Theme : Economy – Effort

Why make a mountain out of a molehill?

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When compared to the human body, even a small, light car is a powerful and relentless device. Once under way, momentum builds up and, as anyone who has been in or just considered any car accident at a speed of more than single figures knows, a car deserves great respect. So, it’s maybe understandable that some people treat driving a car as they would wrestling with a bear. For them, the car is a beast to be tamed, and each turn is a matter of hauling on the steering wheel, maybe with an inverted hand inside the rim for extra leverage. The wheel is clenched, the car lurches round and the sweat finally recedes from their brow as another herculean task is completed – just in time for the next bend.

But, for every bear wrestler there is someone who takes the polar opposite – the steering wheel guided by a single hand in the six o’clock position, gripped loosely in two fingers and a thumb, the other arm resting in the open window. These drivers seem to revel in the fact that the car is their bondservant, relieving them of the need to put in an ounce of thought as they proceed on their way in an aura of distracted ennui. The slack of the low geared steering even allows them to hold the wheel with their upper thighs as they reach over for the Starbucks in the cup holder.

Drive 6

But whether either of these is a sensible way to proceed is debatable. Actually, it’s not, I’m being polite – both methods are rubbish. Those methods of conducting a vehicle show that the drivers have no idea of what a car can or can’t do. But I don’t necessarily blame them for this, manufacturers just don’t send out the right message.

As tyres have got wider and stickier, as structures have grown in size and weight, as front-wheel drive engines have grown more powerful and as we’ve grown used to machines doing more and more things for us, power assistance has become essential rather than optional. It’s now a long time since I regularly drove a car without power steering. It was a Vauxhall Astra we used as a work runaround, and that was stolen and scrapped nearly 20 years ago. Many younger drivers will never have experienced unassisted steering. The first car I owned with power steering was a Renault Espace bought in 1986 and, in some ways, I still miss the mild workout I got before that when regularly driving a car without assistance.

When effort mattered. Gonzales at speed - 1951
When effort mattered. Gonzales at speed – 1951

But steering effort is not necessarily steering feel. The human body is capable of quite precise calibration. Surgeons, watchmakers, netsuke carvers all provide testament, yet most car manufacturers aim their vehicles at the sensitivity of the most unschooled potential driver. Most people reading this will remember the difficulty they had first using a computer mouse, as well as how quickly they learnt to use it with accuracy. However, whereas a mistake with a mouse might, at the worst, get you onto a dubious website, the risks for car makers are slightly more serious, so it’s understandable, if hugely disappointing, that they all go with what’s expected, and don’t factor in the possibility of any learning or acclimatisation by the driver into the process.

Diravi Steering Diagram
Diravi Steering Diagram

The steering and brakes of the 1970 Citroen SM still impress with their immediacy, though they completely lack conventional ‘feel’. The small steering wheel has just 2 turns lock-to-lock which achieves a tight 10.5 m turning circle – once accustomed, steering isn’t something you notice that much. Likewise braking; although initial drivers of the SM make much of standing the car on its nose when just trying for just a little gentle retardation, familiarity lets you modulate braking as much as with any vehicle, with the bonus that the brakes are highly effective when needed. Not that this effortless balance is constant throughout the car.

The clutch is on the weighty side of normal and, although the gearchange through its rolling metallic gate is actually a joy to use, it requires a degree of arm movement that is at odds with the steering and brakes – this was a car that was made for a paddle shifter. But the point is that Citroen, though taking the Diravi steering, in slightly diluted form, through the CX to early versions of the V6 powered XM, didn’t persist any further. Rather than catering for the converted, they felt it wiser to embrace the mainstream and do things like everyone else. I do like my SM and it’s very nice being the custodian of an interesting old car but, if Citroen or anyone else made something new with the same effortless yet very precise steering, I might well be tempted to choose that instead.

But the Citroen stands out for me only because the other systems remain so conservative. Some of the first cars were tiller controlled but, very soon, the steering wheel became the accepted norm with deviation from this confined to manufacturer’s show-cars. The 1954 Ford FX Atmos and 1962 Seattle-ite concepts both featured a type of joystick control, but this proceeded no further than did their notional nuclear powered engines.

The 1996 Mercedes F200 was a more practical concept car than either of the Fords, featuring a raft of innovations that have since been incorporated into subsequent production models, but the innovation  that progressed no further was the sidestick steering and throttle control. BMW showed the Drivestick concept in 2002 and Honda showed some joystick designs in 2011, including the EV-STER. For production versions, don’t hold your breath.

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In fact, most of these ways of guiding a car would take little acclimatising for the gaming generations, but about as radical as we get is the flat bottomed steering wheel, whose incorporation into anything but a cramped racer is meaningless. Of course any manufacturer knows that radical innovation in a car’s basic controls is more trouble than it’s worth, with a vista of lost sales and lawsuits on offer. Anyway, it’s probably too late to change now.

The autonomous vehicle, the driverless car, looms ever closer. Like the starting handle or the tiller control, the steering wheel will become an anachronism and can be replaced by a breakfast tray, or maybe a holder for your joystick so that you’ll be able to play some games to while away your trip.

