Steering Play Causes and Cures

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January 19, 2009

Steering free play is probably the number one complaint we hear about from coach owners at our shop. Steering free play is when the steering wheel can be moved back in forth in your hands, but the vehicle is not steering-in other words, there is excessive “play” in the steering wheel.

When you stop and consider how many different components are involved in the steering action on today’s motorhomes, it’s easy to understand why steering free play is such an issue. You have the steering wheel, coupler, two-three universal couplings, steering gear, sector shaft splines, the pitman arm, drag link, bell crank, tie rod ends and the tie rod end sleeves. While steering free play can be caused by one of these items, more often it is a cumulative effect, where several components contribute to the problem. We’ve seen everything from an inch or two of play in either steering direction to extreme cases where we wonder how the customer was even able to drive the coach!

In any case, steering freeplay is fairly common, and it can be reduced or even eliminated. At Henderson’s Line-Up, we diagnose the problem with what we call a “Dry Park Test”, where we put the coach on a rack with an inspection bay underneath. One technician is in the cab of the coach, moving the steering wheel back and forth and looking for play in the steering shaft, steering U-joint or coupler, sometimes even the steering wheel itself. At the same time, another technician is under the coach in the inspection bay. During this part of the test, we invite the customer into the inspection bay so they can see for themselves what is going on. A lot of shops want to keep the customer out of the shop, but we want customer to be part of the process up until the repair is initiated. I ask our customers, “If you were going to build your house on the side of a mountain, wouldn’t you want to know what the foundation is like?” The chassis is the foundation of your home on wheels, and we think it’s important for you to know what’s going on down there.

The first component we check underneath the coach is the steering gear box. Motorhomes use what is called a reciprocating ball type, and they usually have a certain amount of play in them by nature of their design. There has to be some play within the steering gear components, and that can often translate to play in the steering itself (we’ll get into steering boxes in detail in a future issue). We often stock blueprinted steering boxes on our shelves, or we can send yours out to be blueprinted, but there is some turnaround time involved.

Continuing on our path toward the wheels, we have to check the steering linkage that attaches to the steering gear box, which is called the “pitman arm.” Some pitman arms have replaceable joints that wear out, in which case we can replace the joint-but sometimes, the joint simply wasn’t tightened down properly at the factory and came loose. The “sector shaft” comes out of the steering box and has splines on it; if the nut wasn’t tightened down properly, there could be play in the splines, and the shaft can also be damaged in an accident of some kind, for example if the coach was driven off the road and struck a hole or large rock.

The next component is called the “drag link”, which can wear out, and can often be replaced by an aftermarket product. For example, we recently introduced new tie rod and drag link ends for Country Coach applications with the Dana Kirkstall independent front suspension, which helps reduce steering play and dynamic toe changes. Here’s a photo:

Finally, we check the tie rod joints and sleeves for play, and if worn out can be replaced with products from a number of component suppliers.

On some steering systems, the steering linkage is supported by a mechanism such as an “idler arm” or “bell crank”. One of the things our manufacturing division, SuperSteer, is known for are the bell cranks we make to support the linkage on the P32 chassis, Freightliner XC chassis with straight axle, and the idler support we offer for GM pick-ups, vans and Class C motorhomes. The original equipment designs utilize a sleeve-type bushing, which can create looseness in the steering mechanism when it starts to wear out. The problem is, you can’t pre-load (adjust the play out of) a bushing without some degree of binding. Our products replace the sleeve bushings with tapered roller bearings, which are not only much better at carrying load, but can also be pre-loaded for precise movement. Here is a photo showing cutaways of the stock P32 bell crank (black) and ours:

On P32 chassis, there is also a component called a “bell crank arm”, which attaches to the bottom of the bell crank and to the steering center link. All of the pressure from the steering mechanism goes through the bell crank arm joint, and the only way to diagnose play in this component is to start the engine and use the power steering; otherwise, you can’t get enough force on the joint to make the play obvious. If this component requires replacement, SuperSteer also offers a replacement bell crank arm, shown here:

The looseness in the idler arm of GM trucks, vans and Class C motorhomes can cause changes in toe (where the wheels point inward or outward) as the vehicle drives down the road, and toe-in is the most critical tire wear angle. In fact, toe-in that is off by as little as 1/8-inch is equal to 28 feet of side-scrub per mile, which results in greatly accelerated tire wear. Our SuperSteer Idler Support features a stronger cast-aluminum housing and tapered roller bearings, and a kit that we designed with Cognito Motorsports ties in the pitman arm, center link and idler support for improved steering feel.

Last but not least, sometimes the front and/or rear leaf springs in Chevy P32, Ford and some Workhorse chassis can cause the sensation of steering freeplay, which can often be cured by a SuperSteer trac bar that positively locates the rear axle.

Steering freeplay doesn’t have to diminish your driving experience. With a little knowledge in hand and a good alignment shop, you should be able to greatly reduce or eliminate the problem altogether. If you’re near Quartzite, CA., remember we’ll there until the 25th answering questions, doing installations and offering some great deals on SuperSteer components. Or, just stop by our shop in Grants Pass–it would be great to see you!

Leave a Reply

5 comments

  1. Pete

    Did you mean Quartzsite Az instead of CA

  2. Oops, you are right. It is AZ, Thank you, Robert

  3. Jerry

    I have a 40′ Monaco DP, and it seems to wag a bit.
    Have any idea what I can do?
    Tire pressure and steering tight.
    [email protected]

  4. Daryl

    Hi there I have a p32 chassis and Im looking for the left steering bell crank and idler arm in aftermarket , do you have an source to find these parts, thanks.

  5. I have a 99 Monaco Diplomat with the roadmaster chassis that wanders, I’m looking for a place to purchase ends for my drag link. Monaco keep trying to sell me a drag link assembly for $1000.00 plus when I only need the ends. Can you point me in the right direction to purchase just the ends that I need? Thanks for any help