Design

Tiller to command center: Mercedes-Benz has spent 120 years perfecting steering wheels

The steering wheel has come a long way, and Mercedes-Benz has been on the cutting edge of steering wheel technology for more than a century.

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

What makes a steering wheel perfect? It needs to be the right size, feel good in your hands, and connect with the vehicle delivering a level of responsiveness that makes the drive to be exactly what you want and expect. Some say the best steering wheels also have controls for the stereo system, crash avoidance features, and cruise control. Others would say that the best steering wheels have none of those controls - that a horn is all it needs.

Mercedes-Benz has been on the cutting edge of steering wheel technology for over a century, starting in the 1800s and through to this month's reveal of the next-generation E-Class, which features capacitive functionality for the first time.

Early years

Benz Patent-Motorwagen, 1886

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz has spent 120 years working to improve the steering wheel. But, the first Mercedes vehicle didn't have one. The year was 1886 and Carl Benz's first patent motor car, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen (shown above), like that designed by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1889, did not have a wheel or steering crank. Back then, drivers were used to pulling on horse reins and operating carriages accordingly.

The first steering wheel

Erste Automobilwettfahrt, Paris-Rouen, 1894

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

While Benz, Daimler, and Maybach were some of the first motor vehicle engineers out of the gate, it's Alfred Vacheron that is considered the inventor of the steering wheel. The story goes that during the world's first automobile race (pictured above) – from Paris to Rouen, France in July 1894 – Vacheron installed a a wheel instead of the traditional steering lever in his Panhard & Levassor (powered by a Daimler engine, natch), which allowed him to have better control resulting in Vacheron's ability to safely go faster. He ended up placing 11th but the wheel trend had begun.

The Mercedes Simplex

MULI 0208, Mercedes Simplex

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Automobile racing was again at the forefront of innovation in 1900 when Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft equipped its Phoenix racing car with a steering wheel. In this instance, the steering column was tilted (it had been stiffly upright in the Vacheron car), which proved a worthy innovation.

Further, steering evolved in 1902 when the Mercedes Simplex (pictured above) had levers added to its heel that regulated engine ignition timing and the air/fuel mixture.

The 1920s through 1940s

Mercedes-Benz Typ 680 Modell S, 26/120/180 PS, 1927

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

While engine design grew in sophistication and was refined, so too was the functionality of the steering wheel. As automobiles became more popular they not only had to contend with horses, carriages, buggies, and wagons but also with pedestrians, bicyclists, and other autos. Cars needed a communication device. Enter: the horn.

The horn started as a bulb horn mounted on the steering wheel rim which quickly evolved into a klaxon horn button on the steering wheel hub. By the 1920s, a horn ring on the steering wheel spokes had become standard equipment.

In 1949, the horn ring earned double duty serving as a turn signal as well. To indicated whether the vehicle was turning left or right, the ring simple needed to be turned left or right. Then, an approximately 20-centimeter-long indicator arm swung sideways out of the body, and indicated the direction of travel

Soon, these indicators would be replaced by orange-yellow flashing lights though they still remained activated by the ring.

The 1950s

Mercedes-Benz 220 S \u201cPonton\u201d saloon of the model series W 180/W 128, 1954 to 1959), interior with dashboard

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

By the time the 1950s arrived, car designers had made the steering wheel a central interface between the driver and the car. More equipment was added including a gearshift on the steering column in 1951 in order to make the cabin more comfortable for the driver and passenger. By removing the shifter from the floor, the car's front bench seat could accommodate three people instead of the traditional two. This was first shown in the 300 "Adenauer-Mercedes" (W 186) and in the 220 (W 187) (shown above).

In 1955, Mercedes added a lever for headlamps. Power steering was introduced in 1958.

The 1960s

Mercedes-Benz Typ 220 Sb, Baureihe W 111

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

While the 50s was all about function, the 1960s steering wheel was all about safety. The "Fintail" (W 111) (shown above) was the world's first vehicle to feature an integrated safety concept consisting of a stable passenger cell, crumple zones, a new safety steering wheel with a large, deformable baffle plate which reduced the risk of injury in the event of a collision, and a split steering column which was offset to the rear.

This innovation made is possible to avoid what was colloquially known as the "lance effect" during a crash, wherein the steering column and wheel would compress in the driver when the auto was crash head-on.

To further increase safety, Mercedes-Benz introduced a patented safety steering system with a telescopic steering column and impact absorber, which became standard on their entire passenger car range in 1967.

Indicator and headlight flasher functionality remained on the wheel. In 1963, the lever was extended to include the windshield wipers and windshield washer system functions. The windshield wiper was previously activated with a pull switch on top of the instrument panel.

The 1970s and 1980s

Mercedes-Benz type 350 SL of the 107 series (1971 \u2013 1989).

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Innovation continued at a rapid rate. The introduction of the 350 SL Roadster (shown above) in 1971 improved safety with a wide padded plate in the center of the steering wheel that was designed to absorb impact in the event of a crash.

The spokes served as supports for the rim. In the event of a crash, force was transferred to them in such a way as to ensure that the wheel would not break.

Buttons for the horn were moved to the center of the steering wheel while wiper, washer, headlamp, and indicator functionality remained.

In December 1975, the Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9 became one fo the first automobiles in the world to be equipped with a standard cruise control system. The world's first proximity cruise control system would be launched in the 1998 S-Class (220 series).

The first airbag was added to the steering wheel in 1981 in the S-Class (126 series), but the airbag's size was a recurring issue designers had to deal with. Eventually, the airbag would be able to be compacted more, allowing for more design freedom while delivering the same and better levels of safety. By 1992, a driver airbag was standard on all Mercedes models. Two years later a passenger airbag became standard equipment.

