I was recently admiring a display of the new 2011 Lotus Renault GP R31 Formula 1 Car and I looked at its complicated steering wheel. You have all of the controls on the wheel center – brake bias, power system controls, sensors and what-nots all on the wheel. It is an impressive piece of kit, and one that costs tens of thousands of pounds just for something that you need to steer a car. This little bit of equipment has got me thinking about the steering wheel we use in our cars and how they actually look. Of course they are round unless you ignore those quartic wheels from the Austin Allegro or the flat bottom ones found in some performance cars and they also come in various sizes and looks. Over the years I have sat in a plethora of car interiors and have held on to a whole lot of steering wheels. Some nice to grip, some nice to look at and some, downright nasty. It will take nearly the length of a Stephen King novel if we were to discuss this in full, but I would like to show off a few good examples on the styling of steering wheels that some of our cars have had throughout the years. Most production car steering wheels nowadays are limited by the fact that they require airbags fitted on them. So most of them look nearly alike with that large center occupied by the airbag. It has obviously made steering wheels a whole lot duller to look at compared to back in the day. If you take the photo above of the 1954 MG TF, the 1970s Triumph Stag and the 1970s Jaguar E-type Series III above you'd see that steering wheels from those days were beautiful, light and dainty items. With bits of chrome and metal showing, the use of leather and bakelite far outshines most modern airbag equipped wheels. In fact, we also note that mass produced cars from the 1970s like the Lancia Beta above had stylized steering wheels. That two spoke steering wheel complimented the dashboard well and must have made its driver feel pretty good driving the car (even though it was rusting all around him at the time). It made the driver feel like driving something futuristic and modern in the gold medalion wearing 1970s. But it still cannot beat the retro-futuristic look of a Citroen DS' interior and fabulous looking single spoke steering wheel as pictured right above. But these days, things look pretty similar when it comes to steering wheels. Take a look at the Peugeot 308VTI's steering wheel and compare it to the Proton Inspira's (a rebadged Mitsubishi Lancer 2.0GLS) wheel and the only difference are the audio controls and some flappy pedals situated right between them. The steering wheel shape remains similar. If you swap badges it wouldn't matter a great deal to the driver. Of course there are exceptions. The Mini Cooper S looks cool, and so does the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 7 pictured right above. These cars show that some affordable performance cars have steering wheels that are indeed different looking. The Mitsubishi Evolution 7 Momo steering looks pretty exotic in that it has brushed alloy spokes instead of covering that part up in plastic like most cars do. If you go higher up the price range, those from the Ferrari 458 Italia looks fabulous too, with its F1 aping controls, but it too is limited by the need for a fat airbag in the middle. Which is why it can never be as flamboyant or as pure as one from a Pagani Zonda R. With no airbag to worry about, you get a carbon fiber, rev counter equipped work of art – one that will never see the light of day in certain stricter airbag requiring markets. It is absolutely gorgeous, and it reminds me of the a time when style came before function.
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