By on October 7, 2019

For an age, car manufacturers were stuck with trying to package an airbag into the centre hub of a steering wheel using technology that — compared to today’s kit — approximated that of what was found on Roman chariots. Most of us will remember the “lunchbox” airbags of the era, especially the enormous rectangular hub from Ford.

Bookending that timeframe, though, there were some nifty steering wheel designs. The acid-trip ’80s provided some good fodder, as does the creative packaging of today’s tillers. What’s your fave? Ours, perhaps predictably, comes from Subaru.

The pistol-shaped hub is just too-perfect, a relic of the time when nobody out-weirded Subaru. Combined with a manic interior and digital gauge cluster (sadly, not shown here) that allowed drivers to act out their deepest Top Gun fantasies, the XT’s cabin took a bit of explaining if your passenger didn’t share your love of odd Japanese design decisions.

Because he is a broken toy, your author also enjoys the upside-down boomerang wheel deployed in FoMoCo products in the mid- to late-80s. With cruise control buttons the size and shape of swizzle sticks, it was certainly better than the enormous thing that followed the brand throughout much of the 1990s.

There are more than a few good ones around today, thanks to advanced tech allowing for the impossibly well-packaged airbags installed in every vehicle. Most of the units in modern Mazdas are just dandy, for example.

What’s your wheely-good pick?

[Image: seller, Ford]

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21 Comments on “QOTD: Wheely Good Choices?...”

  • avatar
    Thomas Kreutzer

    1984 Old Cutlass’ wheel was understated elegance –

    • 0 avatar

      Oh, that’s funky.

      • 0 avatar

        Agreed, it reminds me of a conservative take on a Citroën single-spoke wheel. The end result is not conservative; it’s funky in a different way.

        – – –

        A wheel that was ahead of its time: mid-to-late-’80s Pontiac,

        • 0 avatar

          Check out a 1988 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight steering wheel (not a great picture):

          A reasonable number of usable buttons which didn’t interfere at all with driving – mounted near the center rather than out near the rim (but the two extra ‘horn’ buttons are silly).

          Also, the greatest turn-signal/wiper/cruise control stalk in history. You could easily set/resume/accelerate/coast using your left hand and only your left hand.

          If you wanted to speed up 4 miles an hour for example, you would push the “R/A” button 4 times in succession, and the car would nail that speed exactly (not sure I’ve ever driven a car since which will do this really accurately).

          • 0 avatar

            Toyota and Lexus’ system of many years (late-’80s through mid-’10s?) is excellent.
            – right-side stalk rather than left side
            – end-of-stalk button to turn system on after you’ve started the engine
            – gentle flick down to engage
            – gentle pull toward yourself to disengage and coast
            – gentle flick up to increase speed by 1 mph. Like GM’s system, you could do successive flicks to go up by a desired number of mph.

            Where it had GM beaten–and I’ve always also liked the GM system you describe–is in quality of materials and action of the control. The stalk (metal), handle (plastic) and button (plastic) were really good-quality materials, and the spring action was very positive. It’s a system that dates to Peak Toyota or before – exactly the same parts in a ’93 Paseo, an ’08 Yaris, a ’10 RX, and a ’15 NX I’ve driven. For many years, Toyota, to it’s credit, seemed to be saying, “No need to put window dressing on this for Lexus, and no need to deliberately decontent lower-spec Toyotas.” I’ve joked in a past thread that you can almost drive a Toyota or Lexus FDR-style. Alas, I think they’ve started to move to a new system in the last year or two.

            I did a road trip in an ’06 Saab Aero convertible last spring, and the cruise control was odd. Saab had grafted its own (I think) thumb control to the end of the traditional GM stalk to let you nudge up by 1 mph or nudge down by 1 mph. Good in theory, but GM’s up-nudge action was nicer than Saab’s, to the point that I would’ve have traded the down-nudge feature for the better feel of a standard GM system.

          • 0 avatar


            The Toyota cruise control arrangement you describe is my second favorite, and is on my current daily driver.

            A recent ~5,000 mile road trip confirmed that I would prefer the old left-hand-only single stalk system. I’m almost over it, but not quite, because:
            – You gotta put down your coffee mug or stainless tumbler full of ice water (I had both the whole trip – lol) to adjust the cruise
            – It’s possible to activate the wipers when you intended cruise or vice versa – this was never a problem with the ‘left hand controls speed/steering/signaling, right hand deals with audio/HVAC/beverages/passengers’ system

            (Having said that, the absolute worst cruise control systems are mounted on the steering wheel and mirror or resemble the audio controls.)

