Recirculating-ball power steering is a simple design that is reliable and stout. Despite its robust design, a power steering gearbox will eventually need replacing as the seals, worm shaft, worm shaft guide, and the ball bearings that roll between the shaft and guide wear out. The classic symptoms of a gearbox nearing the end of its life is play in the steering wheel, resulting in “sawing” the wheel as you drive down the road, and fluid leaking from around the output shaft. Sloppy steering is tiring for the driver and a safety concern, and leaking fluid is a nuisance. Replacing the gearbox with a remanufactured one cures both ills.
Like all Ford F-150s, F-250s, F-350s, vans, and SUVs of the ’80s and ’90s era with more than 150,000 miles on them, the OEM power steering box in our ’91 Ford Bronco was wearing us out on the open road and leaving unsightly oil spots wherever it was parked. Ever since the day we took possession of the Bronco a couple years ago, we had to saw the steering wheel to keep on the straight and narrow. The worn-out steering was expected as the SUV’s odometer was on its third round, and, according to RedHead Steering Gears techs, most Ford truck steering boxes start showing signs of play after only 100,000 miles. The gearbox was also doing a superb job of keeping the pitman arm and tie-rod end well lubricated. It was time to stop the play.
Our RedHead Ford Bronco power steering box is the same as used across a wide range of Ford pickups (F-150/250/350), SUVs, and vans during the ’80s and ’90s, and the company offers similar versions for Dodge and GM pickups, gas and diesel. Borgeson’s universal steering shaft is a great companion upgrade for any pickup/SUV that employs the old rag joint system.
A Popular RedHead
We’ve pinched pennies and bought inexpensive remanufactured power steering gearboxes in the past for other 4x4s, and we weren’t that impressed with the amount of steering wheel play that remained after installing them. This time we stepped up our game and turned to RedHead Steering Gears for their replacement Ford box.
There’s a reason the American-built RedHead power steering gearboxes, which are available for Ford, GM, and Dodge/Ram trucks, have a stellar reputation and a higher price than lower-priced versions found at discount auto parts stores: RedHead doesn’t cut corners on the remanufacturing process.
“Most remanufacturers take the worn-out ball bearings and replace them with the factory size,” explains RedHead’s Tyler Hanks. “This takes into account that the bearings wear down. But doesn’t take into account that the channels the bearings roll in the worm and piston wear down as well. New bearings in worn grooves still leaves steering play. We found that replacing the stock recirculating-ball bearings with oversized ones matched to the grooves removed looseness entirely.”
The gearbox in our Bronco appeared to be the original unit, as did the rag joint steering shaft. The wear on both contributed to about 1 1/2 inches of steering wheel play that kept the driver busy sawing the wheel to keep on track.
To that end, RedHead stocks a wide range of sizes in the bearings so every gearbox that’s rebuilt can meet the company’s strict tolerance standards, which are tighter than factory. The company also hand-fits each worm and piston assembly with the correct size bearing to tighter tolerances than Ford used. The shop also puts every sector shaft on a lathe to check for straight and true, then polishes the sealing surface to a higher polish than new.
“Once the unit is fit with a set of bearings that give the gear no play, we install new seals and then make all our final adjustments under 1,200 psi,” says Hanks. “This is to ensure and validate our claims of no leaking, play, or lash with our power steering boxes.”
Out the Rag Joint
After the installation, we took our Bronco on the road. Saying the steering was “like new” is not doing our steering upgrade justice: Ford trucks in that era never had steering as tight and precise, or with the feel that the RedHead in our SUV provides. Steering our 27-year-old Bronco now is like steering an ’18 F-250.
While we had our Bronco on the lift at Oregon’s Mobile Diesel Service, Inc, we nixed the old rag joint–style intermediate steering shaft and replaced it with a Borgeson universal steering shaft, which uses billet-steel U-joints in place of the rubber snubbers. The rubber in these old rag joints deteriorates over time and miles, allowing some numbness between the gearbox and the steering wheel.
