Why did most big cars of the '50s and '60s come with overly large steering wheels? Because power-assisted steering was either a (costly) option or simply not available, leaving the driver to rely more on his arm strength and the large wheel's ratio to turn the vehicle. Therefore, when we think of a modern conversion for these classic behemoths, one of the first things that comes to mind is an upgraded power steering system. But when reading about cool Tri-Fives in magazines (or checking them out at the local car show), it's not overly obvious, but not everyone is converting their '55-57 Chevys to power steering.
For some it's the expense, for others there is simply no room for the requisite pump to fit. That doesn't mean you have to settle for using that oversized steering wheel just to maneuver your ride around the local cruise night. There is another solution.
Classic Chevy International has a simple kit that will replace the two bushings on the idler arm with two bearings. These bearings allow the idler arm to work more freely making it feel as if the car is equipped with power steering, hence the nickname, Poor Man's Power Steering. Follow along as we show you just how easy this upgrade can be on a '55 hardtop's steering that has seen better days and is ripe to have everything tightened up.
On the left and right sides of the steering column at the dashboard, we removed two 1/2-inch nuts. These hold the top of the mast jacket to the dashboard. The lower half of the clamp that holds the mast jacket to the dash has a tab that keeps the column in place. At the firewall, we removed the clamp that holds the bottom of the mast jacket in place. The clamp was bolted to the firewall with two bolts. One bolt squeezes the clamp to the mast jacket, and once it was removed, the clamp slid off of the end of the mast jacket.
The Pitman arm was held to the Pitman shaft with a 1 5/16-inch nut and lock washer. We removed the nut and lock washer and then removed the Pitman arm using a Pitman arm puller.
Once we removed all of the clamps and unplugged the wires from the turn signal to the under-dash harness, the mast jacket slid up and away from the dashboard.
Next, we removed the three nuts that held the steering box to the frame so the box could be removed from the top through the engine compartment.
It was now time to install the restored steering box. Chevrolet changed over to grease in late 1957, so the box will be filled with grease, not gear lube. We started by installing the lower mast jacket felt seals and retainer spring kit on the shaft from the box. This felt seal and spring kit keeps the trash out of the bottom of the steering column. The restored steering box was then slid back into place. The Pitman arm was reinstalled and torqued to 75 ft-lbs.
We were now ready to install the new bearing kit in the idler arm and rebuild the end of the drag link at the Pitman arm. We removed the drag link and idler arm so that we could rebuild the ball and socket on the Pitman arm and install the bearing kit on the idler arm. We removed the cotter pin from the end of the drag link and unscrewed the cap on the end of the drag link. This cap has right-hand threads.
Then, with a pair of needle-nose pliers we removed the spring from the end of the drag link. We were then able to lift the drag link off the ball on the Pitman arm. There are two cups in the end of the drag link that seat up to the ball.
Next the inner tie rod ends were disconnected from the drag link, and the idler arm was unbolted from the passenger side of the frame. The drag link and idler arm assembly was then removed from the frame and placed in a vise to hold it while we worked on it.
There are two bushings on the idler arm-one on the end of the drag link and one on the frame bracket. These will be replaced with the bearing kit. We removed the cotter pin and nut from the idler arm, and using a brass punch and a hammer we separated the idler arm from the drag link. We did the same thing with the idler arm to frame bracket.
We used an air hammer to press the bushing out, making sure not to damage the bore where the bushing presses in.
Using a vise and a socket we slowly installed the steel bushings with the collar flush with the side that we were pressing in.
With the bushings in place, the steel cap was installed on the idler arm and then the rubber washer.
We made sure to pack the bearings with a good quantity of grease and then installed them on the shaft, making sure the open end of the bearing was facing towards the bushing.
The drag link bushings where greased up and reassembled to the idler arm. The other bearing, top cap, rubber washer and steel washer were then installed. The castrated nut was installed and torqued to 14 ft-lbs.
Here's how the idler arm and drag link assembly looked when we were done. We found that we needed to use one of the old washers from the idler arm to get the nut on the frame bracket in the correct position.
The springs, seats, and cups were installed into the drag link next. We made sure to clean all parts before installation.
The spring was installed first and then the seat, making sure to use plenty of grease. The cup was next, making sure the open end of the cup was to the bottom.
With the ball on the Pitman clean, we installed the disc cover and felt washer for the Pitman arm. Then, we applied plenty of grease and mounted the drag link back to the Pitman arm.
The cup (with the open end toward the bottom), the seat, and spring were installed. and then the end cap was screwed in until the top of the cap was flush with the end of the drag link. The cotter pin was placed through the groove in the cap to secure it. The inner tie rod ends were reattached back to the drag link, and we double-checked that everything was greased well. The steering was now better than new.