When it comes down to discussing the steering system on your car or truck, characteristics can be broken down into two basic pairings. Those two pairings could mean either power-assisted or manual, sloppy or tight, working or not. Okay, maybe that’s a little sarcastic, but you get the idea.
Usually it can take a combination of two or more of those descriptions before many people decide that they should check things out, and see what – if anything – is wrong. Such is the case with Lloyd Hunt’s 1973 Chevy C10.
The Truck Has Issues
Lloyd’s Chevy is like many square body trucks in that it has seen a lot of miles, and the care has been minimal over the years. He just recently purchased the truck in unrestored condition with plans of building a cool “muscletruck.” The steering system was one of the first things that he noticed was mechanically ailing. We talked him into pulling the truck into the Power Automedia shop and have the guys do some diagnostics to see what was actually going on.
As soon as the guys pulled the Chevy onto the Bendpak lift, it didn’t take long for the them to figure out that the steering box was worn beyond a point where any adjustments would make a noticeable change.
Lloyd immediately thought about rebuilding the vehicle-aiming device, but after talking to the folks at Borgeson, he learned enough to know that rebuilding the box was not an option for him. According to Jeff Grantmeyer at Borgeson, “The problem with rebuilding a steering box from the ’60s and ’70s is that when you’re done, you still have an old steering box.”
While speaking with Grantmeyer, Lloyd learned that rebuilding a steering box is something that some people can properly accomplish, but some might want to avoid the task. “Experienced, detail-orientated people can of course complete a rebuild, pending availability of components and a thorough inspection of the steering gear to insure all critical surfaces and components are serviceable,” Grantmeyer said.
What’s Really Wrong?
When it comes to figuring out why a steering system has excessive play, some checks can be made to help you come to a final decision. Taking a few minutes to properly diagnose the situation could save you from spending money you really didn’t need to. The looseness that many people feel in their steering is usually caused by one of two things: either worn internals in the steering box, or external components like the pitman and/or idler arm, or the tie-rod ends.
The problem with rebuilding a steering box from the ’60s and ’70s is that when you’re done, you still have an old steering box. – Jeff Grantmeyer
A key indicator that something is badly worn somewhere in the steering system, is when you notice that you need to move the steering wheel an exorbitant amount before the steering actually reacts. In other words, if you can move your steering wheel back and forth several inches before you feel any resistance or before your car actually steers, something is wrong. This looseness can be caused by several factors.
The first place to check is the “rag joint.” The rag joint is the flexible connector constructed of a doughnut-shaped piece of rubber with reinforcing cords vulcanized within it. It actually looks like a piece of a tire. Anyway, this piece of rubber joins your steering column to your steering box, and its purpose in the steering system is to act as a vibration damper.
Without this “flexible” connection, you would feel every road imperfection as you drive. When in good condition, it will be stiff, yet flexible. But, the rag joint is susceptible to becoming saturated by moisture or engine fluids. Over time, wildly changing temperatures under the hood of your ride can also contribute to its failure.
After you have checked that, you should move on to the steering components outside of the gear box. Check for play at the tie-rod ends, idler arm, and pitman arm. These pieces of the system work with a ball and socket assembly, and can wear easily if not properly maintained.
Set Up For Success – Or Failure
We as car guys have a knack for wanting to tear things apart and fix them ourselves, but if you think about it, is that really an option for something like rebuilding a steering box? To some it might seem like a simple task. In reality, there are dozens of small pieces that need to be properly placed and tolerances that must be adhered to in order to have a box that, not only works properly, but will last longer than a gallon of fuel.
There are two vital adjustments that need to be within spec when rebuilding a steering box. One is the worm shaft bearing load, and the other is the gear mesh load. The worm shaft is positioned between two caged ball bearings, and actually functions as the inner races for both of these bearings. The bottom bearing is installed within the steering box housing, and the top bearing is located in the adjustment nut. This adjustability is what allows for the bearing preload settings.
When tightening the adjustment nut, the two bearings are brought closer together, increasing the pressure applied to the worm section of the input shaft. This “tightness,” must be enough to remove play from the input shaft, yet keep it securely positioned in the housing. If the pressure applied is too great, the bearings will bind, and wear will be expedited. The proper preload is achieved by measuring the amount of drag exerted as you spin the input shaft.
Gear mesh load refers to how the teeth of the ball nut and the pitman shaft make contact. When properly adjusted, the meshing action of the two “gears,” adds little or no additional drag to the turning of the input shaft. If the mesh load is too light, the box will feel “loose,” and the car will want to wander. Too much gear mesh, and the gears can bind.
If either of the worm shaft bearing load or gear mesh load settings are made incorrectly, you wasted your time and money to rebuild a steering box that will not last very long. So what’s the alternative? How many times have you seen or heard of someone that tries to tighten their steering by adjusting the allen-head bolt on the top of the box, only to make things worse? There is a specific setting for that bolt, and if it is not properly set, you can destroy the internals of the box.
As Lloyd learned, the alternative that can give your vehicle a crisp feeling through the steering wheel, also calls for a minimal investment – installing a Borgeson steering gear box. We asked Grantmeyer what makes the Borgeson box a good upgrade, and we were actually surprised with his answer, “The Borgeson steering box is the OE. In 2014 Borgeson purchased all of the original tooling, equipment, and manufacturing rights for the entire Saginaw manual-steering gear line.” What better way to get a new steering box than by buying a new, original unit?
The Easy Fix
The job of changing out the steering gear box is relatively easy, and anyone can do it at home in their driveway. Most of the task can be accomplished with simple hand tools, but a couple specialty tools like a pitman arm puller and tie-rod separator will also be needed. If you don’t have these tools, a friend might. If they don’t, some auto parts stores will rent them to you.
We do want to make sure that you are aware of one situation that can cause you a headache. The only issue that we ran into during this install was that our factory rag joint connector would not work with our Borgeson box. The new gear box came with a 3/4-inch diameter worm shaft with a 36-count spline.
Our truck came with a 13/16-inch shaft. We overlooked this when ordering the parts, but Borgeson makes a rag joint coupler that attaches from the steering box to the factory style steering column. So one piece of advice we can give you is to double check that you have the correct rag joint connector or universal joint to tie into your steering column, be it aftermarket or stock.
When it comes down to deciding between rebuilding an old box, or choosing an all-new unit, Grantmeyer told us, “While an original box can be rebuilt, the success will depend on the starting condition of the old components. A manual box from Borgeson is made to the original Saginaw prints, and leaves no question. All internal components are new, and all adjustments and even seals and lubricants are as intended by Saginaw steering gear.” That sounds like the perfect reason to visit the Borgeson website, and find out how you can fix the ailing steering in your classic ride.
It might have taken several hours to complete the steering box replacement, but the results are definitely worth the effort put into the task. Before the swap, Lloyd was able to move the steering wheel approximately 4 inches before any resistance was felt. We asked Lloyd how significantly the change affected the truck’s steering behavior, and he said, “I hated driving the pig, as it was just that, a pig. I needed to steer from left to right, just to maintain a straight line. Going down the road, it would wander a lot. I felt very unsafe driving the truck. I know the truck still needs shocks and bushings to get that new truck feel, but now the steering is tight and performs as expected. I couldn’t be any happier with this manual box from Borgeson and new steering parts from Moog.”