Today’s modern vehicles offer various electronic adjustments for the steering wheel, including tilt and telescoping systems that automatically move the wheel to a preset position for the driver. However, before the digital revolution, the classic Ford Swing-Away steering wheel feature offered easier ingress and egress without all the electric doodads.
First offered on the 1961 Thunderbird, the classic Ford Swing-Away steering arrived on the T-bird’s options list as part of a generational update that also introduced brand new styling and the latest 6.4L (390 cubic-inch) FE V8 engine. Ford also made standard a number of features that were previously optional, such as power brakes, power steering, back-up lights and bucket seats, but it didn’t stop there, introducing an innovative new option to entice buyers.
A movable steering wheel was the perfect fit. Offered for just $25.10, the classic Ford Swing-Away steering wheel in the Thunderbird helped to define the new 1961 model year and set it apart from the competition. Here’s how it worked: with the car in park, the whole steering column would actually move about 18 inches towards the center of the car. A metal plate behind the instrument panel would move with the column to fill in the gap. The result was easier ingress and egress from the driver’s seat, as well as a whole lotta cool factor.
The driver could even start the car with the wheel in this position, but the transmission would remain locked in park for safety reasons until the wheel wasn’t brought back to its regular position.
The classic Ford Swing-Away option became quite the popular choice, and made its way onto the majority of 1961 Thunderbird models produced. The option became so popular, that it became standard the following year, and was then introduced in the Ford Galaxie. Later, the feature evolved into Tilt-Away, and was added to models like the Ford Mustang and Mercury Cougar.
Of course, it has to be said that Ford wasn’t the first to invent a movable steering wheel. For example, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe had a steering wheel that would flip down, while many pre-war British cars offered a telescoping steering wheel. However, the classic Ford Swing-Away steering wheel remains a notable innovation in the history of the automobile.