Steering wheel knobs represent a most obscure form of collecting
Perhaps the most infamous of automotive aftermarket devices is the steering wheel knob. For this, we can thank a daredevil named Steve Brodie who actually had nothing to do with the device. His connection is more spiritual. Under a cloud of controversy, he claimed to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886. He passed away in 1901, but his name became synonymous with doing anything dangerous or flamboyant. In his honor, hot rodders in the ’50s would use their steering wheel knobs to spin the wheel back and forth while rapidly accelerating, thus “laying a Brodie.”
Steering wheel knobs are often referred to as “suicide knobs,” “wheel spinners,” and “necker knobs.” The “suicide” moniker came from the fact that a rather small movement of the knob could cause a rapid and unpredictable reaction of the car. For those of us who were James Dean fans, how can we forget the scene from Rebel Without a Cause when a guy catches his leather jacket on a knob and goes over the cliff? The “necker” designation came from the era of bench seats — you could have your arm around your best girl and steer the car with your necker knob.
For a number of reasons the wheel knobs are now illegal in most states, but they sure are collectible. Just ask Dr. Paul Sable, who collects unusual cars such as Dual-Ghias, Hudson Italias and Nash-Healeys. He was attracted to the knobs as an early teenager while perusing the local American Auto Parts store. He says he liked their unique colors, or perhaps it was the scantily clad ladies decorating many of them.
About 15 years ago he started using them on all his cars. He mentions having been stopped a couple of times for minor infractions and the officer pointed out that the knobs were illegal in Pennsylvania. After Sable’s five-minute dissertation on their history, he was let off with a warning.
Sable says he has about 200 knobs, and although he has a number of ideas about displaying them, for now they just sit on a couple of tables gathering dust in his garage. Many of the knobs are illuminated; some are made of Bakelite and others colorful plastic. He also has an in-the-box “Out of Way” knob by Allstate that folds down. The more mundane run about $20, but unusual ones such as a palm spinner can run several hundred dollars. The more common knobs feature the aforementioned ladies, and Sable wonders if Marilyn Monroe or any other star of the era was ever featured on one. So his quest continues!
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine