Even if you’re only mildly into cars, the sort that can still manage to have a conversation that doesn’t involve either cars, car-based analogies, or a lot of internal struggles to not bring up cars again, I still suspect that you’d be aware of some of the strange, interesting details of Citroën’s legendary mid-century spaceship, the DS. Things like the way it can adjust its height, the steerable headlights, the brake pedal that looks like a rubber mushroom and that odd one-spoke steering wheel. Not all of the reasons why the car is like that is due to Gallic goofiness—there’s real reasons there, and they’re clever. Let’s focus on that steering wheel.
The steering wheel of the DS looked like no other wheel: it had but one, solitary spoke, and that spoke appeared to be the steering column itself, bent down and gripping the ring of the wheel at one point.
If this wasn’t odd enough, the proper centered position of that wheel positioned the lone stalk not lined up nice and centrally, either at 12 o’clock or six o’clock, but rather at an angle, at 7 to 8 (on LHD cars) or 4 to 5 (on RHD cars). Look, you can see it right here in the owner’s manual:
Okay, so why did they do it this way?
Well, the position of the spoke when driving straight was a safety feature, one that worked in conjunction with the use of the lone, bent-tube spoke in the first place.
Unlike most steering wheels of the era (pre-collapsable steering column, pre-airbags, pre-almost anything to help you end up less dead) that used a rigid steel steering column positioned optimally to skewer you through the sternum like a gory kebab, Citroën’s bent, angled column was designed to guide you away from that steering column and, ideally, towards the center of the car.
Plus, if you hit the wheel rim itself, it’ll give much easier because of that lone mounting point, and if you do happen to impact the spoke, you’re not hitting that steering shaft head on, with all the force focused on its center: it’s spread out, and smoothly curved, which will hopefully deflect you and distribute the force over a larger area.
Remember, this car was designed in the 1950s, when most car steering wheels resembled the one on the left here:
Which would you rather slam your chest into at 40 mph? The bent tube or the three-spoked chrome spearhead?
The basic layout of the DS was also a safety help, too. The longitudinal FWD setup positioned the transmission ahead of the engine, which allowed the spare tire to go above it, and for all of that to be ahead of the steering rack:
That means in a front-end collision, there’s a lot of crumple zone and material to get through before you would even contact the steering column itself,
Then there’s the gauge visibility reason: one relatively narrow spoke means there’s a lot of open area inside that wheel, allowing for some very unobstructed views of your dash gauges and controls, which is always nice.
That one-spoke wheel always looked so futuristic and sleek to me, and I’m so impressed with the thinking behind it. It’s all so clever and shows some genuinely clean-sheet thinking to vehicular safety even in that very unsafe era of the 1950s.
Sure, it’s French weirdness, but smart French weirdness.