Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A "Fat Man" Steering Wheel

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

One of the things I noticed when I first climbed into the driver's seat of an antique car was that I didn't need to move the seat so I could reach the pedals. That was a good thing, since the seats in early cars weren't adjustable. It was not a good thing if you were tall, which in the early 1900s seemed to be anything over 5'8" or so. The steering columns and wheels were also fixed in place. Until collapsable steering columns became available in the late 1960s, drivers were at risk of being impaled on the column in a crash.

The rigid steering wheel also posed problems, not just for people "of goodly proportions," but really for anyone entering or exiting the driver's seat because of the wheel's large size. Steering wheels designed to solve the latter issue became a popular aftermarket option in the 1910s. Nicknamed "fat man wheels," they could be rotated out of the way by pressing on a lever. Depending on the manufacturer, the wheel either tilted up or to the right. To read about some examples, check out this article from Hemmings Motor News.

We recently received a donation of a Spencer fat man wheel, which Willy is demonstrating here. In the early 1920s, the Spencer Lock Tilting Steering Wheel was made to fit on Ford, Dodge, Overland, Maxwell, Star, Gray, and Chevrolet cars. The "spiders" (spokes) were "attractively designed die cast aluminum, highly polished."

The Spencer steering wheel also featured a lock and key. When locked, the steering wheel spun but would not turn the car's wheels. It could be locked when the wheel was in either the down or tilted positions. The Spencer Manufacturing Company boasted that this theft-prevention feature would pay for the steering wheel by reducing an owner's insurance rate. Printed in the wheel's center is the slogan "It Locks. It Tilts." We hope to put this wheel on display this summer.

Coming to Fairbanks to see the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and other area attractions? Support the museum by staying right here at Wedgewood Resort. 

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