This Mazda Concept’s Weird Steering Belt Makes the Yoke Look Ergonomic

Now that’s a chafing hazard.

byNico DeMattia|
History photo


Steering yokes may annoy many of us, but the idea to replace the time-tested steering wheel isn't a new one. Mazda's 1981 MX-81 Aria concept is proof of that. Penned by Marc Deschamps, then-head of design at Bertone, the MX-81 was quintessential 1980s futurism, with a Blade Runner-like exterior and an interior full of bizarre shapes and overwhelmingly complicated buttons. However, the weirdest part of the entire car, for better or worse, was its steering wheel—if you can even call it that.

Countless concepts of the '70s and '80s had unconventional steering devices, like the Citroen Karin and Maserati Boomerang. Yet, the MX-81 Aria's makes almost all of them seem ordinary by comparison. Rather than physically turning a wheel, to steer the MX-81 you rotated what was essentially a conveyor belt around a rectangular steering column-slash-gauge cluster.

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The column was fixed in place, as it also housed buttons for turn signals, windshield wipers, headlights, and one big honkin' pad for the horn. Deeply recessed in its center was a CRT screen, which relayed information like speed and RPMs. All that is pretty typical of '80s concept cars; what's harder to grasp is the belt clad in weird Chiclet-like nubs.

To steer the car, you sort of had to palm the rubber nubs and push them around their fixed track, which looks unwieldy and uncomfortable. Thankfully it remained a concept, and Mazda never actually tried to bring such a design to production. You'd imagine the likelihood of a crash would be pretty high and yet, I'd still love to give it a whirl.

Aside from the oddball steering, the MX-81's cabin was quite forward-looking. It had rotating front seats, which is still very common in concept cars; a massive (for the time) screen for the driver; and a clever rotating dashboard storage compartment for the passenger. Even the outside had some noteworthy features, like a power-operated windshield-wiper cover.

Typically, Mazda destroyed concepts like the MX-81 back in the day but, for some reason, the automaker spared this particular experiment its life and locked it away for decades. It wasn't until 2021 that the company brought it out of storage, dusted it off, and sent it to Italy where it could be restored. Once that process was complete, it was brought to the Piazza del Duomo in Milan, where Mazda recreated its original press photos in front of the Milan Cathedral. Of course, it was likely trailered there, because I'm skeptical anyone could've possibly driven it with that funky steering belt.

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