1998: The first multifunction steering wheel

Mercedes Benz S Class 220 model series (1998 to 2005)

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz steering wheels took a big leap forward in 1998 with the introduction of the multifunction steering wheel in the S-Class 220 (shown above). The driver was, for the first time, able to access their radio, car phone, and a driver's information display with eight menus from the steering wheel in addition to its traditional functionalities.

2005: The gearshift returns to the steering wheel

Mercedes-Benz S-Class 221 series Steering wheel and instrument cluster form the primary area of the newly developed operating concept of the S-Class.

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

New M- and S-Class designs debuted in 2005 (S-Class 221 series shown above) and with them the automatic transmission gear shifter was moved to the steering column. Additionally, shift buttons were added to the selector making it easy for those wishing to choose their own gear to do so. Paddle shifters made their debut on 2008 on the SL Roadster.

Steering wheels were bulky due to the influx of airbag and infotainment functionality, which required cables, circuit boards, and sensors to be installed in the unit. Eventually, it would be able to be slimmed down as technology evolved.

2016: First touch-sensitive buttons

Mercedes-Benz E-Class (W 213) 2016

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

The 2016 E-Class became the first car I the world to feature touch-sensitive buttons on its steering wheel. The technology featured the ability to control the entire infotainment system by swiping a finger across a pad on the steering wheel rather than taking taking your hands off the wheel. In addition to the pads, the wheel also had four buttons to the left and right of center that allows for volume control, phone call initiation and other functions.

2020: Capacitive Steering Wheel

Mercedes-Benz E-Klasse (W 213), 2020

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

The next generation of Mercedes-Benz steering wheel has been unveiled in the 2021 Mercedes-Benz E-Class. It features a two-zone sensor mat in the steering wheel rim that registers whether or not the wheel is being held. Unlike in systems by other manufacturers, no movement is required.

The Touch Control buttons have been integrated into the steering wheel spokes now also function capacitively. The panels are now flush and allow for swiping gestures as well as use in hot temperatures.

The new wheel is the same size as the one in the outgoing model.

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Nuts & Bolts

 
 

Subaru Motorsports takes center stage in the newest season of "Launch Control".

Photo courtesy of Subaru of America Inc.

The award-winning "Launch Control" documentary series will return December 2 for its eighth season. The show will air on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.

Season 8 of "Launch Control" picks up where Season 7 left off. The Subaru team has just won the rally and rallycross championships but the future of the team is uncertain.

The program, which has been chronicling the Subaru Motorsports teams since 2013, documents the challenging 2020 season of the driving sports, which included a new rally driver lineup, a shortened and delayed season due to COVID-19, and the return of ace driver Scott Speed following a season-ending back injury in 2019.

Season 8: "Launch Control"

Photo courtesy of Subaru of America Inc.

"Launch Control" will also include a two-part sneak peek at the one-off WRX STI build that Subaru worked with Vermont SportsCar to create for the next installment of the "Gymkhana" franchise, where Subaru driving star Travis Pastrana will take over the feature roll from Ken Block.

New episodes documenting the stage rally season will release every other Wednesday through December and January, with the two-part Gymkhana STI build special arriving in February.

"'Launch Control' has always been an unflinching look at the reality of running a top-level motorsports program," said William Stokes, Motorsports Manager for Subaru of America. "This year brought more challenges than anyone expected, but we're a rally team, and in rally we press on regardless. As tough as this season was, we're thrilled to bring the series back—especially for the fans who couldn't come to events in 2020, who we've missed most of all."

The program is a production of Formula Photographic and Bowes Media with the support of Subaru of America.

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The McLaren Senna GTR is ready for the track but the LEGO Technic version is ready for your office shelf.

Photo courtesy of LEGO

The latest model to join the LEGO Technic family is a track-ready take one of the most beloved supercars of all time. The LEGO Technic McLaren Senna GTR is extreme, just like its real life namesake. The model is the first McLaren to get the Technic treatment.

It's an 830-piece model is designed for builders ages 10 and above. Its real life version was designed for track enthusiasts. The Senna GTR takes the athleticism of the Senna supercar a step further with a vehicle, "designed to deliver the most extreme, raw and engaging driving experience possible," according to the super luxury automaker. They call the vehicle "mind-bendingly fast", which makes it a perfect fit for a track day.

LEGO Technic McLaren Senna GTR The box will reach shelves in January.Photo courtesy of LEGO

The beating heart of the McLaren Senna GTR is a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 engine that achieves approximately 813 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque. Its carbon fiber body weighs just 2619 pounds and rides on a motorsports chassis.

The total engineering package is designed to deliver a raw racing experience. It's beyond engaging. The well-engineered wing helps you ride the line between control and out of control and, quite possibly, life and death.

LEGO hasn't pushed its model to that extreme, but many of its parts hold true to the spirit of the car. It features a V8 with moving pistons, an aerodynamic body style, dihedral doors, and a one-of-a-kind blue livery. The model is 12 inches long when completed.

"The team responsible for the design of the McLaren Senna GTR worked incredibly closely with their design counterparts at the LEGO Group to capture the extreme looks, excitement and essence of such an incredible supercar for LEGO Technic builders," said Robert Melville, Design Director McLaren Automotive. "Just like the real thing, the LEGO model is packed full of incredible details from the rear spoiler to the moving pistons in the V8 engine to the dihedral doors meaning that we're as proud of the model as we are of the real car."

LEGO Technic McLaren Senna GTR The model features dihedral doors.Photo courtesy of LEGO

The LEGO Technic McLaren Senna GTR will be launched globally from January 1, 2021 from LEGO.com, LEGO stores and other retailers globally, and participating McLaren retailers, with a recommended retailer price of $49,99.

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