I’ve had problems with the power steering rack on this car since day 1, but they were way down the priority list to fix. Now that all of the other major problems (and even a lot of minor ones) have been addressed, it’s the steering’s turn. Two problems: noise, and on-center looseness. You can bounce the steering wheel back and forth a good 5 degrees and it has no connection to the wheels.
The project started on Saturday, when I got in touch with a local junkyard that was sure they had the right one. With four different ratios available, but no differentiation between them in the parts interchange, it was a real challenge to find the right one. Most W-Body cars had the 3.0 lock-to-lock ratio. Some of the 3.4 DOHC cars had the 2.75 ratio, others had the best 2.50 ratio. Mine had the 2.50 and I wasn’t going to accept anything else. They had a 1994 STE that had it, and would hand it to me complete with inner/outer tie rod ends and the all-important column boots for $75. Perfect. Unfortunately it was a trip to Port Orchard over on the Peninsula, which meant one of two routes: the Seattle/Bremerton Ferry, or go all the way down to Tacoma. I did both, driving there through Tacoma and returning on the Ferry. The Seattle Ferries are one of the coolest things about the city, and the hour-long trip back across the Puget Sound at sunset was pure eye candy.
Sunday morning I went over to Dan’s at 10:30 ready for war – this was going to be a difficult job and I knew it. We got the car in the air and supported, disconnected the hydraulic lines, and unbolted the mounts – but then the problem of how to get it out appeared. There’s just too much stuff in the way to pull it off the U-joint at the column and get it out the left side wheel well. We checked the manual and it said to drop the engine out of the car! I wasn’t in the mood for this and knew there had to be a better (easier) way.
Then I realized it – if we just pull the steering column from inside the car, we won’t need any room to detach it in the engine compartment. So we set to dropping the column, which wasn’t hard – only four bolts hold it in place, and they don’t self-destruct like the shear-bolts used in many other cars. But while I was working on separating it from the rack, I was feeling the U-joint that attaches the column to the rack and something about it didn’t feel right. There was some looseness in it that felt like the exact amount I’d felt in my steering wheel all along. Dan checked it and agreed that’s where the problem was. It was 3:35pm. I checked to see if the local parts stores had a replacement U-joint, but they didn’t. This left only one option: junkyard. The only one open this late on a Sunday was almost an hour away, and they closed at 5. It was now 3:38pm. We hurriedly grabbed our toolbags, filled them with the tools we knew we’d need, and rushed off. We arrived at 4:25 and received the “we’re just about to close, you better hurry!!” lecture from two different people, one of whom was swinging a baseball bat to ensure compliance. The place closes at 5, but the yard closes at 4:45 to leave checkout time. We had 20 minutes to find a suitable car, take it apart, and extract the joint.
Dan and I are both algorithmically-minded, so we decided to start at opposite ends of the GM section and work our way towards the center. We hiked out to the GM section and began examining the candidates. Ideally, one with the column already removed for some other work would be the best case. Neither of us found one like that, but I found a couple that looked like they were in good enough shape to have a good joint. Dan said he found a Cutlass that was just right, the lower dash had already been pulled and the things in the engine compartment that were in the way had also been removed. Sounded like a winner. We trekked back over and got to work, flashlights in hand as it was getting dark. In only a matter of minutes we had the column out of the car and yanked the U-joint off the end of it. Let’s just say you can take things apart a lot faster when you aren’t concerned with having to put them back together. It was tight, had no rust, and was well lubricated. We were back in line at the counter with part in hand at 4:45. It was $7.08.
We got back to the shop around 6:00 and finished putting the car back together. It took another two and a half hours to finish, and then we bled the system of air. We went for a couple test drives and it felt like a new car! What a difference it made. Since it came with inner and outer tie rod ends, it didn’t even need an alignment. Total cost: $85.48 with a fresh bottle of power steering fluid.