Ranging from the stylish to those that literally reinvented it.
Aside from a car’s door handles, the steering wheel is one of our first points of contact – the proverbial handshake between man and machine. A great steering wheel can feel incredible and cement a partnership before the drive even starts. But as we rapidly head towards an era of autonomous vehicles, it’s uncertain how much longer the traditional steering wheel will be around for.
To celebrate (or mourn) this fact we’ve compiled 14 of the strangest steering wheels to have ever been used – either in concept or production vehicles. We ruled out joysticks and the like and kept it to those that could be considered as true-to-form ‘wheels.’
The Chevrolet Corvair Testudo was a 1963 concept that debuted at the 1963 Geneva Motor Show. It’s one of the most true-to-form steering wheels on this list, but what makes it notable is that it was one of the earliest adaptations of the traditional steering wheel to make use of a flat-bottomed and in this case flat-topped, design.
The simple metal rim had a two-spoke, multi-holed design, and was a stylish finishing touch on the Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed concept.
Perhaps this one is made a little stranger by the environment in which it was equipped. The simple two-spoke steering wheel found in the Lancia Beta Trevi – the sedan version of the Beta Berlina hatch – complemented what was oft referred to as the ‘Swiss cheese’ dashboard. The steering wheel’s traditionally straight horizontal strip was replaced by an interesting downwardly curved spoke that was oddly attractive, even though it appeared off-center.
The Maserati Boomerang Concept by Italdesign was actually registered as a legal road-car, though it was only a one-off show car that pre-dated what would become the Maserati Bora. But as a concept, the Boomerang could afford to push the envelope, and the steering wheel design by Giugiaro did just that. The dials were Citroen SM-sourced, housed in a circular binnacle surrounded by a close-fitting four-spoke steering wheel. The wheel was so close-fitting, in fact, that it couldn’t be steered traditionally too easily, but could only be steered comfortably by using the palm of the hand.
Italdesign’s rivals, Bertone, took the steer-by-palm design template one step further in 1978 with the Stratos Sibilo concept. The concept was longer and more spaceship-like than the Stratos on which it was based, and featured circular windows. The chocolate brown interior and armchair style seats were considered fairly traditional by comparison to the ergonomically-designed multi-function steering wheel that looked as if it were a toddler’s play-toy more than the directional controls for a motor vehicle.
The Subaru XT was a wedge-shaped coupe from the 1980s available as either a front- or all-wheel drive machine. It was extremely aerodynamic and featured an aircraft-inspired cockpit with a joystick shifter with thumb-trigger on-demand 4-wheel drive. But the asymmetrical steering wheel, with its inverted ‘L’ center spokes and pronounced thumb rest for an ideal quarter-to-three driving grip. The SVX that succeeded the XT reverted back to normality.
The Citroen DS was a true innovator in many ways, aerodynamically, comfort-wise, and it was the first production car to be equipped with drum brakes. It was a marvel and is still considered a collector’s item today. The DS21 had one of the coolest steering wheels around, taking the DS’s standard single-spoke steering wheel and adding a touch of extra class with the portal-like center opening, gloss spoke, and leather-wrapped steering wheel. There may have been several other single-spoke wheels over the years, but this is one of the most stylish.
The Mazda MX-03 was an impressive 1985 concept sports car with a three-rotor turbocharged engine with 315 horsepower and a claimed top speed of 180 mph. Though the exterior styling seemed similar to that of the Honda NSX, the interior was more jet fighter than supercar; including the joystick shifter with thumb-trigger button, and the digital display gauges and two-sided grip setup that seemed to be more Star Wars than local car lot.
The Lamborghini Athon by Bertone was a convertible V8-powered supercar concept designed by Marc Deschamps. It served as design influence for vehicles from the films Tron, Total Recall, and RoboCop, but by far its most unique element was the steering wheel. At first glance from certain angles, it seems to hover in front of the dash as if by magic. The clean leather rim is attached to the hub by a single spoke, and when turned, the entire hub rotates with the wheel. This one is a design masterpiece, though highly impractical in production.
We live in a touchscreen world, where tablets, cellphones, and infotainment systems are all equipped with touch-sensitive displays, so why not a touchscreen steering wheel? The Citroen Osmose concept was designed to promote ride-sharing, but it was the unique, chunky steering display that took the cake for innovation. It remained fixed in place and responded to touch inputs, while the center of the ‘wheel’ displayed speed, navigation information, and personal messages.
The Oldsmobile Incas sedan concept featured a canopy front door and gullwing rear doors with an almost entirely glass roof and engine bay canopy. The 1986 concept by ItalDesign featured a unique interior including a digital display and a multifunction steering ‘wheel’ that, much like the Mazda MX-03, featured individual handgrips on either side of the steering-mounted button controls.
Carbon fiber, Alcantara, milled aluminum – all hallmarks of the incredible interior design of most Pagani models. The Zonda featured an incredible interior, replete with all those materials in abundance. But the steering wheel was the most unique item. Framed by carbon fiber paddle-shifters, the Alcantara-clad rim was based around a carbon-fiber frame which, at its center, housed a tachometer with the Zonda R badge overlaid from the right. For a production vehicle, this one’s pretty damn cool.
Before the turn of the century, in 1999, BMW wanted to preview the future with a concept boasting “70 technical innovations and 61 pioneering inventions”. The BMW Z22 concept featured a heads-up display, side cameras, and a fingerprint scanner built into the steering wheel in place of a traditional ignition. The rectangular steering wheel was steer-by-wire too and featured multi-function buttons that allowed you to zoom in and out on the rearview camera display.
The Spyker C8 is a Dutch-produced sports car from the early 2000s, powered by an Audi V8 engine - though Koenigsegg engines are supposed to be on the way. But it’s the Spyder convertible we feature here because of its unique airplane propeller-inspired steering wheel design in its early production years. The 4-spoke design was made from milled aluminum, and though it might not have been too great as far as safety was concerned with no airbags in sight, it would be a beautiful last sight before you die.
Now, this is innovation, and when Ford first debuted this technology in 1965, it predicted that it might one day take over the motoring world. Called the Wrist Twist steering system, it removed the single big steering wheel in favor of two smaller wheels on either side of a two-spoked column. The column could be lowered to a point that both small wheels – which turned in tandem – could be operated with both arms firmly on their armrests, making steering a far more comfortable exercise. However, the steering system proved immensely twitchy and overly responsive and was purely power operated which resulting in difficulty in full-lock maneuvers. It did however vastly increase visibility and featured height adjustment, which is considered a fairly modern amenity.