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February 09, 2006

Steering Left, Right -- or Center

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It all seems so logical. Except to the hyper-logical French.

In countries such as the USA where cars are driven on the right side of the road, cars have steering wheels on the left (center line) side. And steering wheels are mounted on the right in Britain and Japan where cars drive on the left side of the road.

In France, cars drive on the right side of the road.

So as René Bellu reported in "Toutes Les Voitures Française 1937: Salon 1936" (Automobilia Hors-Serie No. 3, p. 5):

DIRECTION: 42 modèles ont un volant à gauche, 66 restent fidèles au volont à droite, un seul est livrable au choix avec volant à gauche ou à droite, 2 présentent l'originalité d'avoir un volant central.

There you have it.

More than half the models offered by the French automobile industry for 1937 were right-hand drive.

Well, maybe "numbers don't lie" but they sometimes fib. Those 66 models where the driver sits on the right were mostly luxury cars (Delage, Delahaye, Talbot, etc.) where production was tiny. High-volume models from Renault, Citroën and Peugeot came with left-hand drive, so most 1937 model-year French cars that hit the rues were in synch with road regulations.

Then there's the fact that driving on the right side of the road has been the rule in France since Revolutionary times. So why did Thirties luxury cars have right-hand drive? I don't know, though here are two possibilities (someone please post the facts in Comments): (1) the luxury trade harkened back to pre-Revolutionary times, and (2) French luxury car makers took their cue from Rolls-Royce. (The second speculation gets iffy if one realizes that France was far ahead of England in the early days of automobiling: why should they imitate unless it was a snob thing?)

Enough of this left-right stuff. The real topic of this post is French cars where the steering wheel was mounted in the center.

In particular, I want to highlight the Panhard "Dynamic" model introduced in mid-1936. The firm Panhard et Lavassor was one of the oldest car-makers, introducing the système-Panhard of front-engine, rear-drive that quickly dominated the industry.

By the mid-1930s Panhard was a high-priced-car maker trying to make headway in a stormy economy. A few years earlier it introduced Panoramiques -- cars with small, curved windows where the front corner posts normally were (they had two smaller corner posts instead).

The Dynamic (interestingly an English spelling) was much more radical. For one thing, it had a "monocoque" or "unit" body where the chassis and the body were integral, not separate. This is nearly universal today, but rare in the Thirties. The engine lacked normal poppet valves, being a "sleeve valve" motor -- unheard-of today and rare back then. Its styling was an attempt at streamlining. Finally, the steering wheel was placed on the car's center-line.

Here is an advertisement announcing the Dynamic.

Panhard Dynamic advert.jpg
Panhard Dynamic advertisement.

And here is a photo of the car.

Panhard Dynamic.jpg
Panhard Dynamic. Note the central steering and "Panoramique" windows.

Pretty ugly, isn't it?

Streamlining -- both aerodynamic and cosmetic -- was the big, new thing in the Thirties and car designers groped for a while until automobiles became both rounded and attractive. The Panhard Dynamic, despite its modern unit-body, has a somewhat old-fashioned top combined with rounded fenders and wheel-covers. The overall effect strikes me as ponderous. And the cars never sold well.

Central steering pops up now and then in dream cars but has been a failed concept commercially. I can see no driving advantage under normal conditions.

Moreover, it poses packaging problems. Smaller, European-sized sedans are so narrow that there is no room for a centrally-positioned driver and passengers on either side. The driver seat will have to be ahead of the passenger seats, meaning the car will have to be longer than normal if there are two rows of passenger seats, or that fewer passengers can be carried if there was only one row for passenger seating. On a wider, American-sized car, the driver has to slide across a seat to exit; worse, a passenger might have to step out of the car so as to make way for the exiting driver.

France can be an interesting place, but sometimes I wonder about la logique.



posted by Donald at February 9, 2006


Right-hand drive in French luxury cars had one advantage. Drivers could step out of the cars directly onto the sidewalks without having to go into the street and walk around. Okay, it's a minor advantage, but might have been the sort of thing that the ultra-wealthy would want because of the convenience and dignity it offered.
While of course there are no modern cars with center steering, the Toyota Echo and its platform-mate the Scion xA, both very small vehicles, have the speedometer and other instruments in the middle of the dashboard.

Posted by: Peter on February 9, 2006 10:45 PM

That's a pretty funny-looking car. But maybe the French liked it. They have pretty funny ideas about what makes a chic car -- think of Citroens -- and maybe (post-modernism alert here) we haven't fathomed their taste set.

Anyway, my own theory about the French and their supposed love of logic and rationality is that they don't actually like making sense, they love the appearance of far-out thought. It's all about the style. They love their paradoxes and logic-games, but more as cafe-chatter than as anything so mundane, so (sniff) Anglo-German as to be useful or to make sense.

It's a wonder to us earnest types that they get anything done. But they do, somehow. I'm not sure they're calling on their love of logic to get there, is all...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 10, 2006 11:12 AM

Oh I dunno, Donald, I sort of like the {-shape front fender (is that the right word?). I'd tear it off and used as an arch top for frame of an Art Deco lacquer panel...

Posted by: Tatyana on February 10, 2006 1:57 PM

The McLaren F1 was designed to be the closest thing to a race car you could get in a street legal package. It too has center drive and is fairly streamlined. I don't know whether or not you can get one in France, but it definitely wasn't a French idea.

Posted by: Cobb on February 10, 2006 2:49 PM

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