“With no steering wheel at all for early Daimler cars, Mercedes-Benz has developed its tillers for 120 years creating comprehensively digitised steering wheels we know today.”
Patented in 1886, the world’s first motor car by Carl Benz managed without the usual steering wheel seen on modern motor cars and this was the same with steel wheel car designed by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in 1889. Both these pioneering automobiles were equipped with just a steering lever or a steering crank as carriage drivers of that time were used to pulling to the right or reining to the left directing horses.
In 1984, Alfred Vacheron, who is considered the inventor of the steering wheel presented his Daimler engine powered Panhard & Levassor at the world’s first automobile race. The Panhard & Levassor was equipped with a steering wheel rather than the usual lever steering of the time. With his invention, Vacheron achieved better control as movement of the front wheels could be distributed over several turns of the steering column from a neutral central position until it stopped. This enabled more precise steering and thus higher driving speeds. Although the Frenchman placed only 11th, the steering wheel prevailed.
In 1900, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft equipped the Phoenix racing car with a steering wheel which had a tilted steering column for easy operation. With all this ingenuity, steering movement still required a deal of effort. When Mercedes-Benz introduced its Simplex models in 1902, additional levers used to control engine functions such as ignition timing and air/fuel mixture to name a few were added on the steering.
As engines were further developed, there became an excess of the manual engine adjustments functions on the tillers. Between 1920 and 1940, Mercedes introduced a fairly large wheel with a hooter (horn) – which is a function that has remained till today. As the simplest form of car-to-x communication began with a bulb horn mounted on the steering wheel rim, followed by the klaxon horn button on the steering wheel hub. The horn ring on the steering wheel spokes made its debut in the 1920s. It was standard until the 1970s and became increasingly more delicate.
In 1949, the hooter ring also took over the function of actuating the turn signals or the indicators that were common until the mid-1950s. To turn, it was simply turned to the left or right. Then an approximately 20-centimetre-long indicator arm swung sideways out of the body and indicated the direction of travel. These direction indicators, which seem bizarre from today’s perspective, were replaced by orange-yellow flashing lights which were activated by turning the ring via a central control unit.
In the 1950s, the power steering and column-mounted gearshift were introduced and the steering became more of a central interface between the car and driver. In 1951, on the W186 300 Adenauer-Mercedes, Mercedes-Benz introduced a gearshift on the steering column, this was also similar to the 220 W187. As the front seat was a continuous bench between driver and passengers, having the gearshift on the steering column provided added comfort and safety.
The column-mounted gearshift remained until the 1970s and was reintroduced by Mercedes-Benz in 2005 with the Direct Select automatic transmission. In 1955, a headlamp flasher lever was added. As it was rather hard and exhausting to steer despite a large steering ratio, Mercedes-Benz introduced the power steering which was fitted in the 300 saloon in 1958.
With safety becoming a priority, automotive engineering was revolutionalised by Mercedes-Benz. The Fintail W111 was introduced with crumple zones, stable passenger cell and a large deformable baffle plate which reduced the risk of injury in the event of a collision, and a split steering column which was offset to the rear. This made it possible to avoid the so-called lance effect. In earlier vehicles with a rigid steering column, serious injuries occurred repeatedly because the steering column pushed towards the driver in a frontal impact. To further increase safety, Mercedes-Benz introduced a patented safety steering system with a telescopic steering column and impact absorber, which became standard on the entire passenger car range in 1967.
As the headlamp flasher made its debut in 1955, Mercedes launched the first combined lever in 1959 in the Fintail and Ponton. The two for one lever included the indicator and headlight flasher functions. It was only in 1963 when the lever was extended to fit windscreen wipers and windscreen washer functions. The windscreen wiper was previously activated with a pull switch on top of the instrument panel.
Forging forward in safety, Mercedes introduced a four-spoke steering wheel with the 350 SL Roadster in 1971 which provided better impact protection thanks to its wide padded plate with impact absorber. In 1975 December, Daimler debuted its first cruise control system featured on the 450 SEL 6.9 as standard. The technology was improved and in 1998, the world’s first radar-supported DISTRONIC proximity control system was premiered in the 220 Series S-Class.
In 1981, in the S-Class 126 series, the first airbag and a new steering wheel design were introduced in the further pursuit of safety. Early airbags were fairly large and to accommodate them, the baffle plate had to be much larger. With further development, it was possible to fold vacuum-packed airbags in small sizes. In 1992, the driver airbag came standard on all Mercedes-Benz models and in 1994 the passenger airbag was introduced.
1998 Mercedes introduced its first multifunction steering wheel with the Cockpit Management and Data (COMAND) system which allowed the control of multitude vehicle systems, information devices, navigation and entertainment. An important goal in the development of the S-Class 220 model series was to relieve the driver of enough work so that he could concentrate on the essentials: the traffic situation and the driving experience. With a new, standard multifunction steering wheel, the driver was able to control many systems and could call up important information at the touch of a thumb. For the first time, the steering wheel was coupled with a car radio, car phone and a display in the middle of the instrument cluster on which up to eight main menus appeared. Both S and M-Class models gained newly designed cockpits during this period.
As technology improved, more cables and circuit boards found their way to the steering wheel and that meant a completely new design of steering wheel. The tillers were then refined from polygonal shapes to geometric forms with a circle and flowing spokes.
In 2016, Mercedes-Benz introduced the E-Class as the world’s first car to feature touch-sensitive control buttons on the steering wheel. Without having to take your hands off the wheel, touch control buttons enabled managing of the entire infotainment system. Like a smartphone screen, the buttons react to vertical and horizontal movements while pressing the buttons triggers functions selected by swiping.
In present-day 2020, Mercedes-Benz has further pushed technological boundaries with its new generation of steering wheels being launched in the 2020 E-Class. They feature a two-zone sensor mat on the front and back of the steering wheel rim and they register if the steering wheel is held. Seamless controls are divided into functional areas and as with a smartphone, enable intuitive operation through swiping gestures and pressing of symbols. High-quality materials have been selected in such a way that operation is possible even in an interior heated up by sunlight.
The tiller is available in three versions: Sport, Luxury and Supersport.