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What’s So Ingenious About a Single-Spoke Steering Wheel?

And if it really is that ingenious, then why is it only Citroën who use them?

I’m aware that this is a deep and potentially far-reaching question. But we’re happy to entertain those as well here at ViaRETRO. Today’s question is perhaps almost on par with some of our world’s biggest questions, such as “What is the meaning of life?” or maybe even “Is there a God?”. It’s probably also equally difficult to answer logically and unbiased.

The immense joy I get from this DS interior is primarily fueled by those scrumptious green seats.

Or maybe it’s just one of those where the question is actually more important than the answer? This has been known to be the case at times. Just like it being a well-known issue, that if you ask the wrong question, you will inevitably receive the wrong answer. At least held up against what you were expecting to receive. Or asked about. Well, you know what I mean.

In relation to steering wheels – or just Citroën in general for that matter – seemingly without exception, the French brand so synonymous with all things avant-garde (truth be told, it’s a fair few years since there was anything avant-garde about them, but of course ViaRETRO prefers looking back at what was good rather than forward at what is not) is always praised and celebrated for their bizarre fetish with single-spoke steering wheels. As far as I’m informed, it all started with the DS in 1955, and was consequently a theme for multiple years and decades to come.

But the odd steering wheel has become one of the DS’s (many) defining design characteristics. Note how the owner of this particular example has clearly put a lot of time and effort into placing his auxiliary instruments in a manner where the single and narrow spoke still manages to keep them out of his view. Clever.

If I’m to be perfectly objective, yes I suppose I do see the advantage in the DS’s single narrow spoke pointing largely towards earth for the majority of the time. The whole upper portion of the steering wheel is of course utterly open and free, which surely must give the DS some sort of world record in having the most unrestricted view of the instruments.

This is apparently a DS built specifically for President de Gaulle. But even he had to make due with only one spoke.

But hang on a second… there’s not really that many instruments? After all, the instruments in a DS are placed largely as in any other car: in a narrow band within the upper half of the steering wheel rim. So all of this airy unrestricted view is for what? The stalks either side of the steering wheel? Which you of course don’t need to see in order to use – at least not if they have been designed properly.

We’re now in a CX, where the steering wheel just like the rest of the interior, exudes a bit more pazzazz – but still only one spoke.

Then how about the functionality of the steering wheel in itself? In all honesty, I’m of the opinion that it suffers under its own design – at least theoretically. After all, the steering wheels position (as in the direction the front wheels are pointing at any given time) is visually less obvious, when the only indicator is placed at the very bottom of the steering wheel. Still, I must confess that I’m yet to encounter a DS with a brightly coloured piece of tape wrapped around the dead-center top of the steering wheel as often seen in motorsport – so perhaps it’s not an issue for DS drivers.

With the BX, Citroën worked hard to achieve the most awkward and clumsy single spoke imaginable – almost ready for airbags, which were of course still a few years away.

But note this interesting detail: If you opted for the range-topping BX GTi model, you were then treated to a proper steering wheel. A clear indication that by now, Citroën had come to the realization that they were on the wrong track. Note also that visibility of the instruments is still unrestricted.

What is quite obvious though, is that a single-spoke steering wheel must be heavier than say a three- or four-spoke steering wheel in order to achieve the same strength and rigidity. It’s a given that you must compensate for the inconvenience of channeling all the force down through a single point, and not least for such a large portion of the rim being left unsupported by spokes. Alternatively, if it isn’t heavier, then one will have to accept it being a weaker construction – which approach Citroën chose, I honestly don’t know.

The XM from 1989 at least received a more elegant steering wheel with a suitable eighties vibe. But as by magic, they managed to produce a single-spoke steering wheel which actually looks like a three-spoke when viewed straight from the driver’s seat. Maybe in an attempt to attract more conservative customers?

But I do know that they stubbornly stuck with their single-spoke steering wheel for the CX in 1974. For the BX in 1982. And even for the XM in 1989.

Citroën were clearly very enthusiastic about the single-spoke steering wheel. Yet it’s remarkably obvious to the rest of the world that no other marque shared this enthusiasm. Granted, the Aston Martin Lagonda – one of the world’s most expensive cars at its introduction in 1976 – also came with a single-spoke steering wheel. But one would struggle to coin the Lagonda as an icon and role model for other cars. Frankly, quite the contrary. Though that can hardly be blamed on the steering wheel.

Perhaps the most luscious of single-spoke steering wheels isn’t even found in a Citroën, but instead in an Aston Martin Lagonda. The steering wheel was probably the least of its problems.

Still, I just can’t restrain myself any longer. I need to know the answer. Or at least ask the question: What precisely is so ingenious about a single-spoke steering wheel? Someone, please help me. Worthwhile explanations, experience or objective technical knowledge is hugely welcomed in the replies area below…

It should also be said that the facelifted XM made the transition to a conventional four-spoke steering wheel. This particular XM (which granted isn’t totally stock) proves perfectly that it doesn’t have to be boring.

6 Responses

  1. Tony Wawryk

    Not forgetting the GS – my dad ran a metallic-brown GS Pallas (with black vinyl roof, I think – have to look up an old photo) in the late 70s – I remember the oddity of the single-spoke steering wheel, the smooth ride, the suspension rise and fall on starting and parking, and also that it felt quite luxurious compared to his previous car, a VW K70, which was pretty spartan. Did it make a difference that it had a single spoke steering wheel? I don’t recall the lack of spokes affecting driving it very much – you soon got used to it. Instrument visibility? Well, yes, as unobstructed as you could get, but as you point out, Claus, a 2 or 3-spoke wheel, designed properly, also affords a clear view. So putting my shallow hat on, I think it was primarily a styling quirk to make already quirky cars even quirkier…

  2. Skaanning

    One spoke? Yes, why not? It adds character and a nice touch of oddness.
    Was it a good idea from an objective and technical point of view?
    Probably not, but such considerations are not always relevant in classic cars!

  3. Anders Bilidt

    Quirky no doubt. Somewhat charming too I suppose.
    But equally, I must confess that I personally have no need to own a car with a single-spoke steering wheel. Give me a wooden Les Leston or a leather Momo Prototipo any day…

  4. kim

    One spoke steering wheel was a safety feature. the column would guide you away from being impaled, as that was the primary death reason. Normal spokes had a tendency to snap b the base of the steering wheel boss, leaving you with a spear with barbs. looking at the DS steering wheel the column itself is bendt, the give is at the very rim of the steering wheel, first the rim will give way and reduced hand damage and your chest will be guided away from the impaling. Very simple, very logical. The 2cv got it’s one spoke steering when some markets required a collapsable steering wheel, markets that didn’t have those requirements got a 2 spoke wheel. (by the way the risk of being impaled by the steering column in a 2cv is nil, the danger of head injuries when hitting the steering wheel are far greater, the onespoke wheel gives way and absorbs the blow.

  5. Henry P Lee

    I’ve often heard the phrase, “perception is reality,” quoted by my various design professors, colleagues, and friends. This ideology seems applicable to the single spoke wheel. Elegance and simplicity is the perception when looking at a steering wheel like this. It makes the car feel a certain way, and that’s what’s important here. There are negligible disadvantages, and a few very minimal advantages, but overall it seems like a value based decision was made. I wouldn’t mind to see a rebirth of this—it certainly beats the overly-utilitarian aesthetics of contemporary steering wheels.


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