Steering Checkup


Loose steering or front wheel wobble are common complaints on the CJ-3B Bulletin Board. There are a number of parts that can get worn to the point of needing replacement in a 50-year-old steering system. Here are some suggestions for diagnosing problems.

Steering 101

Oldtime: "This article is meant to address some common steering issues. It is for the shadetree mechanic. To be used in addition to the service manual, not to supercede it. Common sense rules here.

"First off I like my stock manual steering system. It may not be the best steering system ever designed but it works just fine if properly maintained with good components. A basic check of the complete system follows.

Steering system

  1. "With the vehicle solidly on the ground, have a friend move the steering wheel just enough to wobble the wheels back and forth continuously. Look closely at the steering box sector shaft (80K JPEG). It should pivot front to back only, with absolutely no up/down motion.
  2. "The bellcrank should pivot horizontally only, with no diagonal motion.
  3. "Move on to the tie rod sockets (60K JPEG) individually. These again should pivot slightly with no free play at all. Your assistant can stop the manual wheel wobble anytime now. I have also rigged my own steering wheel with a rope when friends are hard to come by.
  4. "Next place a floor jack under one of the spring plates. Jack the wheel up 1". Grab the tire outside with a man's grip. Move wheel up and down, in and out. You should not be able to perceive any play here at the kingpin bearings (the knuckle does not rock), but you will have an ever so slight wobble in the wheel bearings.
  5. "Further test the wheel bearing by spinning the wheel manually as fast as is possible; there should be no grinding noises and the tire should spin freely for a few seconds. Done.
  6. "The drag link connections (50K JPEG) are under spring tension, so it is doubtful you would notice any play at the connections using the techniques above. So you should remove the drag link and visually inspect the balls on the pitman arm and on the bellcrank. These balls should measure about .855" with a caliper. If they are out of round by 60 thousands (1/16") they are dangerous, as the ball can and will come out of its seat. The pitman ball is especially prone to wear. If you don't have a caliper then I would start being concerned if a 13/16" open-end wrench would slide past the flat spot.
  7. "One last high wear concern is the sector shaft itself in the steering box. This again would have to be at least partially disassembled for a thorough check. Besides the pivot bushings, the common concerns here are the studs that engage into the worm; sometimes they get loose but mostly they may develope flat spots.

"Stay safe!"

Wheel Balance vs. Loose Steering

One CJ-3B with a specific problem belonged to Hollis Wooldridge: "So everything was fine until I towed the Jeep back and forth to hunting camp. Now, I have a pronounced wobble while driving the Jeep between 40 and 50 mph but it is no worse when I hit a bump or cross railroad tracks. I had another Jeep do something similar several years ago and new, balanced tires cured it. However, these tires are in OK shape and I don't want to replace them right now. Could this be as simple as throwing a wheel weight or does it sound like spindle bearings out of adjustment or some other?"

Steve in Pittsburgh provided another checklist similar to the one outlined by Oldtime above. He said, "It sounds like a methodical look at the steering system is in order. Since the problem cropped up after flat-towing, it is possible or even likely the front wheel bearings are trashed. I would look at the following items:

  1. "Wheel bearing adjustment. Grab the front wheels and try to shake them top-bottom. Can you feel any slop? Do the same thing with the front wheels off the ground. If there is any slop, pull the front hubs and check the bearings for scoring, sloppines, dryness or dicolorations indicating an overheat. If you replace the bearings, replace the races as well. They are cheap, and easy to change. New seals go without saying.
  2. "While the front wheels are off, check the kingpin play. If you can feel any slop at all in them, they are bad. The service manual details the proper preload procedure, which involves using a fish scale to check the drag. Sounds complicated, but it really isn't.
  3. Likewise, while the front end is up, but with the wheels on, try to move the wheels back and forth while watching the tie rod ends and the bell crank. Like the kingpins, if you can feel/see any play here the joints are bad. Replace all that have slop in them.
  4. "With the wheels on and back on the ground, have a friend watch the drag link and pitman arm as you move the steering wheel back and forth to take up the play in the Ross steering box. If you notice the drag link and/or pitman arm moving significantly before the wheels begin to move, you have worn components in either the drag link ends or the box itself. All of these are common in old Jeeps.Also watch the steering bellcrank for up and down movement before the wheels begin to turn. There should be very little if any play here. The drag link ends are adjustable, and are often overtightened to remove play. There are springs inside the ends, which collapse if they are over-tightened.
  5. "Double-check the obvious, such as the tightness of everything, and make darned sure that there are cotter pins everywhere they should be. Break out the grease gun, and grease all the fittings you can see.If you wipe off the excess, and then drive it around (carefully) a bit, worn components will sometimes tend to squeeze out some grease to give you a little clue as to where to look.
  6. "Oh, and last but not least, check the u-bolts holding the spring packs to the axle. Loose or broken u-bolts can make thing quite interesting at 40+ MPH!

