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History of Ford Swing-Away,
Tilt-Away, and Tilt Steering Wheels

Details about the Ford Thunderbird's movable steering wheels!


Years Available: 1961-1966
Car Lines: Ford Thunderbird (1961-1966)
Ford Galaxie (1963-1966)

Years Available: 1967-1969
Car Lines: Ford Thunderbird (1967-1969)
Ford Mustang (1967-1969)
Mercury Cougar (1967-1969)

Years Available: 1965-1966 (Mercury)
1966 (Lincoln Continental only)
1967-Up for Car Lines: Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury

1964-1965 Lincoln Continental Vertically Adjustable Steering Column

During the late fifties, Ford stylists submitted a drawing of a Ford Thunderbird Hardtop with hinged roof panels that would raise when the door was opened. In addition to providing the T-bird with a feature no other car offered, it would improve access for passengers entering or exiting the car. This was never seriously considered due to cost constraints, but it continued to appear on styling exercise drawings for years. The idea that the Thunderbird should have something unique, not offered elsewhere caught on, however, as did the idea of finding a way to create more room for the driver especially to enter and exit the car. And that is how the idea behind the Swing-Away Steering Wheel came about.

Swing-Away Steering Wheel (1961-1966)

Image: 1961 Ford Thunderbird Swing-Away Steering WheelThe Swing-Away Steering Wheel was a new option introduced on the 1961 Ford Thunderbird. It was the perfect time to do it, as the T-bird had all new styling for 1961, as well as a new Thunderbird 390 Special V-8 engine, and lots of formerly optional items such as back-up lights, power steering, and power brakes were made standard, so the options list needed something new to offer Thunderbird's trendy customers.

Priced at $25.10, the Swing-Away used a special steering column that was movable to the right about 10.5 inches to allow for easier entry and exit for the driver, especially with a purse, briefcase, or packages in tow. On this design, the steering column itself moved, and a special metal plate on the instrument panel to the right of the steering column filled the gap when the steering wheel was in the normal drive position, and a color-keyed vinyl panel filled the gap on the left side of the column when it had been moved aside.

The car could be started with the steering wheel in either position, but for safety's sake, the transmission could not be shifted out of park until the column had been moved back to normal driving position. And for the same reason, the steering wheel was securely locked in place for driving except for when the transmission shifter was in park. About 77 percent of all '61 T-birds were equipped with this option, making it popular enough to become a standard item for the 1962 Thunderbirds.

During September, 1961 production of the 1962 Thunderbirds, the Swing-Away Steering Wheel officially became a standard feature. Prior to that, invoices and window stickers still listed "STEERING COLUMN MOVABLE" as an option. The Swing-Away was offered as an option on the 1963-1966 full-sized Ford Galaxie, Galaxie 500, Galaxie 500 XL, and LTD (1965-66) models as well. In 1963, it was priced at $50.00. Despite its popularity on the Thunderbird, this did not carry over to the other Fords, and cars with this option are somewhat rare.

Image: 1964 Ford Thunderbird Swing-Away Steering WheelThe Thunderbird was completely restyled for 1964, and the Swing-Away mechanism at the instrument panel now had matching hinged trim panels to conceal the opening in the panel, regardless of the position of the steering column. Hardtop and Convertible models had brushed aluminum, and the Landau had simulated woodgrain. This continued through 1966 production, after which the Swing-Away went out of production. The hinged panels were updated yearly to reflect changes in the instrument panel trim, with a textured black design for 1965-66 Hardtop and Convertible models (as well as the '66 Town Hardtop), and updates to the woodgrain patterns in 1965 and 1966.

As a small kid, I can remember my parents talking about the time a neighbor spotted another neighbor's brand new 1961 Thunderbird Hardtop parked in our driveway. The neighbor with the new T-bird had been running errands, and stopped at our house to pick-up my Mother to go to a Garden Club meeting. As my Mom and our neighbor with the T-bird were getting in the T-bird to go to the meeting, the other neighbor walked over and asked what the heck she'd done to her new car that would cause the steering wheel to be off center! When the steering wheel was demonstrated, the woman couldn't believe her eyes!

Some time later, shortly after the 1962 Thunderbirds were introduced, that woman had a brand new Raven Black Landau in her driveway, with a black vinyl roof and Red Leather interior, just like the T-bird in the ads for '62. And it had a Swing-Away Steering Wheel, of course.

Vertically Adjustable Steering Column (1964-1965 Lincoln Continental)

General Motors introduced a Tilt Steering Wheel option in 1963 for Cadillac, and a Tilt and Telescope Steering Wheel option in 1964, so that pretty much required Lincoln to offer something similar as well. During 1964 production, a Vertically Adjustable Steering Column (a $60.00 option) was made available for Lincoln. It featured a slim vertical scale on the instrument panel above the steering column right in the middle of the gauge pods to indicate the position of the column, marked LO 2 3 4 5 HI. A red horizontal pointer moved with the column to indicate its position. The entire steering column could be moved up or down to adjust the angle of the steering wheel for maximum comfort.

This column is adjusted by pressing in on a chrome button on the end of the gear shift lever. This activates a vacuum solenoid that releases a clamp around the column. Once the column is in the desired location, releasing the button bleeds the vacuum, and allows the clamp to lock the column in place. It was a very clever design, and while perhaps not as practical as what Cadillac was offering, it was definitely a cool gadget.