Mating the Borgeson intermediate shaft with the RedHead steering box ensures there’s no play in our Bronco’s steering; touch the steering wheel and the 35-inch mud tires respond instantly. That’s comforting, and a dramatic change from what we’d been enduring for the past couple years. We should have made this one of our first upgrades instead of one of the last.
A sure sign of our power steering box being ready for replacement was the constant leak from the sector shaft—and the slop between the steering wheel and the pitman arm.
We removed the steering intermediate shaft by taking out the two 5/8-inch bolts that hold the upper joint at the firewall and lower joint at the power steering gearbox. We sprayed both with a good penetrating lubricant the day before because these bolts tend to get a little rusty at their age.
Borgeson’s universal replacement steering shaft for the ’80-’91 Ford trucks and SUVs is made from thicker material than the factory shaft (top), and it uses billet steel U-joints instead of the old rag joint, which eliminates slop in this area of the steering system.
The Borgeson replacement steering shaft was about a foot longer than the one out of our ’91 Bronco. To make sure the new shaft is cut to the same length as the OE shaft, the old steering shaft had to be marked before it was removed. We used a white marker to spot the OE shaft where the two parts slide into one another.
A 1/2-inch fitting wrench easily removed the high-pressure feed line to the gearbox. You’re going to spill power steering fluid during this whole process, so have a drain pan underneath.
We removed the tie-rod end using a puller. You will also need to use a puller to remove the pitman arm, which is held in place with a 1 5/16 castellated nut.
Mobile Diesel Service technician Wyatt Gitcomb handled the replacement of Eddie’s steering gearbox, which is held in place by three 7/16-inch bolts through the framerail. (When the new box is installed, it’s recommended these be replaced with new Grade 8 bolts.)
When we removed the three frame mounting bolts, the old steering box came free. It weighs about 30 pounds, so be ready when that last bolt is removed.
The RedHead power steering box fits right back in the same location as the OE box. It helps to have a second person around at this point to put the mounting bolts in while the box is being held up.
Gitcomb torqued the mounting bolts to factory spec. We will have replaced the factory bolts with Grade 8s by the time this article is being read.
Our Bronco had a Pro Comp 6-inch suspension installed earlier, so the pitman arm is new. We reinstalled it and torqued it to spec.
We replaced the drag link tie-rod end and torqued it to spec, completing the work from beneath the truck.
The Borgeson telescoping steering shaft is universal, fitting many vehicles. To fit the Bronco, the shaft had to be marked and cut down to match the length of the OE intermediate shaft. Borgeson’s instructions detail the process.
A chop saw made easy work of cutting the new steering shaft to the correct length. We measured three times, read the Borgeson directions twice, and cut once. We didn’t want to make any mistakes at this point.
After we cut the Borgeson shaft to the proper length, we drilled a 5/16-inch hole through the shaft where the longer of the two set screws that attach the U-joint passes through to the inside of the steel “D” tube.
Our new assembled shaft (top) next to the factory intermediate shaft. The Borgeson replacement unit is far beefier than the factory steering shaft, and its billet steel U-joints eliminate any play that may have been associated with the old-style rubber-isolated rag joints.
When the new steering shaft is installed, make sure the splined input shaft of the steering box and steering wheel shaft are flush with the opening of each U-joint on the Borgeson shaft. If they protrude, the splined ends could interfere with the movement of the U-joints in extreme conditions.
Before we tightened the bolt to secure the intermediate shaft to the RedHead’s splined input shaft, we made sure the front tires were straight—and that the steering wheel was centered. It’s easy for the steering wheel to move a little during the R&R of the steering box and intermediate shaft.
The last step in our RedHead upgrade was purging the Bronco’s power steering system of air. This requires the help of another person, 20-30 full rotations of the steering wheel, and several top-offs with power steering fluid.
Some Ford owners try to rebuild their power steering gearboxes. This seldom results in satisfactorily removing lash and steering play, which are the result of worn bearings and the grooves they travel along on the sector shaft. RedHead rebuilds their power steering boxes using oversized bearings, among other upgrades, that eliminate steering play.