There’s nothing quite like an old Jeep. The sound, the smell, and the feel of the Jeep are those things everyone talks about, and some just don’t understand. Piloting one of these relics is more like herding it down the road instead of steering, thanks to the old Ross steering boxes. They were mounted to the frame just in front of the driver’s feet and were prone to premature wear. The 17-inch-diameter steering wheel provided the mechanical advantage needed to get the tires to turn, which took little effort when going down the road. However, it took some muscle to move those same tires when running slowly in parking lots, rocks, mud, or snow with that old Ross steering setup.
While there’s nothing wrong with the old way, there is also a lot of modern technology (relatively) that can be adapted to these old Jeeps to improve the steering. You hear a lot about Saginaw power steering boxes and pumps, and that’s because the Saginaw Steering Gear Company has been doing business with General Motors since 1917. The Saginaw steering boxes were mounted up on the very front of the frame to simplify the steering linkage to the axle. Their manual steering box design ended up on Jeeps starting in 1972, and the power steering was an optional factory upgrade. Keep on reading to see how we adapted a Saginaw power steering system onto our Willys CJ-2A. There is more than one way to skin a cat, though, so we also take a quick look at how a few of our Jeep buddies have tackled the same job.
Off-roading in an old Jeep takes some skill and experience, especially when it comes to directing the Jeep where to go. There is a special way to hold the steering wheel so the spokes don’t break your fingers when the wheel whips out of your grip as the front tires deflect off of a rock in the trail. We like keeping all of our fingers intact, as well as not having to put so much muscle and grunting into moving the tires in tough spots. Upgrading to power steering will make your day in a Jeep so much more enjoyable, whether it is on-road or off-road.
Eric from Motive Gear says he’s got all the muscle he needs for his stock Willys steering system. Some Jeep nerds just like to keep things simple and all original. With original-size tires, the factory steering does just fine with a little muscle and momentum. If you’re an all-original kind of person and you want to refresh the original steering system, all of the parts and pieces are still available. Christian Hazel’s article on rebuilding a factory Jeep Ross steering box is a great read to help guide you through the hard part (fourwheeler.com/how-to/transmission-drivetrain/1406-ross-cam-and-lever-steering-rebuild).
This is a view of the stock steering on all Jeeps up to and including 1971. The Ross steering box is mounted to the frame in front of the driver’s feet. The original steering box pulled on a drag link, which is properly named because it is dragged back and forth by the vertical pitman arm. That drag link operates a bellcrank attached to the front of the frame, which transfers the movement to the two tie rods to turn the wheels. There are a lot of moving parts and joints to wear out in the stock system, and a little bit of wear on each one adds up to a lot of wandering and steering wheel play in the system.
This Jeep was cobbled together out of several different piles of parts. A 1968 CJ-5 “parts” Jeep became the base of this CJ-2A build, and the chassis was already outfitted with an older manual Saginaw steering box that was retained for a while. It is definitely a more robust box than the Ross style, and has better steering linkage geometry. If you’re still running the factory Go-Devil flathead motor, a manual Saginaw steering box may be the right move to improve the steering since there is no good way to mount a power steering pump on those motors. If you’re set on power steering and keeping your Go-Devil engine, there are some electric power steering pumps on the market, but they are pricey.
The three-bolt manual Saginaw steering box mount was removed to make way for a beefier four-bolt plate to fit the spare power steering box (on the tire) out of a CJ-7 I’ve had lying around the shop collecting dust for way too long. It was time to put it to good use.
For the new steering box bracket there are a couple of options. Advance Adapters sells a cast-iron bracket, but then you add the complications of welding the cast iron to the frame. A piece of 3/8-inch plate and some 0.125-wall tubing out of the drop bin from the local steel supply was about $18 to fabricate our own bracket. Our friend Brennan Metcalf (Ultimate Adventure alumnus ’14, ’15) had a pattern already drawn up for the Saginaw four-bolt pattern. He printed a scale copy and sent it in the mail. This turned out great and saved some time on locating the hole centers.
You do not need anything fancy to cut the 3/8-inch steel. An el cheapo bandsaw from a yard sale does the trick here. A trusty angle grinder with a good quality cut-off wheel will do the job just fine too if that is what you have available.
After the holes were drilled, the bracket was loosely bolted to the steering box. Once it was lined up pretty evenly, a pair of calipers was used to measure for the spacers that were sliced from some 1/8-inch-wall tubing. These spacers are essential to clear the girth of the steering gear.
When choosing where to place your steering box on the frame, consider all of the things that have to fit in the same space. In this case, it’s a Meyer snowplow mount for the winter and a beefy Warn 8274 winch for once the snow has melted. It needed to be mounted high enough to stay out of the way of damage on the trail at the same time. The strap was a nice way to mock it in place to see what details needed attention to make it fit just right.
The frame was marked where it needed to be trimmed during mock-up to fit the steering box. Chunks of tubing were sectioned to fit the top of the frame for mounting bolt clearance. Everything was left tack welded while the column and steering shaft were fitted. This allows making tweaks to the system less complex. We also made note of where the front crossmember needed to be opened up to make enough room for the steering shaft coupler to pass through.
