Why are steering wheels on the left side in the United States and not the right, as on British cars? Robert King contends it was in part because of his grandfather — with some help from the Vanderbilts.
The grandson of Charles B. King told the tale, as passed down in his family, to a crowd gathered recently for the induction of five luminaries into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Mich.
Earlier cars had a single steering lever in the center of the front seat. Ford Motor Co. introduced left-hand steering in 1908, but there was no consensus on left vs. right. A long article in the Nov. 10, 1912, New York Times laid out the arguments for both layouts. It noted that left-hand drive is favored by "makers of the National, Haynes, Lozier, R.C.H., Peerless, Ford, Moon and others."
Charles B. King invented air brakes, integrated engine and transmission assembly, three-point suspensions and a number of other innovations. At the 1912 New York auto show, his King automobile was the only car to feature left-hand steering and center controls.
"People said it would never sell, that it looked like a fire truck" because of its running boards — another King innovation — said grandson Robert King. But one of the scions of the Vanderbilt family bought it on the first day.
Not one to miss a marketing trick, King put a sign reading "Sold to Vanderbilt" on the car as soon as the tycoon left the show.
A day later, Vanderbilt's chauffeur came to the show and said the sign had to go, or the sale was off. Replied King, an enthusiastic proponent of steering from the left and driving on the right side of the road: "We need to get people driving on the right. So take the car or not, but the sign stays."