With the Lincoln redesign of 1966, the adjustable column was dropped in favor of a typical Tilt Steering Wheel. Its operation was similar to other tilt wheels, except a second, small lever on the left side of the column was pulled toward the steering wheel to release the lock to adjust the steering wheel. This design was changed again in 1967, when the turn signal lever served the dual function of operating the turn signals and releasing the tilt wheel adjustment, this time by pushing it toward the instrument panel.

Tilt-Away Steering Wheel (1967-1968)

Image: 1967 Ford Thunderbird Tilt-Away Steering Wheel1967 was a big year for change for the Ford Thunderbird. Unibody construction was out in favor of body on frame, the convertible model was gone due to slow sales, replaced by a spiffy new Four Door Landau model, complete with Lincoln-inspired center-opening rear doors! And the second generation of Thunderbird's movable steering column was introduced, this time with a new name: Tilt-Away. The Tilt-Away was a big improvement over the Swing-Away, as it combined a manually-tilting steering wheel with 9 vertical positions, with an automatic tilting feature. Yes, that's correct: the driver didn't move it out of the way, it was fully automatic! The requirements for operation were the same as before. The steering wheel wouldn't move over unless the transmission was in park. And once moved over, the transmission was locked in the park position until the steering wheel was moved into the normal driving position.

The driver's door courtesy light switch fed power to a solenoid when the door was opened. This solenoid allowed vacuum to pass from a reservoir under the driver's fender in the engine compartment near the hood hinge to a vacuum motor mounted on the lower steering column. That in turn pulled a cable, which released a locking pawl in the upper steering column. Unlike the Swing-Away, the Tilt-Away column didn't move, just the steering wheel and the upper hub assembly. This meant there were no movable panels on the instrument panel. The steering wheel and hub popped up and over to the right about 45 degrees, and was spring-assisted to keep it in that position as long as the driver's door remained open. Once the door was closed, the courtesy light switch opened, and the solenoid disengaged and bled the vacuum out of the motor on the steering column. This released the cable and locking pawl, allowing the driver to easily pull the steering wheel down into position, where it would lock in place. Enough vacuum was held in reserve to operate the tilt feature three times between engine start ups.

To manually change the vertical tilt angle on a Tilt-Away, one just depressed the turn signal lever toward the instrument panel and moved the steering wheel to the desired position. Releasing the turn signal lever locked the steering wheel in place. The adjustment could even be made while driving, however it was recommended the steering wheel be held firmly at the top or bottom while repositioning.

One of the reasons the change from Swing-Away to Tilt-Away was made was due to new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that required the steering wheel and steering column to absorb impact in an accident, and it wasn't possible to meet the new standards with the former design. The Tilt-Away was standard on all 1967 Thunderbird models, and was available optionally on the 1967 Ford Mustang ($60.05 extra) and Mercury Cougar (also $60.05 extra) as well. For 1968, the Tilt-Away was made an option on the T-bird and was an extra $66.14 for those who wanted it. It remained on the options list for the 1969 Thunderbird ($66.14), Mustang ($66.14), and Cougar ($68.70), and was discontinued at the end of the model year.

It's interesting to note that the operation of the 1967-1969 Thunderbird and Mustang/Cougar Tilt-Away Steering Wheels differed slightly. On the Thunderbirds, the engine could be started with the steering wheel in any position, and it would tilt-away regardless of whether the engine was running or not, as long as the car was in park. The position of the key in the ignition switch had no bearing on the Thunderbird Tilt-Away operation. However, on the Mustang and Cougar, the car couldn't be started unless the left door was closed and the steering wheel was locked down in the normal drive position. Further, with the ignition on, a relay prevented the steering wheel from tilting over until the ignition was turned off. The reason for this difference in operation is likely due to the fact that both the Mustang and Cougar had floor-mounted shifters, and it was likely an additional safety precaution.

Tilt Steering Wheel

Image: 1970 Ford Thunderbird Tilt Steering WheelOnce again, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards required a change to the Tilt Steering Wheel option. Beginning in 1970, a new ignition key, steering wheel, and transmission lever lock system was required by law. General Motors already had this feature ready to go in 1969, and rolled it out a year early, but Ford waited until 1970 to introduce it. Due to the position of the ignition lock cylinder on the right side of the steering column, the tilt-away function would not have worked, or would have been too expensive to manufacture, so a manual vertical adjustment only was offered as an option on the Thunderbird, as well as many other Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury models. The tilt steering wheel function worked as before, by pressing in (toward the instrument panel) on the turn signal lever while adjusting the degree of tilt. Release, and it locked the steering wheel in position.

Internally, a spring assist helped to move the steering wheel up and out of the way, but its tension was easy to overcome when tilting the wheel back down to a lower position. After the other unique features that had come before, this style seemed a bit mundane, but this was all that would be offered for many years to come.

Hopefully, this adequately explains the various movable steering wheels available on the Ford Thunderbird over the years, and their operation. This was one of the T-bird's signature features, and it's always recommended to move the steering wheel out of the way when exiting the car. After all, you never know who might pass by, see the steering wheel moved out of the way, and decide they have to have a Thunderbird, too!

For additional information, please read the Tilt Steering Wheel article in Automotive Mileposts' Auto Brevity section. It provides the history of the tilt wheel option at GM, Ford, and Chrysler.