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Advice on diagnosing steering wheel play

I’ve got a 99 Dodge 2500, looking for a little bit of diagnostic advice…

The steering wheel has significant play, about 90 degrees. In other words, on the clock face, Im able to turn the wheel position of 12 o’clock all the way to 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock before the wheel starts to turn.

Previous owner claims recent steering gear box install, a year ago. Is the significant amount of play a hint at the cause? Is the central steering column a possibility?

What are my step by step diagnostics to determine the cause?

Thanks so much to the cartalk community for help on this one.

The steering gear box may be out off adjustment.

Tester

First try one of the following. Have a trusted partner behind the wheel while you lie on the ground looking at the tires and all the steering linkage. Have the trusted partner turn the steering wheel back and forth smoothly at a moderate pace. You may need the engine running for the power steering. Look at all the steering linkage joints to see that they move in sync and smoothly.

If moving the steering wheel from the 9 to 3 position does not move any of the linkage, then the issue is either in the steering box or the steering column. That much movement leads me to think that the issue is in the steering column. It could be a torn flex link or something loose in the part of the shaft that is designed to collapse on impact.

Again have your trusted partner move the steering wheel while you look for a part that isn’t moving in sync.

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Thank you for the advice, Keith. We drove the vehicle (it was very difficult, with the truck drifting left to right whenever I hit a turn). I could drive it straight ahead though without drift. Is this info any further hint? Would there be slippage while driving straight ahead, if the steering column is the cause? We’re going in to diagnose box vs column now. Thank you very much!

We ran the steering wheel turn and observe diagnostic… and the steering column visually seems to move in sync with any movement of the wheel.

We’re going to jack it up for one more test, and move the wheels by hand.

Does this seem to be pointing at the gear box now?

The fact that it drives true when going straight ahead indicates a good alignment or a lot of toe in. If the front tires show a lot of wear on the outside edges, that would indicate a lot of toe in and contribute to the amount of steering input to get the vehicle to start changing course.

If it is the steering box, you need to observe the pitman arm along with the steering column and see if they are in sync. This can be a bit difficult to see the pitman arm located at the bottom of the steering box and the column at the rear. You may need a mirror to do this.

Jacking up the vehicle and then moving one wheel while observing the other will tell you if there is play in the linkage. One thing commonly overlooked is the idler arm where it connects to the frame. A loose bushing here will allow vertical movement of the idler arm which changes the toe in between the wheels. This is easier to observe with the method I recommended above with the wheels on the ground.

If you can’t find any loose components, then do this. Get a couple of 2x4s one at least 6’ long and the other at least 30" long. Park the vehicle on level ground, steering wheel centered and tires pointed straight ahead.

Slide the long 2x4 behind the front wheels, on end and up against the backs of the tires with about the same amount sticking out each side. Then place the short 2x4 across the tire, level and sitting on top of the 2x4. Mark the line on the long 2x4 outside of the short one. Then move to the other side and repeat. BTW you can use a 1x2 to 1x4 for the short board if you want or even another straight edge if you have one.

The move the long 2x4 to the front of the tires and a align one mark to the short board. Go to the other side. If you can see the mark on the other side with a gap between the short board and the mark, you are toed in. Make a new mark and then measure the gap. It should not be larger than about 1/8". If it is really large, that could account for the steering delay. But if the gap is bigger that 1/8", you may want to get a good front end alignment. If the toe is off, then other parts of the alignment could be out as well.

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What you are describing is 180 degrees of movement. The only vehicle I ever owned that had play like that was a 54 Plymouth that had both bolts that held the steering box in place had come out and when the wheel was turned the box rotated between the engine and inner fender. With that much play, once you get under it, the answer should be obvious.