Hydraulic ram-assist steering. What is it? Why and when do you need it, how do you set it up, and what choices will you need to make along the way? These questions and more on the next Oprah."
Well, you'll probably never hear that on primetime TV, but that's why you buy this here quality magazine. We contacted Jeff Howe of Howe Performance Power Steering for the lowdown on high-performance juice steering systems. Jeff Howe has about 20 years of off-road racing under his belt and his hydraulic ram-assist steering has been around for about 15 years. Add to that the 10 years Howe Performance has been in business and that's a whole lot of years. We installed a hydraulic ram-assist system on our Dodge that usually runs 38- or 42-inch tires and learned a bunch of stuff along the way.
What Is It?
Basically, it's just a hydraulic ram that attaches to your frame, axle, or other solid-mounting point on one end and a steering component such as your tie rod, drag link, steering knuckle, or pitman arm on the other. The hydraulic pressure from your power steering pump is fed from the control valve in your steering box. That's why the lines that go to the ram come out of the side of your steering box.
Why You Need It
If you've broken your steering-box mount more than once, continuously bent drag links, broken pitman arms, or even shattered the sector shaft in your steering box, then a hydraulic ram mounted to your drag link or steering knuckle can help lessen the load on these components. Likewise, if you often find yourself stuck in the rocks and can't turn the steering wheel, a hydraulic ram can give you the added power you need to steer through trail obstacles.
How You Choose Components
Howe says that in order for a hydraulic steering system to work properly, it must be well matched to itself: the pump, ram, and box should all work together. That's why Howe wants to know how you drive your vehicle off road, how much you drive it on the street, how large your tires are, and how much room you've got underneath your hood. Knowing that, Howe can design a system that will work for you and not against you. Ram size is important. A large-bore ram uses a lot of fluid and creates a lot of power, but it's going to have a slower response time than a smaller ram.
Pump, Fluid, Volume
Howe told us the key to making a pump live in a hydraulic-assist steering setup is to increase the volume of fluid into the pump more than the volume out of the pump. In other words, if more fluid is coming in than can go out, you'll never burn up a pump. Another benefit is there's no pump growling, howling, or squealing. Howe's company takes your stock pump and doubles the output, but triples the input.
Another issue is the total fluid volume in the system. With the pump pushing and pulling so much fluid, there needs to be more on hand, so Howe removes the stock teardrop-shaped reservoir and replaces it with a can that has a -6 AN outlet fitting and a -10 AN inlet fitting for use with a high-capacity remote reservoir. Howe offers a remote power-steering reservoir with a spin-on filter, or for those without the room, there's a version without the filter. However, if you're using the version without the filter, Howe strongly recommends running an in-line or remote filter.
How You Set Up Components
We're sure there's a formula for steering-box-to-pump-to-ram ratios, but we don't want to know about it. The easy way to do it is to measure the distance your tie rod travels left to right and make your ram's travel distance the same. Measuring simply involves turning the wheel to full lock one way and putting a mark on the tie rod with a straight edge perpendicular to the ground. Then, turn the wheel the other way and make another mark. Measure the distance between the two marks and you've got your steering stroke. Howe will build the stroke of your ram from this measurement.
Sure it's true that ram assist will take some of the load off your steering-box mount, but if you've cracked or broken yours you should fix it right. Here's how we did ours.
Monster Tie Rod
Since we run 350 pounds of wheels and tires on the front axle and were attaching a very powerful hydraulic ram to the tie rod, we couldn't have just any old piece of tubing up there. We contacted Clifton Slay of Avalanche Engineering and simply told him what we were doing, what our tie rod measurement was, and that we wanted to use 3/4-inch rod ends. What we got was a monstrous piece of art that could bend, but we don't want to be around if it does.
After mounting our pump back on the motor and hanging the steering box off its new mount, we fabbed a bracket for the steering reservoir and measured for hoses. One of the best places around for fittings and high-quality hose is Orme Brothers. Joel Orme had our hoses built with various straight, 45-, and 90-degree Aeroquip high-pressure fittings in a matter of minutes. Orme does mail order too, so you can sleep well knowing your hoses were built minutes after you hanged up the phone.
We've heard horror stories about degraded steering input, loss of road feel, and quirky handling characteristics as the result of ram-assist steering systems. We experienced absolutely none of these. While we can now turn the wheel with one finger whether in the rocks or in the driveway, the truck still straightens out after a turn when you let go of the wheel, proving that the ability of the steering box to self-center is not affected. Driving at highway speed feels as sure as before, but you don't install a system like this for street driving.
Off road with both 38- and 42-inch tires, steering couldn't be easier. We haven't been able to bind up the steering no matter how tightly we get the big truck wedged. In fact, we've found that the 2-inch ram is powerful enough to move the front of the Dodge sideways when the front tires are squeezed and the wheel is turned. Our Avalanche tie rod has held up to this abuse, as well as being bashed into a few big rocks without the slightest hint of being bent, and the rod ends are still nice and tight.