Fixing Dodge Steering Slop
One of the most commonly addressed shortcomings of older Dodge trucks is slop in the steering. This is often accompanied by leaking power steering fluid. Dodge trucks suffer from three problems in this regard:
- A poorly designed joint connecting the spline shaft of the steering gear to the shaft which connects to the steering wheel via a rag joint
- The Saginaw 708 steering gear (used, I believe, from 1979 - 1993), which develops leaking seals
- Leaks in the power steering pump (although this problem may not be so widespread)
To address these problems in my 1983 Ramcharger, I first replaced my power steering pump. This was relatively straightforward. The only caveat I will make is that power steering pumps are typically sold without a reservoir and without a pulley. Special tools are required to pull and press on a power steering pump pulley. I bought a pump at an auto parts store and paid them $10 to swap the pulleys for me. Swapping the reservoir from my old pump was not particularly difficult. It's important to remember to carefully replace all the seals (new seals should be provided with the new pump) while putting the old reservoir onto the new pump. After that, it's a straight bolt-up. The total project cost between $150 and $200 and took a few hours, including running to the auto parts store to get the pump. Please note that my truck was disabled while the pulleys were being swapped - I used a second car to run to the auto parts store.
I next addressed the steering shaft. I replaced my stock shaft extending from the rag joint to the steering gear with the Borgeson Universal replacement for 1979-1993 Dodge trucks. I have reviewed this product separately. Installation of the replacement shaft takes all of about 20 minutes:
- Using a hammer and a punch, gently tap out the roll pin which holds the flexing joint from the steering shaft to the spline shaft of the steering gear
- Using 3/8 inch wrenches or sockets, disconnect the steering shaft at the rag joint
- Pull the flexing joint off the steering gear spline shaft, and remove the shaft
Installing the Borgeson replacement would simply require sliding its flexing joint onto the spline shaft, attaching at the rag joint, and tapping in the roll pin. You have to be careful to align the splines to allow the roll pin to sit properly. My reinstallation was complicated by the fact that I also replaced the steering gear.
By far the most complicated task in this project was replacement of the steering gear. Three things complicate swapping out a steering gear:
- Centering the wheels and pulling off the Pitman arm
- Forcing the Pitman arm onto the new steering gear
- Bleeding the new steering gear (which I largely failed to do)
It's important to center your wheels before removing your old Pitman arm. The wheels are centered so that you can properly align things when you install the new Pitman arm. The Pitman arm is the large steel bar which connects the bottom large spline shaft of the steering gear to the drag link of the steering linkage. (I neglected to center the wheels on my truck, which made it difficult to see where to place the Pitman arm on the new gear. Fortunately, through sheer dumb luck, I got it back on in the same position as when I removed it.)
Before removing the Pitman arm, you have to remove the large (1 5/16 inch) nut at the end of the large splined steering gear shaft. Most wrench sets only go up to 1 1/4 inch, and the only 1 5/16 inch wrench I was able to find cost $65. Instead, I used a pipe wrench to get it off (probably not a good idea). The arm wrests just above the leaf spring, so a large socket will not fit. To remove the Pitman arm - rent a Pitman arm puller. Don't even bother messing around with a hammer, pickle fork, or anything else. I rented a Pitman arm puller for about $3 for a day. It took about 1 minute of tightening to pull the arm off.
Disconnecting the hydraulic lines from the power steering pump will cause a lot of power steering fluid to leak out. Be sure to place a large pan under the gear, and then disconnect the lines. Be sure to remember which is the pressure and which is the return. The gear remanufacturer recommends replacing the hoses while replacing the gear (I didn't).
Three large bolts connect the steering gear mounting plate to the frame. It is necessary to remove the plate before removing the steering gear. You can then remove the old steering gear from the mounting plate, and put the plate onto the new steering gear. The new steering gear can then be replaced onto the frame. You are then confronted with the two remaining challenges: replacing the Pitman arm and bleeding the gear and pump.
If there's an easy way to push a Pitman arm onto the splined shaft of a steering gear, I don't know it. I suppose you could disconnect the Pitman arm from the drag link, and put the Pitman arm onto the steering gear while the steering gear is off the truck. I didn't try this, largely because I didn't have a sufficiently large vise to try to hold the steering gear still. So, by the time I was done, I rounded three or four large nuts by turning them onto the threaded spline shaft and forcing the Pitman arm up onto the splined shaft. I used a 12 inch adjustable wrench (a good, solid, made in USA wrench) and a 40 inch long pipe. I had my feet braced against the undercarriage, and used all the strength in my arms, legs, and abdomen. Not fun. Eventually, however, I did get the Pitman arm on there. It's important to force it up far onto the shaft to get the full strength of the splines. Remember, especially off-road, a lot of hard jolts hit that shaft.
Next, you're supposed to connect the supply hydraulic line to the gear and gradually add fluid to the pump reservoir and bleed the gear. I was too foolish to read that part of the instructions, so I ended up just connecting both lines and running the pump reservoir dry while I turned the wheel back and forth. You're not supposed to do that. Nevertheless, I eventually added enough fluid (about 1 quart) and got the power steering working just fine. However, I recommend reading the directions and carefully bleeding the system properly.
It's hard to give a time frame on this project, since I was interrupted by Thanksgiving and a lot of other projects while I was replacing the various components. With all the tools in one place, I'd say it would take at least a few hours, and probably the better part of a day, to replace the steering gear. I was able to get a rebuilt Saginaw 708 gear for $150, with a $160 core charge for the old gear.
After completing the installation, I drove extensive miles on highways, loose dirt roads, in farm fields, and through 200 miles of a heavy snowstorm. The improved feel in my steering not only made driving my 320,000 mile Ramcharger more pleasant, it made it a great deal safer as well. And while I still need a front end alignment, at least I no longer have streaks of power steering fluid along the side of my truck after a long drive.
This page was last modified on 13 Dec 97
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