How To Diagnose and Repair Your Imperial's Loose Steering


Imperial Homepage -> Repair  -> Steering -> Loose


Question:

My steering feels loose. Any ideas why?

Reply:

The most common causes of steering looseness include worn tie rod ends, a worn idler arm or center link (on vehicles without rack and pinion steering), a worn steering gear or a worn steering rack.

Normally, your steering wheel should have no more than about a quarter inch of play. Any more means something is worn or loose and needs to be fixed.

WARNING: Don't put off having your steering looked at because a failure of a critical component could cause loss of steering control!

The inner and outer tie rod ends should have no perceptible looseness. Worn or loose tie rod ends are especially dangerous because if one pulls apart you'll lose steering control. Worn tie rod ends can also cause rapid tire wear.

If you have a rear-wheel drive vehicle with conventional steering (not rack and pinion steering), the idler arm should have no more than the specified amount of maximum play. Refer to a manual for the specs and recommended procedure for checking it. Checking idler arm play usually involves pulling on the arm with a specified force and measuring how much the arm deflects.

If your vehicle has a lot of miles on it, the steering gear or rack itself may be worn. On conventional steering boxes, there's usually an adjustment screw that can be used to take some of the slack out of the system. With rack and pinion steering, though, adjustment is usually little help because the rack develops center wear. If the pinion is adjusted to compensate, the rack may bind when turned to either side. The only cure for a center wear condition is to replace the rack with a new one (an entire new rack assembly).

OTHER CAUSES:

Sometimes the steering will feel loose because of a worn U-joint coupling in the steering column. Loose or worn wheel bearings can also make the steering wander and feel loose.


Question from Wes:

My steering seems to be a little loose as I drive at high speed on the  highway, it is not good.  Any suggestions on how to fix it?

Replies:

From Dick:

This could lead to ruining your whole day if you don't get it fixed.

The things I would do, in order, are;

1. With the car parked and the engine idling, stand outside the car and reach through the driver's window to grab the steering wheel. See how many inches of travel you can move the steering wheel back and forth before there is any detectable motion of the left front wheel. If this is any more than about 1 inch, you have a problem for sure. If the left wheel is OK, have someone watch the right front wheel, and make sure it is the same.

2. If both wheels are moving with less than 1 inch total play at the steering wheel (that is 1/2 inch either way from the center point), the
car is probably safe to drive to the front end shop, as long as you do not hear any clunking, and can see no lost motion in the tie rod or pitman arm connections or the steering box mounting when someone saws back and forth on the steering wheel while you look underneath. (But do look, don't trust to faith!). Your problem may be simply an adjustment of the camber, or possibly a tire problem, and could even be something wrong at the rear of the car, for instance a loose wheel or a mixture of tire brands or types from the front to the back of the car. (What if anything happened to the car just before you noticed the symptom?)

3. If there is more play in the steering wheel than the amount discussed above, do not drive the car anywhere until you understand why. If you cannot spot the source of the lost motion visually, have the car flat bedded to the alignment shop.

4. Regardless of how you get it there, have the car examined by a competent front end alignment mechanic at a well equipped shop, this is no place to poor-boy it.

From Brett:

The most likely cause is a worn idler arm bushing. A replacement bushing can be pressed into place or replace the entire idler arm. (Sorry, there's no "tightening" involved... that would be too easy.)


Question from Phillipe (1957):

I need some advises about the adjustment of my '57 Coaxial power steering (maybe '56 are the same).  I've some play when the engine is running (and twice more with engine off but I think it's normal). With engine on, I've approx. 5 to 10 play at steering wheel. There's an adjusting screw (w. lock nut) on top of steering case. This screw adjusts the "gear lash" as said in the FSM. But the FSM describes adjustment with steering removed (but connected to pump and engine running..). I don't want to remove steering link from pitman arm so does someone knows how to adjust ?

Note that the steering works perfectly except this little play. I don't want to jam the steering (as a friend did with my old steering unit..).