This CJ-5 chassis had the factory Dauntless 225 V-6 still in it, which is why I used it to build my CJ-2A. A local relic junkyard had a stack of old mid-’70s to early-’80s Buicks with later-model 231 V-6s in them, which was based on the Dauntless block. Parts will also work off of a Buick 350 V-8 from the same era. That made it easy to source a cheap bolt-on power steering pump and bracket set on the cheap for $40. The junkyard pump seemed to work and not leak, so it was just cleaned up, painted, and used. There is a high-mount pump and a low-mount pump that were used through the years. I chose a low-mount pump so it wouldn’t be the center of attention when the hood is open.
The Ross steering system has the steering column as part of the steering box, so when converting to Saginaw steering you need to make a plan for attaching the steering wheel to the steering box. We made a phone call to Postal Jeep Parts out of Boaz, Alabama, to get our hands on a steering column from a 1970s Postal Jeep that had factory Saginaw steering. It is already the proper length and is splined on the lower end to accept a yoke (bottom). Another option is to trim the stock Ross column down and use an additional stock upper column bearing in the lower end of the column to support the column shaft in the tube. Then find a weld-on yoke to link it to a steering shaft (top).
The steering shaft that was on this Jeep was a solid welded piece, and while that functions okay, it is a really bad idea in the unfortunate event of a front-end collision, heaven forbid. A safer and more maintenance-friendly option is a JEGS High Performance Parts telescoping steering column. This 36-inch steering column is easily installed and removed, and it provides a level of driver safety by being able to collapse if the front end gets smashed. It prevents the steering wheel from being pushed into the driver. The 36-inch telescoping shaft did need a little trimming to fit, but there are other lengths available too. Some basic inexpensive steering column universal joints were sourced to attach the column and steering box to the telescoping shaft. All three pieces were about $135, delivered.
After the mechanical linkage is all taken care of, the next step is to look at connecting the hydraulics. We contacted Pure Choice Motorsports in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, to order a set of their low-profile banjo-style power steering adapters for the 5/8-18 and 11/16-18 fittings on the Saginaw box (part numbers 11810 and 11820). These adapters allow the use of AN-6 hoses and fittings. Pure Choice Motorsports is one of the only suppliers of these older SAE sizes in a banjo configuration. They also offer Metric sizes for later-model power steering boxes, as well as the compression AN fittings and hose to make your own lines. These fittings allowed the hoses to cleanly sneak under the side of the grille with no sheetmetal cutting. We chose to have a local hose house make us up a crimped high-pressure hose and push-fit low-pressure hose for this project.
Here is the whole system hooked up, tested, and ready to rock. A little cleanup and paint on the power steering pump and it looked like new. A drive belt for the pump was sourced from a 1976 Buick Skylark with a 231 V-6, Master Pro part number 7370 from O’Reilly Auto Parts. The steering shaft was a perfect fit with a smooth rotation thanks to the universal joints. A little reassembly of the fender, and the Jeep project is done.
There’s more than one way to do everything, especially something custom like this power steering box mount. John Cappa also used a Saginaw power steering box on his flatfender, but instead of fabricating a plate, he welded tubes to the frame to mount the steering box. AN-6 fittings and hose were also used for the high-pressure line, along with a basic 11/16-18 to AN-6 adapter for the steering box and an elbow.
Our friend RJ used the Advance Adapters weld-on bracket to mount the Saginaw steering box to his CJ-3A frame. He was able to have a local snowplow parts dealer form him power steering lines that were routed through a strategic hole cut in the grille. This bracket takes some of the fabrication time out of a power steering swap, but requires a welder who knows how to weld cast iron effectively.
If you want power steering but don’t want a steering box visible on the front of your Jeep, you have options too. You can use a Ford reverse-rotation steering box along with one of Herm The Overdrive Guy’s mounting bracket and pitman arm kit. The box mounts behind the front crossmember and behind the grille, out of sight. This Jeep is outfitted with a Chevy 4.3 Vortec V-6 and uses the factory power steering pump on the motor. From the outside the Jeep looks like it hasn’t been modified.
This is an example of a high-mount Buick power steering pump that is a little more common, at least in the local junkyard I picked through. This style is needed on a Buick motor to use the Ford reverse rotation steering box and still have room for the hydraulic lines to fit.
Some of you may recognize this iconic Jeep as the Killer Bee Jeep. This Jeep’s steering box is a hybrid compilation of a Scout box stuffed with different internals. This particular box is also set up for hydraulic ram assist. The box is mounted way out in front of the Jeep to accommodate the front wheelbase stretch. The owner, Ned Bacon, said that in all of the years that box has been mounted there he has never had a problem smashing it on the rocks.
Photo: Sammy Sievert
Our buddy Sammy Sievert’s tricked-out CJ-2A is outfitted with a steering box from a Jeep TJ. It was mounted up high so that the steering shaft would clear the front crossmember without having to cut a hole in it, and so the pitman arm was up and out of harm’s way. The grille did need a little trimming though. He made a custom bracket for the Chevy 350 under the hood to mount a compact power steering pump out of a Nissan Altima. A hose shop was able to silver solder the factory TJ and Altima hard lines into a high-pressure flex hose to link them together.