Tilt Steering Wheel

Automotive Mileposts
Image: Tilt and Telescope Steering Wheel

1966 Oldsmobile Tilt and Telescope Steering Wheel

Tilt Wheel
Tilt and Telescope

No matter what you call it, this popular feature allows every driver to pick the perfect position

Now a common feature found on most cars and trucks, in its early days the tilt steering wheel was considered a luxury item. As manufacturers sought out new ways to help people get comfortable in their cars, having an adjustable seat only was no longer acceptable.

In 1955, Ford Motor Company introduced the Thunderbird as a response to Chevrolet's Corvette. Since Chevrolet beat Ford to market with the first American-made sports car in 1953 with the Corvette, Ford wanted something to top Chevrolet. So its new Thunderbird wasn't really a sports car, it was a "personal car." Sporty in appearance, yes. Powerful enough to please most drivers, surely. But more personal with luxury features the Corvette didn't offer.

One of the items on the Thunderbird was a telescopic steering column. A ribbed collar on the steering column could be turned to unlock and allow the steering column to telescope within a range of three inches. A personal touch in driving comfort that could be adjusted to individual preference. In conjunction with the 4-way power seat, finding a good driving position in a Thunderbird was easier than in most other cars.

Next came the Swing-Away Steering Wheel, also introduced on the Ford Thunderbird as part of the all-new 1961 models. Initially an option, the Swing-Away Steering Wheel moved over to the right nearly a foot to get out of the way of the driver when entering or exiting the car. Priced at $25.10, it was a popular option and became standard early in the 1962 model year. To operate, the transmission lever was required to be in park before the column would move. While pushed aside, the transmission couldn't be shifted out of park. Once the column was moved back to the normal driving position, the shift lever was unlocked and could be moved out of park.

General Motors' response was the Tilt Steering Wheel, introduced on several luxury models for 1963. The tilt wheel differed from the telescopic and Swing-Away in that it allowed the steering wheel to be adjusted in an arc, either upward or downward from center. Seven positions were available, three above and three below the center position.

This design used a ratchet joint positioned just below the steering wheel hub that allowed vertical movement of the upper part of the steering column. A small spring-loaded lever on the steering column could be moved to release the lock mechanism, allowing adjustment. Releasing the lever locked the steering wheel in place. This adjustment could be made while operating the car, as long as caution was used to not inadvertently steer the car to the side while making the adjustment.

Next came GM's Tilt and Telescope Steering Wheel. Developed by the Saginaw Steering Gear Division of GM, this device allowed for in and out movement as well as up and down adjustment. A collar at the top of the steering column, just behind the steering wheel hub, could be rotated to unlock the telescopic adjustment. Infinitely adjustable within a 3-inch range, rotating the collar again would lock the wheel in place once a comfortable position was found. Combined with the tilt adjustment, the position and angle of the steering wheel could be tailored to suit virtually anyone. Exclusive to Cadillac for 1965, it was soon available on many other GM cars.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for 1968 models were updated to specify a limit to the amount of rearward movement a steering column could have in the event of a collision. Standard No. 204 Steering Column Rearward Displacement, created the need for a collapsible steering column, which included a section designed to collapse on impact, thus preventing the column from moving rearward in the passenger compartment of the vehicle, causing chest, head, and neck injuries. Due to this requirement, which was effective with all vehicles built on or after January 1, 1968, the Swing-Away steering wheel would no longer meet vehicle safety standards, which meant that Ford couldn't install it after the 1967 model year. Since most of Ford's 1967 models were new designs, an updated tilt design for the steering wheel was also introduced for 1967.

Not to be outdone by GM, and to meet new safety standards the following year, Ford introduced the Tilt-Away Steering Wheel in 1967. This was an update to the Swing-Away Steering Wheel, but differed greatly in its operation. Unlike the Swing-Away design where the entire steering column could be manually moved to the right, the Tilt-Away column remained stationary, and just the top section of the column pivoted up and over to the right. As with the Swing-Away, the transmission selector had to be in park for this to occur. And also like the Swing-Away, the selector couldn't be moved out of park until the steering wheel was in the normal driving position.

The great thing about the Tilt-Away wheel was that it popped over automatically, when the driver opened his or her door. In addition to the pop over function, it also incorporated a tilt function with 9 available positions, 4 above center and 4 below center. The Tilt-Away was standard on the 1967 Thunderbird, and optional on 1967 Ford Mustang and Mercury Cougar vehicles.

The Tilt-Away became an option in 1968 on the Thunderbird, and continued to be offered on other Ford and Mercury vehicles as well. 1969 would be the final year for Tilt-Away, and from 1970 on, a typical tilt steering wheel was the only option offered. Relocating the ignition switch to the steering column to lock the steering wheel, ignition, and transmission lever was a good anti-theft measure, but no doubt necessitated the demise of the Tilt-Away.

Chrysler offered an Adjustable Steering Wheel on some of its 1964 models. It was priced at $51.30 on the Imperial. In 1966, a Tilt-A-Scope Steering Wheel was offered for the first time, at $92.45. Chrysler sourced the parts from GM's Saginaw Steering Gear Division.

Today, steering wheels and columns are power operated, with memory settings that move them out of your way for easier access, then return them to your pre-selected position automatically when you're ready to drive. Memory settings can be programmed for different drivers on some models. These are highly advanced compared to the adjustable steering wheel options of the classic car era, but you can be certain the first time someone walked past a parked 1961 Thunderbird and noticed the steering column pushed over toward the center of the car—or glanced inside a 1963 Cadillac with the steering wheel tilted up out of the way—that they did a double take to make certain that what they were seeing was real!


Image: 1961 Thunderbird Swing-Away Steering Wheel

Above: 1961 Thunderbird Swing-Away Steering Wheel

Image: 1967 Ford and Mercury Tilt-Away Steering Wheel

Above: 1967 Ford and Mercury Tilt-Away Steering Wheel

Image: 1968 Ford Thunderbird Tilt-Away Steering Wheel

Above: 1968 Ford Thunderbird Tilt-Away Steering Wheel

Image: 1970 Lincoln Continental Tilt Steering Wheel

1970 Lincoln Continental Tilt Steering Wheel