Replies:

 

From Norm:

 

If it were my car, I would not touch it.

 

From Robert:

 

I adjusted the play in my '58 with no problems. It had about 6" when I purchased it, and drove it home 450 miles that way. That was kind of scary. Now it only has 1.5".

 

Follow-up from Norm:

Consider yourself very fortunate to have found a competent mechanic who understands the operation. Most do not. Few even realize that this is a very critical adjustment meant to be done as the book specifies-not until no further travel can be felt in the adjusting screw.

Lots of play is often a result of a bad idler arm or worn tie rod ends or center link. I would carefully examine all of those "bolt-on, bolt-off" pieces before I would mess with a critical adjustment on the hydraulic heart of your steering system.


Question from Sheldon (1961):

My '61 tracks the same way. Mine, however, has some play in the steering, and as I have just acquired the car, I do not yet know whether this is a simple alignment issue or not. Does anyone have experience with play in the steering on these?

Reply from Dick:

Looseness in the steering can be caused by a BUNCH of different things. But I would start by doing the minor adjustment at the steering box.

If that doesn't completely cure your play, then there are lots of other things to check. Control arm bushings, ball joints and wheel bearings have to be checked with the car's weight off the wheels. Looseness here is often, but not always, accompanied by "clunking" noises at the front end. The idler arm, pitman arm and tie rod ends can be checked with the car on the ground.


Question (1961 - 1963):

Last question: has anyone with a '61 - '63 had the steering box rebuilt?  If so, by whom and how much? I think it's getting near time. I'm told there is an adjustment that can be made on these boxes which does tighten things up, but that it doesn't last.

Replies:

From Alden:

I hope I can Help you with your loose steering problem. First thing you should do is check your suspension components. Check the inner and outer tie rod ends for play. Then check the idler arm and pitman arm for play (at the ball and socket joint) Check the mounting bolts on the idler arm where it mounts to the frame/cross-member. Also check the mounting bolts on the steering box itself. You should then check the coupling/yoke on the steering column shaft near the steering box.

If all is in order you can now attempt to reduce excess play by accessing an adjustment slot on top of the steering box. I do not know how much room you have between the box and exhaust manifold so you have to be careful not to bang your knuckles. On top of the steering box you will find a slotted shaft which is locked down with a lock nut. Loosen the locknut and turn the shaft clockwise to reduce play. Turn the shaft in 45 degree increments until the desired amount of play is found.

With Chrysler boxes, perceived play is greater when the engine is not running. Each time you adjust the slotted shaft you must tighten the lock nut and start the engine to feel how much play you have. Also if you start the engine with the locknut loose, not only will your adjustment change but the box will start leaking fluid like crazy.

From Nancy:

This is very good advice. Tightening a steering box when it needs it can prolong its life for many miles. I have seen them go well over 200,000 miles if it is done properly when needed. An important note: Do not tighten the steering box adjustment anymore than is just necessary to take out the play. There is just so much adjustment in them and once it is all used up you can no longer tighten the box.

From Chris:

I, too, suffered from a wandering Imperial!  Tightening the worm adjustment screw helped some, but my gearbox was leaking slightly from the pitman shaft seal, so I finally did replace it.

Even with the new box, it really didn't help that much to correct the wandering. All my tie rod ends, and my idler arm checked ok. I replaced the upper control arm bushings and the upper ball joints -- once again, small improvement.

I gave a close inspection to the rear axle anti-sway bar-it looked ok until I removed the nut and large washer on the axle end and found the bushing where it slides onto the stud on the axle housing was dried out causing lots of play . The axle actually was shifting to and fro while driving.

Brad's NOS found the bushings for me, though it took about a month.

There are 3 rubber ones in all on the rear sway bar and of course I did all three. BIG IMPROVEMENT!! And finally I replaced the lower control arm strut rod bushings on the front and another BIG IMPROVEMENT!! Now I can drive without constantly fighting the wheel, and don't appear intoxicated to everyone.