"Lots of folks have 'solved' the front end shimmy with a steering stabilizer, but a lot more have simply used one as a band-aid to hide bad components in the front end. If everything is right in the front end, you don't need one."

Steering gear
Wes Knettle: "Wheel wobble is left/right shake caused by loose parts. Wheel hop is vertical imbalance caused by poor or incorrect wheel/tire balance.

"Noticed you said this probably began after you had towed the jeep a significant distance with a towbar. It would be wise when going through Steve's excellent checklist to also check the steering gear box for damage and wear. Flat towing jeeps at highway speeds is usually not a problem but offroad towing will generate some shock loads to the steering gear box that can be very damaging."

Wheel Alignment vs. Loose Steering

Jack: "My 1953 CJ-3A is running well. My problem is that at about 45-50 and sometimes when I hit a bump just right at lower speeds, the front end begins to wobble uncontrollably. I believe this is the famous 'Death Wobble' I have heard about. Where do I begin to find and fix the cause? I am not a mechanic, but I have all the manuals and have looked at the diagrams for hours. Just don't know where I should start."

Anon: "Bias ply lug tires on the front end of 4WD vehicles wear very unevenly and get cupped. The cupped tires, a bump in the road, along with any loose steering components, can and will add up to a wobble. Sagging springs will change the axle caster geometery, so it doesn't know which way to track straight. If you do everything others suggested above you will be able to tame the beast."

Patrick: "I'm a front end mechanic myself. Been doing it for two years now and probably have around 3000 alignments under me. Multiply that number by 50 and ya got how many tires and wheels I've balanced when I changed tires before that for 5 years.

"First step, get your tires and wheels balanced, and ask them to let ya watch the balance of them yourself, to look for warped wheels or separated tires. When the Jeep is jacked up, during the time before the wheels are unbolted, grab the tire at top and bottom and pull with one hand and push with other as if your trying to shake it. If it has movement here it's most likely a bearing, but a decent mechanic can tell you for sure. Occasionally it's something else. Then shake tire in the same manner from side to side. If it has motion here it can be anything from tie rod ends to idler and pitman arms. Do this with both front wheels.

"Most early model Jeeps don't have any manufacturer-installed camber/caster adjustment, but the only times I've ever seen alignment being the cause of a bad ride is when a part in the alignment process is not only damaged but damaged severly (as in getting ready to fall off). Camber/caster can most likely be adjusted if need be, by installing angled shims behind the drum brake assemblies. It's a pain in the butt to do, but can be done if you know the size of shim needed.

"A top quality tire/mechanic shop will check all of these things for you without question, but it's hard to find good employees for what they get paid. I admit that I'm the only employee in a shop with 5 workers that checks for all of these things on a regular basis. So it's a good idea to make sure everything I mentioned is checked by yourself just to be sure it gets done."

Rus Curtis: "On a stock CJ-3B, the caster and camber are preset by the way the axle is mounted on the springs, and are not meant to be adjustable. This means that if either of these measurements are wrong, something is bent, worn or not original. The toe-in is the only front end adjustment that needs to be done. After centering the steering wheel, set the wheels to zero toe-in (straight with the back wheels) and then turn the tie rods (to shorten them) 1/2 turn. If you have a manual, it will explain this pretty well. Good luck!"

Anon: "Changing front springs to arched springs for lift can change caster some, and extending your shackles will change your caster for sure. The only adjustment if some is needed, is with shims under the axle."

Sebastian Ruiz: "For correcting the angles, here is the way:

Glenn Smith: "The shims for camber would go between the knuckle and spindle. I've heard of them but most alignment shops say they're not available."

Note: steering and brakes on your vehicle are critical to life safety. The information on this page is general in nature; if you are uncertain where your problem lies or how to correct it, get professional advice.

See also some more specific Steering Tech Tips.

Thanks to all the contributors. Illustrations are from the Willys Parts List and Service Manual. -- Derek Redmond

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Last updated 2 April 2006 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
All content not credited and previously copyright, is copyright Derek Redmond