Changing to Tapered Roller Bearings

By Stephen Kassis

Ball bearings used in the front wheels of early Chevrolet car & trucks were certainly adequate for normal operations back in the 30’s, 40’s & 50’s. When properly maintained, a ball bearing could easily last for the lifetime of the vehicle. If your car is driven mostly on weekends and short jaunts, there is really no reason to change to a modern style tapered bearing. However, there are a growing number of hobbyists that drive vintage cars on trips over 100 miles. If you are one of them, you should consider upgrading to tapered roller bearings for a number of reasons – not the least of which is maintenance. Early ball bearings required lubrication in as little as every 1,000 to 2,000 miles. With better greases available today, roller bearings on our vintage vehicles can go for 1-2 years or 15,000 miles before routine packing is required.

Early Chevys were designed for roads that had top speeds of 45-50 mph. Modern roads and improvements – like radial tires, LED taillights, turn signals and tapered roller bearings – allow us to drive our vintage cars longer distances and more safely. The tapered roller bearing was designed for more weight and higher speeds than the earlier ball bearings. The primary benefit of the tapered bearing over the ball bearing is the surface area of the roller. The roller has a substantially larger surface area which helps reduce sideways motion in the bearing.

From our experience with 1931 & 1932 cars & trucks, tapered roller bearings allow less movement in the wheels, which can help keep your car from wandering. This is especially noticeable when driving on worn roads with ruts. Early cars with skinny tires can be “tossed” from side to side on sections of rutted roads. This effect is reduced considerably when the car is equipped with tapered bearings. In combination with wider tires or radial tires, the improvement in driving comfort and safety is considerable.

Installing tapered roller bearings is the same procedure as with ball bearings. After removing the front wheels and hubs, test fit the inner race on the spindle. It should slide on smoothly but not be loose. It is possible that, at some time, a bearing race has spun on the spindle and damaged it. If the new race does not slide in place on the spindle, remove it and run your finger over the bottom side of the spindle to check for irregularities. If wear is found, the spindle may need to be replaced or reconditioned. Industrial hard chroming is one option for this type of repair. This process will grind the spindle smooth and hard chrome it back to the standard diameter.

If the spindle is in good condition, remove the old bearings, seals and races. Install the new tapered races (both inner and outer) in the hub. Pack the new bearings with high temp wheel bearing grease. The hand packing method is preferred over automated bearing packers. Be sure that grease is forced thoroughly through the rollers until it oozes out the other side. Use extreme caution to keep the bearing free from any dirt, grit or other contaminants. Any contamination can cause problems and premature bearing failure so KEEP IT CLEAN!

The seals for tapered roller conversions are specially made for these applications. Because of the design of the roller bearing a stock seal cannot be used. With the new races installed and the bearings greased, the next step is to install the inner bearing. Put a light coat of grease on the face of the inner race. Install the inner bearing into the hub. Lightly coat the inner lip of the seal with grease and tap into place in the hub.With the inner seal installed, slide the hub onto the spindle. Lightly coat the face of the outer race with wheel bearing grease. Pack the outer bearing and install into the outer race of the hub. Install the spindle washer and nut and torque to 12 foot pounds while turning the hub front and back to seat the bearing. Back off the nut slightly (one flat or 1/6 turn) to align the cotter pin. There should be .001″ to .003″ of end play when properly adjusted.  Install cotter pin and dust cap. Install wheels & tires and be sure to torque the lug nuts to 70-80 foot pounds. Caution: Never lubricate lug nuts or studs.