I think my '68 model was the first year that had that type of sway bar - 67 and earlier had an axle control strut that probably served the same purpose - keeping the rear axle from moving back and forth and side to side - so check the bushings closely. The lower control arm strut rod bushings, if worn, will allow the wheels to move back and forth, and a little imagination will make you see what that can do, so check them before replacing expensive ball joints, steering boxes and the like. All 7 bushings cost less than 60 bucks. I installed them myself.

So, the moral is, CHECK THOSE RUBBER BUSHINGS!! After 20-30 years, they dry out, shrink and split, causing looseness in the suspension. Always check NAPA, CAR QUEST, etc. for suspension parts - you will be surprised what they can get for you. NAPA got me the strut rod bushings.

Also, one final note - adding negative camber to the alignment settings will improve directional stability - most sports cars use negative settings - most of our cars were set up for old bias-ply tires - not radials - so a good front end alignment person may know how to compensate for this by altering the settings.

From ??:

There's also a steering column coupling on 67s and later (anything with a collapsible column, I believe, but maybe just the tilt-a-scope columns that were made by --GASP!-- GM's Saginaw Division).

Anyway, the coupling is easily visible on the column right in front of the brake booster. Like any rubber-to-metal part, it wears, and replacing it took away nearly all of the quarter-turn of play in my steering wheel!


Question from Ken (1963):

There is a lot of play or slack in the steering of my 63 Imperial. I  adjusted the sector screw inward as far as I could with no change.  Any ideas?

Replies

From Ken:

Sounds like it is time to replace your steering box.

From Mark:

I agree. It's box time. The exact same thing happened on a '67 Belvedere I once had. Not fun...but to be expected I suppose. I had 267K on her.


Question from AJ (1967):

I have way too much play in the wheel.  I have130 miles on it!  I just want to know if/how to get rid of some play.

Reply from Brad:

The steering gear adjustment screw (at least for my 66) is on the top of the steering gear, fwd of the fluid outlet hose/line. Look down at the unit and you'll see this adjustment screw looking up at you. The screw is held securely by a lock nut.

To adjust the screw, make note of where the screw is oriented, "/", "_", " \", "|". Loosen the lock nut and make sure the screw didnt move from where is was. When the lock nut is loose, turn the screw clockwise (tighten) 1/8th of a turn and retighten the lock nut. Test the steering for free-play. If it's still too loose, try another 1/8th of a turn.

BE CAREFUL, and not too critical of "looseness". Tightening the adjustment screw too much will cause premature failure of the steering unit. Just tighten it enough to get rid of some of the play in the wheel. A little play, 4-7 inches is "normal" as far as I know. 10 -15 is too much.


Question from Mike (1968):

I have a '68 Imperial when I drive it wanders. I've been told it's the steering box from some people others have told me there's a way to adjust it. Could someone help... if its the box that needs replacing anyone know where to get one?

Replies:

From Demetrios:

There can be many reasons for the car "wondering". One of them is worn out and loose upper control arm bushings. If that's the case, the peoblem will be more pronounced at highway speeds, especially when the car moves up and down due to road irregularities.

However, a loose steering box could also cause imprecise steering. There is a large screw as I recall on the upper part of the steering box. Again, from memory, there is a nut you have to loosen, and then with a large flathead screw driver, you tighten the screw, and then retighten the nut. What this does is get the gears a bit closer together. If the steering effort gets too tight, or the steering does not return back to the straight ahead position, you tightned too much and you need to back off. If this adjustment does not help, your upper C.A. bushings need replacement (assuming that your ball joints and wheel bearings are good, if you don't know how to check those, ask).

From Mark:

If you want to learn more about Power Steering, be sure to check out the Master Technicians' Conference series on-line at the Imperial Club. Here's a pointer to Session 275 on Power Steering Fundamentals.

