Until a truly self-driving vehicle finally appears, cars will continue to need steering wheels. But just because cars need steering wheels doesn’t mean they all need the same one. That’s part of the reason why aftermarket wheels are available in the first place. And yet, for all the variety in wheel design, only a handful of modern cars, like the Genesis GV80, have 2-spoke ones. Why is that?
Car steering wheel design hasn’t remained static
Interestingly, the first cars didn’t use steering wheels, Car and Driver reports. It wasn’t until 1894 that the wheel replaced the steering tiller. But as it was the superior control method, it quickly became the standard. And as with many other aspects of car design and technology, steering wheels have evolved over the decades.
Among other things, they’ve gotten smaller. That’s because, in the days before power-assisted steering, you needed a big wheel for leverage, Wheels.ca and Car and Driver explain. It’s the same reason why wrenches with longer handles unscrew things easier than short-handled ones: torque. If you need more lb-ft to do something, and can’t increase the pounds of force, increase your distance.
Steering wheels have also moved away from being perfectly circular, WardsAuto reports. A slightly oval shape conforms to the human grip better. Plus, a squared-off wheel like the one in the C8 Corvette makes entries and exits easier, Autoweek reports.
But even more importantly, steering wheels don’t just steer the car anymore. Modern wheels have various switches and knobs to control the infotainment, voice commands, and even the suspension, Hagerty reports. Some even have touch-sensitive controls, Car and Driver reports. The modern Ferrari steering wheel is a good example. And let’s not forget the extra safety equipment.
Today, the steering wheel is attached to a collapsible steering column, Car and Driver explains. And instead of a piece of solid metal—or in some cases, a clock, Hagerty reports—you have a built-in airbag.
However, for all these changes, the vast majority of modern car steering wheels have three spokes, DriveTribe and Autoweek report. But not every automaker conforms or has conformed to that number.
Does the number of spokes on a steering wheel mean anything?
Having at least one spoke is a necessity for a steering wheel. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have any way to connect with the steering column. And having more spokes makes the wheel stronger and more rigid overall, ViaRetro explains. But why did three spokes become the norm?
The spokes on the wheel don’t just add strength and connect it to the hub, Hooniverse explains. They also serve as a reference point for the driver about where to put their hands. That’s why 3-spoke wheels are arranged the way they are. The two ‘horizontal’ spokes point to the best places to put your hands: 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock. And it provides an unobstructed view of the gauges when you’re going straight ahead.
That’s why the steering wheels on older cars with bulky airbags look the way they do, Road & Track and DriveTribe explain. The designers had to package the airbag but leave the gauges clear. As a result, steering wheels from that period have four spokes arranged horizontally and downwards.
So, where do 2-spoke wheels come in? They still communicate the proper hand position, but with a ‘cleaner’ look. One that, admittedly, not every buyer appreciates. And in the past, extra spokes had a significant impact on wheel rigidity due to contemporary technology. So, a 3-spoke wheel likely conveyed sportiness, while a 2-spoke wheel implied relaxed luxury. But today, it’s mostly a stylistic affectation.
However, as stated above, the wheel technically only needs ‘at least’ one spoke. This is where Citroen comes in.
Citroen’s single spoke
Having a single spoke has some downsides. For one, the rim has to be heavier to maintain rigidity. And it’s more difficult to tell where exactly to put your hands. However, it has some benefits, too.
Instead of solidly embedding itself in your chest, the rim bends—a big deal in the days before wheel-mounted airbags, Citroen Vie explains. And in the DS, it’s a wider extension of the steering column, further dispersing impact force. Plus, a single-spoke wheel makes for excellent gauge visibility, not to mention the visual aspect.
Changing safety regulations and the ongoing rigidity issue meant Citroen eventually abandoned the single-spoke design. But it influenced a few automakers into giving it a try, including Aston Martin. And it shows that, even if you’re not consciously aware of it, your steering wheel spokes play into your car’s style.
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