Steering Problems & Cures
By Stephen Kassis
Early Chevrolet cars & trucks can develop steering problems which must be addressed for safety reasons. Loose steering will allow the vehicle to wander, forcing the driver to constantly correct by moving the steering wheel back and forth. Road conditions can also cause steering to wander and narrow tires on early cars are particularly affected by rutted roads.
Straight axle models from 1929-1954 have components that must be checked: steering box, tie rod ends, drag link ends, and king pins. Most early cars & trucks have replaceable components in the tie rod and drag link ends. The components include: springs, cups, pistons & end plug.
Check and adjust the tie rod & drag link ends if steering seems loose. Remove the cotter pin and turn the end plug in until resistance is met. Then turn in to the next hole and insert the cotter pin. Overtightening here can cause the steering to be hard. Be sure all components are lubricated with good quality grease. If steering remains hard, back off the plug adjustment one hole and try again.
Bad king pins can cause steering to wander. To check king pins, jack up the front wheels off the ground slightly. From the side, grab the top and bottom of the tire. Push in and out on the tire and look at the brake backing plate. If any movement is noticed in the backing plate, the king pins or bushings are worn and should be replaced.
Some early king pins require that the bushings are pressed in place and reamed to fit the pins. Others have “floating” bushings which are pre-machined for proper fit. Check your shop manual for the proper installation procedures for your vehicle.
After tie rod & drag link adjustments and king pin replacement, if steering issues persist, it is time to check the steering box. Have someone move the steering wheel back and forth until resistance is met. While this is being done, look at the pitman arm to see if there is up and down movement before it pushes and pulls the drag link. Movement here will indicate worn bushings or bearings.
Bushings, bearings, overhaul kits and a limited number of sector shafts are available to assist in steering box rebuilding. Disassembly, reassembly and adjustment procedures will be addressed in the shop manual. Steering gear lubricant is difficult to find, so I have made a “home brew” of 50/50 600W gear oil and grease to form a slurry that works nicely in a steering box. Steering box adjustments will be found in the vehicle shop manual. After following the adjustment procedures, if there is still too much play in the steering box an overhaul will be necessary.
1939-1948 Passenger cars with open knee suspension have another common problem that can cause steering to be poor. Pitman arm bushings are a steel & rubber bushing that often fail due to oil and grease causing the rubber to break down. Check these bushings first to see if your steering problem can be fixed with simply replacing these bushings. Of course, be sure to check king pins and tie rod ends for looseness as these can also cause steering problems.
1949-1954 passenger cars have a weak component in the steering system in the idler arm. The idler arm is the most common failure point in steering for these cars. Check for worn idler arm bushings by having someone move the steering wheel from left to right while you observe the idler arm. Worn out bushings will allow the arm to move up and down before moving left to right. Any up and down movement would indicate a need to replace the idler arm. A bushing kit or rebuilt exchange idler arm are available to resolve this problem.
Wheel bearing adjustment can cause steering problems. Check and repack wheel bearings on a regular basis. Another option is to change from ball bearings to tapered roller bearings. Tapered roller bearings are more stable than factory ball bearings, tend to run straighter and require less maintenance. After all of the above items have been addressed, a front end alignment by a professional shop is recommended. With this last item, your car or truck should run down the road straight and true. It will also be much nicer to drive.