Also check out earlier years that cover detailed adjustment of steering box.


Question from Mark (1968):

Spring is here so I've got the '68 convertible out and I've been driving it around, and I've noticed that the steering is really sloppy. By that I mean it has a lot of play in it-- you can move the wheel a lot before you start to change directions.

I've tried tightening up the little nut on the steering box, and that does seem to increase the resistance, or the strength needed, to turn the wheel, but does not take out the play.

I am thinking I need a new steering box to really fix this problem. Opinions?

Also, is there one brand that is better than others, in terms of rebuilds? (I assume you can't get a new one.) My local parts house can get me a rebuilt one by Cardone.

The car has 73,000 original miles.

Replies:

From Demetrios:

If tightening that nut did not help, back it off to where it will not resist the motion of the steering. Your problem is probably on the drag linkage. Look at your pitmen arm, idler arm, and all the joints (they call those ... can't remember the name right now, but they are little ball joints, Autozone has them). Also, the upper control arm bushings may need help. The symptoms of bad upper control arm bushings is that the car wonders at highway speed, as the suspension moves slowly up and down.

One of the things we can do to prolong the life of our steering mechanism is to avoid turning the wheel while the car is standing still. I know, it is very tempting given how easy it is to turn the wheel, and the difficulty of manuvering a car of the size of an Imperial. However, all the steering forces are much higher if the car is at a standstill. Even a small forward or backward motion while turning the wheel will really decrease the steering forces.

One other thing that can damage the steering linkage fast is uneven brakes. A few years back, my '68 sedan had a bad flexible hose. I did not suspect it because it was new (it was too short though, in retrospect...). That made braking a real tricky deal, since I had to correct every time I applied and released the brakes. After I found the problem and fixed it, I realized that my brand new idler arm was worn, again. I also replaced rod ends.

From Brian:

Check the slip joint between the box and the steering column. If I remember right, the part that you need to be concerned with is right where it attaches to the steering box. These things seem to go bad fairly easily, before the box usually. It will give you alot of slop and adjusting the box will not help this. Its easy to tell if its bad, just grab the steering rod between the box and column and give it a wiggle, if it moves around, your joint is bad, if it is tight then look elsewhere. By the way, you can get rebuild kits for these for about $15. Not sure if they are still available from the dealer(I think so) but I see them on ebay fairly often. It sure beats buying a new one, I think this whole assembly is over $100.

From Kenyon:

May I suggest jacking the car up, firmly jackstanding it, and being underneath while an associate moves the wheel? Putting your hand on items as the wheel is wiggled in the slop-zone may allow some deduction. Wiggling the stering linkages by hand while you're under there may expose some slop that would be hard to detect otherwise.

Is the slop in the box, in the linkages, or both? This will allow you to narrow your attention, perhaps? Remember that the box has a limited (usually generous) amount of adjustment, and when you get to the end of the adjustment, you must rebuild or replace. This should be a once in a lifetime thing, though, as those boxes are really robust.

There have been good suggestions all around, and a front-end rebuild might do wonders for your car anyway, but there are many parts that make up the whole that could contribute. If you pay somone else to do it, it could run $600-$1,000 around where I live, but now that I've done the 1960 that I'm rebuilding, it doesn't seem too scary anymore. Just make certain that things are tightened properly and the cotter pins done well if you chase it yourself.

One item not mentioned, and I don't know if your car has it (my 1960 does not, 73 does) is a small rubber block with 4 bolt holes in it that goes between the steering column and the box itself. It is a sort of u-joint in a way. These can also get worn and should rereplaced any time that they are suspect.

From Chris:

73,000 miles is not a low-mileage car when it comes to these things. Keep in mind that seals and rubber things like bushings wear with both time and mileage, and it is not unlikely to need to replace those things on a 30-year-old car that's been driven 73,000 miles. Also keep in mind that these items undergo both the stresses of the suspension interacting with the road and the heat of the underhood area.

