It seems so logical. Public roads are divided into at least two lanes. In the U.S. we drive on the right hand side of the road. Therefore, it only makes sense that we would sit on the left side of the vehicle since that puts the driver closest to the centerline.
In fact, it seems logical because that’s the way we’ve been driving in this country for over a hundred years. It didn’t start out that way and it might have turned out differently were it not for this automobile engine.
The nations of the earth are divided into two camps: those that drive on the right hand side of the road and those that drive on the left. As a general rule automobiles are built with steering wheels on the left side of the car for countries which drive on the right side of the road and on the right side of the car for countries which drive on the left. This puts the driver next to the centerline and in a better position to watch for oncoming cars.
When automobiles were first plying our public roads, those roads were seldom wide enough for two lanes of traffic and were made of dirt so painting a centerline was not possible. Even so, in this country the standard courtesy was already established that when two vehicles met on a public road they were to pass on their respective left hand sides. This rule of the road existed long before there were automobiles and it applied to everyone from riders on horse back, to ox carts, to stagecoaches, and to that “shiny little surrey with the fringe on the top.”
If it seems so logical, then, to sit on the left side of the vehicle when driving on the right side of the road, why did nearly every early automobile in the U.S. have its steering wheel on the right? There could have been any number of reasons but the ability to hop out curbside without stepping in mud might be one answer, and keeping the wheels out of the ditch might be another.
Another good question: If nearly every early automobile had the steering wheel on the right, when did we change to the left and why? On a recent visit to the historic Ford Piquette Avenue Plant I heard a museum docent offer his insight.
The Model T was developed as a secret project in a third floor room of the Piquette plant and in that same space the museum is creating displays explaining its development. Ford worked with a select group of designers and engineers to incorporate into the Model T everything they had learned from his earlier cars. The overriding goal was to simplify everything they could to make the new car easier to operate, easier to maintain, easier to build, and cheaper than any other car on the road.
Internally, the engine would be similar to the Model S—which immediately preceded the T—but with numerous improvements such as fewer castings for the engine block. Also, on the Model S the cooling fan doubled as the flywheel and was a heavy casting attached to the front of the engine. Ford’s new design would embed magnets in the flywheel and move it to the other end so that it became part of the magneto. To facilitate this change, Ford decided to simply turn the engine around in the engine bay. Doing so, though, put the intake and exhaust manifolds in the same space as the steering shaft so he moved the steering wheel to the other side. This put the driver on the left side of the car rather than on the right as in every other car Ford had made before this.
If the Model T had proved to be just another bit player in the history of the automobile, this change would have had little impact. Within just a few years, though, Ford’s inexpensive Fliver was selling by the hundreds of thousands and accounted for half of all cars on the road. Model T owners probably saw some advantages to driving from the left side of the vehicle and Ford’s competitors likely did, too. All of them soon adopted this same change and from then on Americans would be driving from the left side of their cars.