- Published in Milestones.
The first automobiles were steered by tiller. This was effective on slow vehicles, but became less precise and potentially dangerous as engines grew more powerful. Motorsport highlighted the difficulties of manoeuvring vehicles at relatively high speeds. The engineer Arthur Krebs sought to solve the problem both on the track and on the road.
The challenge and solution were simple. A tiller had a limited range of motion, and a steering wheel required less effort to translate the driver's movement to the car’s front axle. The concept of a steering wheel was taken from sailing ships.
Krebs was not the first to use a steering wheel in a car. In 1894, Alfred Vacheron built a racing car that used a wheel instead of a tiller, to compete in the Paris-Rouen race. But it was Krebs who developed the idea for series production.
Krebs' first use of the technology was in a four-cylinder Panhard and Levassor car which he modified to compete in the Paris-Amsterdam race in 1898. Unlike Vacheron's system, Krebs' steering wheel was inclined to make it easier for the driver to use.
The race ran from 7 to 13 July and was won by Fernand Charron in a four-cylinder Panhard and Levassor. Although his vehicle didn’t benefit from Krebs' technology, the race did highlight the benefit of an inclined steering wheel.
By the end of 1898, Charles Rolls, the founder of Rolls-Royce, introduced the first car in the UK fitted with a steering wheel when he imported a 6hp Panhard and Levassor.
Krebs was an enthusiastic engineer who was eager to improve the efficiency and driveability of vehicles. Two years before introducing the steering wheel, he patented an automobile fitted with an electromagnetic transmission and front wheels that recentred when the steering mechanism was left alone.
Panhard and Levassor acquired a licence to build 500 cars under the name of Clement-Panhard between 1898 and 1902 featuring Krebs' designs for the electromagnetic transmission, recentring steering and steering wheel.
By 1899, the steering wheel had been taken to the US, where Packard introduced it on one of its models. By the time Ford’s Model T arrived in 1908, the steering wheel was an essential part of the car.
Krebs' passion for engineering and his willingness to adapt and improve automotive technologies saw him succeed Émile Levassor, one of Panhard and Levassor's founders, as the company’s general manager from 1897. He transformed the firm into one of the largest and most profitable automobile manufacturers before World War One.
He also carried on inventing. He patented the automatic diaphragm carburettor in 1902, giving cars continuous power during acceleration by providing a constant air-fuel ratio. It also had the benefit of improving the vehicle's fuel economy.
But of all his innovations it was the steering wheel that Krebs held in the highest regard. In a note written for an automotive exhibition in 1902, he said: “The steering wheel's usage has become so general that it seems impossible to make now a motorcar which should not be fitted with it.”
The materials used in steering wheels have changed since Krebs first brought the technology to series production vehicles in 1898, and the functionality that the wheel can now provide the driver with is vast. Controlling the human-machine interface, head-up displays and connected technologies such as smartphones and iPods are all possible.
All of this is a long way from the original function. But we are still reliant on Krebs’ technology to direct us, no matter where we drive and whichever vehicle we’re in.