- Photo by El Carito on Unsplash

What’s in a steering wheel?

Y​ou'll want to keep both hands on it.

30w ago
27.5K

Round, hugely important for deciding which way you want to go, and a fairly important part of an automobile - the steering wheel is surprisingly not as spoken about in circles as you’d think.

They come in different colours, various fancy materials, and in modern times, contain an airbag for your face, as well as convenient controls for various functions. But just how does it affect how a car feels?

The very early automobiles in history were actually steered using a tiller - a large lever that you point in a given direction, much like on a boat. Wheels were introduced near the end of the 19th century and were pretty large in diameter and very thin.

Gradually, they began to incorporate a horn, and later into the 20th century, started to have various controls for the functions on the car. Today, they’re usually festooned with leather, and a plethora of buttons including volume for your radio, cruise control, and if you're in a Ferrari, controls for the entire bloody car, pretty much!

F​rench manufacturers began to experiment, like this Citroen and its exquisite dash and a single spoke wheel

F​rench manufacturers began to experiment, like this Citroen and its exquisite dash and a single spoke wheel

I hadn’t bothered much myself being a Honda man. I drive an old Civic and an Accord, both which have relatively simple wheels and neither has even an airbag. Keeping up with “JDM” tradition, my Civic boasted a 350mm Personal Neo Grinta wheel, in black leather and red stitching of course, so I can feel like Ayrton Senna every time I go for a drive.

And it works too, with the exception of 700 less horsepower. But we can gloss over that.

Recently however, being sat and home and bored, I decided to slap on my old Momo wheel. The wheel has the same 350mm diameter, but feels considerably smaller overall thanks to its much thinner diameter, and also has (very worn) suede stitching.

I was pleasantly surprised how a wheel can entirely change the way a car feels. While the Personal wheel - thick spokes and fresh leather - can feel very smooth gives everything a modern touch - the Momo wheel almost whispers for you to go faster. The suede finish, designed to provide more grip with the use of gloves, gives you much greater feedback on the road, almost as if you were running your palm across the surface of the tarmac. The car suddenly wants be thrown into the bends and wrestled around corners, compared to the Personal which seems to suggest you take it easy, like escorting your mother-in-law to afternoon tea.

Even Formula 1 drivers are particularly picky - the wheel designs are integral to how a driver feels and every last detail is customised to the drivers preference. From the diameter of the handles, to the placement of every last button, dial, and switch. When you’re driving at speeds of up to 320kmh, you need to know where everything is like the back of your hand.

In more modern settings - wheels with aluminium accents, smaller sizes, perhaps a flat bottom, LED shift lights, buttons next to your thumb - all of these ask different things of the driver. So it makes you wonder: why aren’t customisation options more common place?

S​imple, no-nonsense and looks the part in this Skyline R32.

S​imple, no-nonsense and looks the part in this Skyline R32.

Why cant I have a bright red wheel that I can remove? What if I want a digital speed read-out in the middle, or a button for the nitrous?

Granted, not everyone will be like me, changing wheels like changing the decor in your living room. But try it - next time you’re test driving a car, or indeed any new car for that matter - pay attention to the wheel. Think deeply about how it feels in your hands, and what it wants you to do.

So if you wonder why there’s such a large collection of wheels on the aftermarket and why some people take them so seriously - remember, it's the little details that matter.

M​odern wheels like in this Audi R8 incorporate various knobs and switchgear, and a bright red go-fast start button too.

M​odern wheels like in this Audi R8 incorporate various knobs and switchgear, and a bright red go-fast start button too.

W​hat's the best wheel you've ever laid your hands on?

Join In

Comments (23)

  • My uncle had a TVR Griffin for a while. Never got to drive it as I was way too young! However the steering wheel really made it feel like a racing car. Its definitely something that stuck with me.

    Honorary mention is the Austin Allegro which was hounded at the time for its "Quartic" steering wheel. The idea being it allowed more leg room and have a clearer view of the instruments. Now a whole bunch of manufacturers are doing this and no one bats an eye....

      6 months ago
    • Haha, I definitely had the Allegro in mind when writing this! Though the square-ish wheel didn’t quite warrant a mention I think.

        6 months ago
  • SWEET!!!! The first wheel is mine, except it's red!!!! Yeah totally agree a steering wheel really changes how a car feels and drives since it IS your interface.

      6 months ago
  • The thing I don’t like with modern steering wheels is that some (I’m thinking of you BMW) are getting ridiculously thick rims on them that are not comfortable to hold unless you have massive hands. And whilst flat bottomed wheels look cool, they don’t work as well as round ones.

      6 months ago
    • Which further supports the idea that wheel customisation should be an option at purchase!

        6 months ago
  • Why didn’t this article feature pictures of 20-30 wheels grouped by type and features?

      6 months ago
    • I reckon such an article would probably interest the likes of James May...

        6 months ago
    • Then I hit it on the nose and am in great company

        6 months ago
  • I have the same idea about them so I've bought a customised wheel for my Focus ST the other day. It now has a flat bottom, perforated and formed thumb areas, a red center stripe and overal a thicker grip. It really transforms the driving experience and it looks way better than original. Car manufacturers should give us the option to choose between wheels I think.

      6 months ago
23