13 thoughts on “Theme : Economy – Effort”

  1. The last car I ran without PAS was a Peugeot 205. The parking activity could be hard if and only if you didn’t let the car move slightly. At driving speed it did that Peugeot trick of being light, accurate and it sent no kickback on lumpy roads. The 406 is the same (how is that done??). In recent years encounters with non-PAS cars have been alarming. After two minutes at the wheel of a Fiat Spider I fled. And the in-laws Corsa (c1990) was a horror- slop like a Volvo 340.
    About the general principles, makers are forced to compromise the design in the name of immediate accessibility because the car’s reaction to inputs was fixed by the non-adjustable set-up. These days they could easily provide different behaviour modes by electronic means. One button would be a disclaimer and the others a menu or even sliders to regulate the ratio. Maybe they do this already?

    1. I haven’t driven a vehicle without power steering for ages. I think the last was a Mercedes TN van which was big, but had a big steering wheel and was rear-driven, so it was no huge workout, just a lot of wheel spinning. It’s often surprising how many large, higher-end cars in the 60s and 70s had PAS as an option only.

    2. First and last non-assisted car for me was a MkIII Fiesta. Very similar to 205 experience you describe.

    1. Manual steering was really ever just a problem at parking speeds. I remember my Mum’s Rover 2000 as fine on the open road – though its steering was never really that wonderful, a bi-product of a clever but ultimately unsatisfactory front suspension design that was intended to accommodate a gas turbine that never happened. The non PAS Peugeot 505 estate that replaced it was fine. My small Renault 5 was a delight to steer, but an unassisted Renault 20 I drove a few times wasn’t nice at all.

  2. Re unassisted steering, that’s how I learned to drive. In the AX at that time, it was easy due to its light weight and narrow tyres. I don’t remember that steering very much, it must have been a very inconspicuous device, and not too heavy at parking speeds (thaks also to my old-school driving instructor who, despite having assisted steering in his car, still teached to “roll and steer”).
    What I remember very fondly (and impatiently look forward to driving again) is the GS’s unassisted steering. Helped by centre-point suspension, low unsprung masses (inboard brakes) and the 145 tyres, it’s a real delight to drive as soon as one exceeds walking pace – light, precise, with just the right amount of feedback and stiffening at high speeds. They also got the centering forces right. It could only have been made worse by any kind of assistance – except maybe adapting the “Diravi” from the larger Citroëns.

    1. I drove 2 GS’s. One a friend bought and it was absolutely awful. Rusty and mechanically knackered, yet it was only 6 years old. We often forget how pernicious rust was back then and, I suspect, once an owner saw it taking hold they neglected everything about the car. That wasn’t representative.

      I drove another in the late 90s and, although obviously a lot older, and well-used, it had been looked after and was a delight. I remember the steering in particular. Had I the time/money/space/patience to have a small collection of old cars, either a Fiat 128 or a GS was fit in the small saloon category.

      The concept of ‘remembering’ steering is interesting. In my Audi I always remember every grudging turn of the wheel. The SM is like my motorcycle, it just seems to know where you’re going.

    2. Roll and steer: that is a good formulation. I wince when I see people turning the wheel while the PAS tries to twist a 30cm square patch of sticky rubber over a rough road surface. Said contact patch is home to 300 kilos of downward force. Crumbs.
      This reminds me I did once drive a GS estate. Maddeningly I did not observe the steering. I remember the noise and the smell of petrol.

    3. Living in London, where space to manoeuvre is at a premium, I admit that I often do have to stick and steer. In mitigation, I imagine that the strain on the tyres is nothing like that they experience when loaded up and cornering at speed.

      Yes, the GS was noisier that water-cooled equivalents but, if the engine was in a good state, it was a satisfying noise.

    4. Yes, GSs can be awful bangers if not looked after (and they do require a lot of care, and by someone with a good understanding of its peculiarities, too). I know that petrol smell well. And the noise – yes it’s there, but as I like that specific boxer sound, I don’t care too much. After all, it’s not a car I have to use daily at high speeds.
      Interesting that for you, Sean, the SM steering is something you don’t particularly seem to “remember”. I don’t know how much it differs from the CX. In one way, yes, it has this air of just taking you where it has to with seemingly no effort, staying very much in the background. On the other hand, that special driving feeling, the easy parking manoeuvres, all accompanied by its hissing sound, will be something I’ll never forget.

    5. The SM has a 10.5m turning circle and 2 turns lock to lock. The CX, having a transverse engine, has to make do with an 11.8m turning circle and needs 2.5 turns of the wheel. So, by crude maths, the SM is 40% more sensitive than the CX. Making the steering that bit slower was probably a sensible move for a car that was intended to be a big seller, but it was still streets ahead of most other things. But, as we’ve said before, the advantages of Diravi work against it in a test drive.

  3. I remember a very fast night drive back from the Hawkes Bay in New Zealand to Wellington with a friend in the late 1970’s in his Jensen Interceptor Mk111. We caught up to some tail lights through a slightly windier section of road and as the car in front was going at a good clip (approx 90mph) just tucked in behind. Eventually we reached a longer straight and blasted past just to find that we’d been following a little GS. Three or four years later I bought an almost new GSA. What a great little car it was. 🙂 Years later I owned CX’s and loved the steering and how you barely noticed that you actually were steering, As Sean says, almost like a motorbike.

    1. Great story, Fraser, very evocative. The story shows handling goes a long way towards covering distance at a good speed. My old 205 couldn´t top 90 mph but was excellent at the range 0-50 where you spend your time on Irish roads.
      I´d love if there was a library of cars so you could check them for half an hour. If I wanted to test a GS I´d need to spend a minimum of €300 and at least two days of my time. I do wish I´d paid attention to the steering when I had that chance to drive the GS.

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