The steering coupler (the large can-like thing halfway up the steering column) is right above an exhaust manifold. And the steering gearbox is almost constantly experiencing both mechanical motion and hydraulic pressure while you drive. Things wear with use, and steering pretty much undergoes constant use when you drive. Not to mention the fact that most people never change their power steering fluid, ever, until the pump or gearbox is replaced or rebuilt.

Check your entire system out thoroughly... the good news is that all of it can be replaced or rebuilt. The important thing is to find a rebuilder who understands these cars and knows that steering did not have a firm feel on a 1973 luxury car. I had the gearbox rebuilt on my '67 and it always felt too firm and had poor self-centering behavior. After two years of hoping it'd "break in" or I'd get used to it, I ended up paying for it all to be done again, only this time by someone who knew old cars.

FYI, I needed to rebuild the 'box in NYB, too, and with only 16,000 miles on it! (All that time not being driven took its own toll.)

From Dave:

Last year I had the problem with my Imperial having sloppy steering and what I would call "white lining". That is when you're on a straight road and the tyre hits the white line in the centre of the road it will throw the steering out. I thought at the time that it was a tie rod end. I was right, but also wrong. Not only was one of the outer tie rod ends worn, but also the inner tie rod end on the opposite side was as well, as well as the drag link bushing. As for your car with 73,000 miles on it, that is irrelevant, its due to the time that the car is laid up, i.e. not driven. Time itself is the biggest killer of the man made materials that are added to the vehicle, such as bushings (for the last two years on the run I have had to replace the sway bar/torsion bar bushes due to inferior materials and wear). Even the grease which is packed in the tie rod ends (how many people replace the grease nipples to ensure that they have not become clogged and dried out over time). The new steering box that you had fitted five years ago, although could have been the main cause at the time, will only highlight any weaker areas on the steering system and also will put more stress and wear on joints and bushes. A good example, when replacing clutch discs in transmissions, you don't replace the ones you think are OK. I have myself a lot of knowledge on this with building a lot of hydrastatic machinery.

Just out of interest, did you replace the steering box hydraulic hoses when you fitted the new steering box, the reason being if not the old hoses could have been breaking down internally and debris inside any hydraulic system causes havoc.


Question from Brad (1978):

I've noticed something happening more and more, lately on my 78 Newport. This only happens when I am going slow (parking lot maneuvering speed) and attempting to turn the wheel to the right. It's like I have no power steering at all. Sometimes it does it for a few seconds and then kicks in and returns to full power steering. Sometimes it doesn't and I have to man-handle the wheel to make the turn. Again, it has only ever happened when the engine is at idle and I am turning the wheel from straight ahead, to the right. It almost feels like there is a sticky valve or something. The fluid level is good and I don't see any huge leaks (just the usual Mopar steering box seepage) Can anyone lend any wisdom here?  I checked the tension on the belt and it is fine.

Replies:

From Allan:

I've had this happen to a couple of Lin****s that I have had through the years and it turned out to be the steering box. I got lucky once by flushing the box and pump out and the other time the cure was a new box. You might want to try flushing out the box by removing the lines and forcing fluid in through the return while turning the wheels. Also, change all the fluid .

From John:

There is supposed to be a screen in the return line at the pump end. This is often missing, but if its there, it could be plugged. Remove the return line at the pump to check. While you have the line off, it would be wise to change the fluid. Have someone start the car while you keep the line in a milk jug or such, adding at least a quart of fresh fluid to the reservoir to flush it out, then refill with fresh fluid. Turn steering wheel lock to lock several times with the engine running to expel any air in the system.

Or it could be the spool valve on top of the steering box. I had this problem on a 63 Imperial. It turned hard in one direction on occasion & made a lot of noise when this happened. I later replaced the valve & never had any more problems with the steering the whole 14 years I had the car. My niece saw the car about a month ago, so its still cruising around Pawtucket, RI to this day.


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