The View From Faraway Farm: Disproportionate enthusiasm

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We have the choice of approaching the mundane with disproportionate enthusiasm. One would think "why so much additional effort over something that is ho-hum." That is the place where art and Godliness has a chance to exist. It is the manifestation of an excellent mind that works the details until something exceptional emerges. Think of it in these terms; it's the difference between a Timex and a Patek Phillipe timepiece, or a Bic click and a Mont Blanc pen. It's not about the production of something snooty and exclusively high-minded, it is the product of an effort to make something that looks and functions as close to perfection as possible. Who am I to speak of such things? I believe that everyone has the right to appreciate beauty, physical or otherwise. Beauty in movement, in visual proportion, beauty in function. Hell, even a toaster can be beautiful in the way that it works or the way that it looks, and sometimes beautiful in both form and function. What about a steering wheel?

There's a challenge. Since the advent of the airbag, steering wheels have become about as attractive as a pimple on a derriere. While infinitely more functional than steering wheels were a few decades ago, today's wheel is populated by buttons and paddles with seemingly no thought for aesthetics. What we are now presented with is a molded blob of pebble grained vinyl dotted with screen printed plastic rocker switches whose purportedly intuitive functionality really isn't very intuitive at all. Haul out the owner's manual and get ready to study when it comes to some steering wheel designs. You can't fault the intent because the evolution of the steering wheel is currently about safety and convenient function, designed to keep your eyes on the road where they belong. It's more about feel, with a thick rim and buttons designed to communicate their function through organic shapes. Visually appealing? Not so much.

I believe that there was a golden age of steering wheel design that began in the 1930s and disintegrated into a monotone miasma of cheesy design borne of unenthusiastic and unimaginative effort in the 1970s. I'm referring to the plastic crap that was pumped out of Detroit during one of the most regressive periods in the industry's history. Think Dodge Aspen, Ford Fairmont or Olds Cutlass 1977. Those were bleak times for steering wheels. It was like the industry was seizing up over the looming shadow of the airbags to come. When they arrived, it was a fait accompli. Steering wheel design entered a dark tunnel that continues to have no visible illumination at its end.

I currently possess just one vehicle without a steering wheel with an airbag embedded in its center. Because it is a pre-airbag car, I can modify it with a custom steering wheel of my choice, and I will probably do that in an effort to revive some classic style in my ride. As I think back on the thin, large diameter wheels of yesteryear, one stands out in my memory as the most beautiful I'd ever seen; the timeless wood-rimmed Nardi of Torino Italy. Enrico Nardi, the steering wheels legendary namesake was an engineer, race car driver, and designer for the likes of Vincenzo Lancia and Enzo Ferrari. Nardi was Ferrari's very first test driver, and in later years he supplied Nardi Volante steering wheels for most Ferraris. Many of the world's most exclusive automobiles have been equipped with Nardi steering wheels. You can still purchase a Nardi steering wheel today, and they are every bit as beautiful as the Nardi's of 1958. The right Nardi steering wheel can add significant value to a classic automobile such as a Bentley, Rolls Royce, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Porsche or Aston Martin.

I've perused these amazing mahogany and aluminum masterpieces, some priced in the thousands. They make adapters to allow fitment to my car, and all I can do is hope to find a used Nardi some day at a reasonable price. They do exist, but you have to spend a great deal of effort to find one. Nobody needs a Nardi steering wheel because any steering wheel will do the job. However, if you want to experience something very special each and every time your hand falls to the wheel, a Nardi delivers the organic feel of natural wood with visual distinction unlike any other. The shape, the proportion, the detail and the sensory input from a Nardi steering wheel conveys emotion, adding to the experience of driving. A design borne of disproportionate enthusiasm.

Arlo Mudgett's Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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