How driving a car has changed| Axon's Automotive Anorak
Just days away from the Goodwood Members’ Meeting, my trusty daily steed decided it would be a good time to spit the dummy and blow its head gasket.
With little time before the event kicked off, a friend very honourably stepped in and let me borrow his early-1990s Japanese grey import Toyota Surf. A well-used yet loyal 4WD SUV derivative of the best-selling Hi-Lux pick-up truck, it had all the handling qualities of a small yacht caught in a swell.
Very gratefully received, the Toyota was most entertaining to drive, albeit for slightly the wrong reasons. The steering precision was that of a wooden spoon in lumpy custard and the wireless was permanently stuck on Radio 2. Perhaps more perplexingly, being a Japanese market car, the stalks controlling the wipers, indicators and lighting were the opposite way around to the European ‘norm.’ Some older motorists might argue that this is the correct way around for RHD cars, as you can change gear with your left hand whilst indicating with your right. However due to my own sensibilities, this alternative layout meant every time I went to indicate, I inadvertently set the windscreen wipers going.
The conformity of car controls is a surprisingly recent initiative in the 130+ year career of the motor car. All vehicles now sold in the UK have a uniform layout for the stalks controlling the wipers, lights, indicators, and so on, although other buttons can still be surprisingly spread around the dashboard.
For years, most RHD vehicles positioned the stalk controls (where available; these being quite a late post-war ergonomic addition to motoring, replacing the previous randomly scattered push or pull buttons and levers commonplace in older cars) the other way around to those (then scarce) imported Continental VWs, Fiats, Renaults et al…
With my first few cars being Japanese when I began driving many years ago – a series of sporting Honda S800 and Z600 Coupes –I got so used to the stalk controls being the opposite way around. So much so that when I bought my first European-built cars – a Saab 96 and Fiat 128 Coupe – it took me a while to adjust to signalling ‘correctly’.
Thankfully, over the subsequent years, the main driver controls of vehicles have conformed to what we now regard as the European norm, with the indicators and lighting controlled via the left-hand stalk, and wipers on the right column; even for Japanese cars destined for export markets. Holden’s Australian built VXR8 was possibly the very last car officially sold in Great Britain with its stalk controls being the other way around.
Travelling back to the pioneering days of motoring, the main vital vehicle controls were even less uniform in their positions and layout. The steering wheels we now take for granted, for example, were still rare.
Panhard et Levassor were the first European carmaker to replace tiller steering with a more familiar circular steering wheel (in 1898). Numerous vehicle producers however still remained loyal to tillers to control a motor car’s direction right up to the outbreak of the First World War. British motoring innovators Lanchester were the last UK marque to fit a steering wheel in place of a tiller system around 1914-ish.
Tiller steering for motorised vehicles is now consigned to the pages of history, with the electric ex-Danish (now German) Twike three-wheeler being possibly the only current ‘modern’ car to still use a ‘joystick’ tiller to steer its single front wheel. Intriguingly, however, the 1971 Lunar Rover also used a joystick to navigate the moon’s unexplored surface!
The pedal layout of cars also finally conformed to one standard pattern, by the 1940s. Up to this point, it was quite commonplace pre-WWII for the traditional three-pedal format to be laid out in differing patterns. The accelerator pedal was often being mounted in the centre, with the brake pedal located to the right. In my student days I was lucky enough to often drive a 1934 Aston Martin 1.5 Le Mans and mid-20s Citroen 5CV ‘Cloverleaf’ with this set-up which certainly focused the mind.
If the thought of driving with a central throttle pedal seems daunting, consider the Ford Model-T, the vehicle that accounted for over 25 per cent of all motor cars on the road around the globe by the early 1920s. Driving a ‘Tin Lizzy’ Ford really is a daunting experience, akin to patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. The Model-T’s controls defy all logic, with the throttle on a lever to the right of the steering wheel, the ignition located on the left. To select reverse gear, the driver had to depress a separate centre-mounted pedal (where the brake pedal would ordinarily be located) with the brakes confusingly controlled by the same pedal as a high- and low-speed clutch. A firm up-right lever to the drivers’ side also acted as a (much needed) emergency brake and clutch release.
As with many cars of the era, the Model-T was equipped with space instrumentation. This minimalism carried over to many later popular cars such as the Austin Seven and Citroen 2CV, which had a tiny basic instrument mounted between the steering wheel and windscreen base, plus, on the early models, a very long dipstick to measure the fuel capacity.
Instrumentation remains a variable to this day in cars. A growing number of current electric machines have replaced dials and instruments with giant screens with a main central control button, rapidly superseding stand-alone push buttons and sliding controls. These have still to be perfected and a standard norm settled on. Far too many vehicles still have frustrating (and potentially unsafe) displays that force the driver to take his or her eyes off the road to fiddle with the digital controls.
As the shape of the trusted circular steering wheel finally begins to transform after 120+years, ultimately we won’t need to worry too much about car controls and their ergonomics as the age of the self-driving vehicle kicks in. Until then, however, we can still have fun trying to fathom what all of the random, unlabelled buttons do in old cars.