEAT Ronda was an uninspiring and instantly forgettable C-segment hatchback with no real virtues, apart from its exceptional steering wheel. Thought to be designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the more luxurious versions of the Ronda (CLX, etc.) were blessed with a simple yet stylish single bar wheel, with a square centre hub and a round indented horn push. Most pleasing…
Words by Gary Axon