How Mercedes-Benz steering wheels have evolved in 120 years

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz E-Class features a trick new steering wheel. Here, we look back at 120 years of steering wheel design – from tiller to touchpads…

A wheelie good idea

A wheelie good idea © Mercedes-Benz

If you’ll excuse the pun, we’re about to witness a steering wheel revolution. The facelifted Mercedes-Benz E-Class will see the debut of the capacitive steering wheel.

It contains a two-zone sensor that detects whether the driver is gripping the wheel. The touch control buttons placed in the spokes also work with digital signals.

Mercedes says it will enable the driver to “comfortably and safely operate numerous comfort and assistance systems”, not forgetting the simple act of steering the car.

Here, we take a look back at 120 years of steering wheel development at Mercedes-Benz.

Benz Patent-Motorwagen

Benz Patent-Motorwagen © Mercedes-Benz

In January 1886, Carl Benz applied for a patent for his ‘vehicle powered by a gas engine’. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen represents the birth of the motor car, with the vehicle making its first public outing in July 1886.

Carl Benz designed the car as a three-wheeler because he wasn’t satisfied with the steering systems available for four-wheeled vehicles at the time.

Daimler steel-wheeled car

Daimler steel-wheeled car © Mercedes-Benz

The Patent-Motorwagen, like the Daimler steel-wheeled car of 1889, relied on a simple steering lever or steering crank because, at the time, carriage drivers were used to pulling on the right or left rein to direct the horses in the desired direction. The steel-wheeled car featured a two-cylinder V-engine and the world’s first four-speed gear wheel transmission.

Alfred Vacheron invents the wheel

Alfred Vacheron invents the wheel © Mercedes-Benz

The French engineer Alfred Vacheron is credited as the inventor of the steering wheel. In 1894, the Frenchman entered the famous Paris-Rouen race in a Daimler-powered Panhard equipped with a steering wheel. Vacheron finished 11th, but he left a lasting legacy on the history of the motor car. Panhard introduced a steering wheel in all its models in 1898.

Daimler Phoenix

Daimler Phoenix © Mercedes-Benz

In 1900, Daimler equipped its Phoenix racing car with a steering wheel. In this case, the steering column was tilted, which made it easier to operate. These were the first Daimler motor cars to feature a front-mounted engine. A Phoenix was also the first car entered in a race by Emil Jellinek, under the pseudonym of ‘Mercedes’ – the birth of a famous name.

Mercedes Simplex

Mercedes Simplex © Mercedes-Benz

In the Mercedes Simplex models of 1902, the company introduced additional levers on the steering wheel which had to be used to regulate essential engine functions such as ignition timing and air/fuel mixture.

Mercedes-Benz Type 680 Model S

Mercedes-Benz Type 680 Model S © Mercedes-Benz

By the 1920s, Mercedes steering wheels had evolved into more elegant affairs, becoming a central part of the car’s aesthetics. Hans-Peter Wunderlich, creative director of interior design at Mercedes-Benz, says: “Besides the seat, the steering wheel is the only component in the vehicle with which we have intensive physical contact.” The horn ring made its debut in the 1920s.

Mercedes-Benz W191 170 Sb

Mercedes-Benz W191 170 Sb © Mercedes-Benz

This photo shows the Mercedes-Benz W191 170 Sb of 1952 to 1953. The current E-Class can trace its roots back to the W191. Note the gearshift on the steering column – a feature that made its debut in 1951 in the 300 ‘Adenauer-Mercedes’ (W186) and in the 220 (W187).

Mercedes-Benz 220 S Ponton

Mercedes-Benz 220 S Ponton © Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz added a headlight flasher to the steering wheel in 1955. Meanwhile, Mercedes introduced power steering in the 300 saloon of 1958. Seven years earlier, Chrysler became the first company to introduce power steering in a passenger car, with the launch of Hydraguide.

General Motors patented power steering in the 1930s but never put it into production. Once the patents expired, Chrysler moved quickly to put power-assisted steering into production.

Mercedes-Benz W111 220 Sb

Mercedes-Benz W111 220 Sb © Mercedes-Benz

In 1959, the Mercedes-Benz W111 was the world’s first car to feature an integrated safety concept comprising a stable passenger cell and crumple zones. Crucially, from the perspective of this gallery, it also featured a safety steering wheel with a large, deformable baffle plate, plus a split steering column which was offset to the rear. Mercedes also introduced a telescopic steering column and impact absorber, which became standard in 1967.

Mercedes-Benz SL 350

Mercedes-Benz SL 350 © Mercedes-Benz

The four-spoke steering wheel arrived in 1971, when it appeared on the Mercedes-Benz SL 350. Improved impact protection was provided by the wide padded plate. In the event of a collision, the four spokes absorbed forces and transmitted them in such a way that the steering wheel rim could not break. Meanwhile, the operation for the horn was moved to the centre of the steering wheel.

S-Class debut for the airbag

S-Class debut for the airbag © Mercedes-Benz

In 1951, the German Walter Linderer filed a patent for an ‘inflatable container in a folded state, which automatically inflates in the event of danger’. Two years later, the American John W. Hetrick filed a similar patent for a ‘safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles’.

Mercedes-Benz research on the airbag began in 1966, with trials commencing in 1967. Production of the first S-Class with an airbag and seatbelt tensioner began in 1980, before the car went on sale in July 1981.

The first multi-function steering wheel

The first multi-function steering wheel © Mercedes-Benz

The first multi-function steering wheel was introduced in 1998, together with the COMAND (Cockpit Management and Data) system. Now, the S-Class driver could control a number of functions at a touch of a thumb – something we take for granted today. For the first time, the steering wheel was coupled with a radio, phone and display in the centre of the instrument cluster.

Steering wheel gearshift

Steering wheel gearshift © Mercedes-Benz

The steering wheel gearshift was reintroduced in 2005. The ‘Direct Select’ shifter created space between the driver and passenger, while making operation easier.

Touchy subject

Touchy subject © Mercedes-Benz

In 2016, the E-Class was the first car to feature touch control buttons on the steering wheel. They allow the infotainment system to be controlled by finger swiping – without having to take your hands off the wheel.

2020 E-Class

2020 E-Class © Mercedes-Benz

The facelift E-Class is fitted with an entirely new steering wheel. The control surfaces sport a high-gloss black finish, while the trim elements and surrounds have a silver shadow finish. The instrument cluster and the media display are controlled by swiping along the touch control buttons, with the operating principle changing from optical to capacitive. The touch surfaces are now less susceptible to fingerprints.

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