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Reinventing the wheel

1 year ago

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Andrew English | Journalist


3 January 2023

Steering wheels didn’t appear on the first motor cars. Those earliest of automobilists guided their charges with a tiller, a fearsome device with all the control of a balloon on a string and a habit of disappearing into your innards in the event of a front-end crash. It was Albert Vacheron, a French engineer, who reputedly fitted the first steering wheel (or volant in French) to his 4HP Panhard for the 1894 Paris-Rouen motor race. Panhard took up the idea and in 1898 Charles Rolls imported the first car with a steering wheel into the UK (a 6HP Panhard).

By the end of the following decade, the tiller was dead and for the next 70 years just about every motor car steered with a round steering wheel and the only point of difference was its beauty.

My favourites? Those thin, wood-rimmed, aluminium-spoked wheels from companies such as Moto-Lita, Nardi/Personal and Momo which were fitted to 1950s and ’60s sports cars and GTs from manufacturers like Aston Martin, Ferrari, AC, Jaguar and so on. Formula of South East London produced quite lovely Duralumin-spoked wheels (with Lucas centre bosses) as original equipment for Triumph, plus aftermarket rims for Speedwell and a variety of models from BMC, Triumph, MG, and Austin Healey. I also like the Bluemels/Ashby or ‘Banjo’ wheels originally made of four sets of stainless-steel spokes like banjo strings, with a celluloid rim and a wonderfully technical centre boss; you’ll find these fitted to vintage pre-World War Two cars such as Bentleys, or ’50s Morris Minors and Triumph TR4s.

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