          • 0 avatar

            Good point about left-versus-right. I imagine GM’s many years of threes-on-the-tree and column-shifted Hydramatics meant designers were inclined to put cruise control functionality on the left side.

            Agreed re: wheel-mounted controls. Even though every example I’ve ever used has been reliable, I found the ergonomics to be inferior to the traditional GM and Toyota systems. Counterintuitive, as you’d expect a wheel-mounted control to be quicker and easier to use, but I haven’t found that to be the case.

    • 0 avatar

      I like the later-‘80s Olds wheels with the plood inserts on the bottom spoke with the horn buttons, that came on the Brougham trims.

      Someone mentioned the multi-function turn signal stalk. At some point, those were made with more durable stenciling. Most of the time, though, all the writing would be worn off the stalk just from using the turn signals!

      The “R/A” functionality didn’t exist until 1984; I seem to remember reading something about the cruise going to a fully-electronic unit in that M/Y. Before then, you could coast down by holding the “SET” button, but not in 1-mph increments. And I don’t think you could increase speed by holding “Resume.”

  • avatar

    I had an Opel Manta as my first car. The wheel looked like this: .

    It was actually quite practical as it pretty much force you to put your hands at the nine and three position.

  • avatar

    I have to say…the KITT steering wheel kinda kicked (censored.) Don’t know how you handle sharp turns our quick three point turns with that thing, but it still looked cool to my 8-year-old eyes way back when!

  • avatar

    I like the Cadillac Allante’s pre-airbag wheel and the Merkur XR4ti’s boomerang hub.

  • avatar

    At age 10, I loved the “wall of buttons” wheel on the Pontiac 6000 STE.

    Today’s wheels have just as many buttons but they are arranged to look much less obtrusive.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s actually a second generation of the Pontiac button wheel. See my post above for the first iteration. My vague recollection is that it debuted on the 6000 STE, but it was available on other models soon thereafter. You definitely could get it on the ’87-’91 Bonneville.

      Two factors led to today’s more subtle buttons:
      1) the introduction of airbags
      2) decreased novelty of the concept. ’80s Pontiac designers (not without justification, IMO) were proud of the gee-whiz factor of the button wheel. I skew curmudgeonly on these things, but the button wheel actually was pretty functional and people seemed to like it. I can’t remember if or to what degree it was shared with other divisions, but my recollection is that GM skewed pre-Roger Smith with regard to the innovation and let Pontiac keep it as something of an exclusive.

      • 0 avatar

        I wonder if they had problems with noisy clocksprings/cable reels in those Pontiac wheels?

        Any Mercedes wheel from the early ‘70s until the first airbag-equipped ones are good ones,

        5th-Gen Honda Civics also get my vote.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a fairly loaded ’89 Bonneville with the button wheel. Mine was equipped with automatic climate control so the layout was a little different (not my car but same idea).

      I didn’t have any issues with noise and the buttons always worked fine but more modern designs are ergonomically superior IMO.

      • 0 avatar

        Echoing ajla’s experience, my family had an ’88 Bonneville from new up past 105,000 miles, and the buttons still worked perfectly – definitely one of the things the General got right rather than wrong.

  • avatar

    Classic single spoke Citroën wheels on the old ID and DS series. And later Citroën wheels where the hub remained stationary while you turned the rim.

    Citroën always had the fun ideas.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    No mention of the famed Nissan Y31 Cedric/Gloria/Cima fixed-hub wheel?×458.jpg

    And the version with the keypad for the cellular telephone is even more famous:

  • avatar

    I used to have an old Volvo 140 with an R-sport steering wheel. I’m pretty sure it was a Momo wheel with the horn button replaced by one with a Volvo label on it. Really nice, small diameter, comfortable.

    Even though it was small, it worked fine with the manual steering (not power steering) as long as you used 9 o’clock/3 o’clock and 12 o’clock/6 o’clock and the car was rolling ever so slightly (10 o’clock/2 o’clock wasn’t enough leverage for a dead stop).

    I should have hung on to that steering wheel because it would have looked nice in my man cave!

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