The History of Power Steering

Posted on: June 1, 2016

The History of Power Steering

There’s a reason that modern vehicles have power steering, and it’s all due to the challenges faced by the drivers of the 1930s and early 1940s.  As the Great Depression eased and the economy improved, more and more people were driving cars, including housewives and even the older generation.

Older folks and some of the women had difficulty managing the straight, stiff, and resistant steering of the automobiles.  With the wide variety of drivers and their equally wide range in driving skills, it became necessary to find a way to make steering a vehicle easier and more pleasurable for drivers of all abilities.

The Challenges of Early Cars

It wasn’t that these drivers were inept. The cars at that time were difficult to shift and steer at the same time, so they truly presented a significant challenge. Try to imagine not having any extra power over control or steering.

If you wanted to turn right, you physically had to manage to turn the wheel the entire arc of the turn.  Your ability to turn the wheel would be based upon the ground underneath the tires.  If the car was stationary, it was even more difficult.

Perhaps most importantly, for those who wanted to gain the independence and sense of adventure cars offered during the early years of the 20th century, this unexpected physical challenge was dismaying. The first patent for a power steering system was granted in 1876 to a man named G. W. Fitts, decades before cars began to excite the public imagination.  A hydraulic-based power steering system was patented in the Great Britain during 1902, and, in 1904, the federal government awarded a patent for a vacuum-type power steering system.

Francis Davis, the Power Steering Guru

An engineer named Francis Davis created the first practical power steering system in 1926. Davis, an automotive engineer who worked in the truck division of Pierce Arrow, had been studying how to make steering easier.

From 1931 through 1943 Davis was granted five patents, each one for a certain component in his design for a power steering system.

Contracted by General Motors, Davis made improvements on their hydraulic power steering system, but this improved version of the system was never put into product.  The plan was to install the power steering in Cadillacs, but because of the failing economy, the company canceled their contract with Davis in 1934.

The Bendix Corporation had been watching Davis’s work, and in 1936 they contracted with him to build and market his hydraulic power steering system.  In three years his power steering system had been installed in only 10 vehicles. Coincidentally enough, General Motors bought two of his systems and installed them into Buicks.

In 1940, the Saginaw recirculating ball steering gear was first used on the new Cadillacs.  This new mechanism made it easier to steer, but turning the wheel when the car was stopped was still very difficult.

Everything would change when the war began.

Power Steering During the War

After Pearl Harbor was attacked in December, 1941, the production of vehicles for the American war front went into full swing.  It soon became evident that power steering would be necessary to be able to maneuver most trucks and other armored vehicles.

Power-steering really developed its foothold during the war.  As early as 1940, the power steering system developed by Bendix-Davis was installed in armored vehicles manufactured by Chevrolet for the British army.

At the end of the war, there would be more than 10, 000 vehicles with power steering: all war vehicles from the battlefields of Europe.

Power Steering Invades America

Chrysler began to design its own power steering system immediately after the war ended. Davis’s patents had expired by this time, so the company used his design as a basis of their own.  Naming the system “Hydraguide,” the company featured it on the Chrysler Imperial.

General Motors again became interested in the system, so they made a deal once more with Davis, contracting with him to work on a power steering system for their cars.

As early as 1953, there were already 1 million cars using power steering.  This time, the public took an immediate liking of power steering, and driving would never be the same.  By 1956, a quarter of all cars in America had power steering.  And, by 1960, that amount would increase to more than 3.5 million.

These days there are several other types of power steering systems being used in cars. Electro-hydraulic and electric systems are both being used and are gaining in popularity. However, many hydraulic systems are currently in use, so Davis’s influence is still felt in today’s world of automotive digital devices.