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QMy Volvo 144 has quite heavy steering. I thought this was a characteristic of the car, but then I drove a friend’s 144 and found its steering wonderfully light. It’s fitted with correct 165 R15 tyres. I’m going to take it off the road over the winter for an overhaul. What might be wrong with it?
Robin Stokes, Amsterdam
AThere are a large number of possible causes. We’ll take a general look at all of them. Old, balding or incorrect tyres can make for heavy steering – and correct pressures are important, too. Note that radials are usually inflated by about 3-5psi more than crossplies. Beware of over-inflating tyres for lighter steering, as this will lead to a loss of grip. Don’t ever exceed the figure given for highspeed cruising in your manual.
Next, examine the steering. Start by removing the steering rods completely. Examine them for split rubber boots, water ingress and rusty sludge where grease should be. All balljoints should be stiff and tight, but should move smoothly. See how easy it is to swivel the hubs while in the air. If these are stiff, look at the suspension swivel joints, balljoints or kingpins.
Check the steering box oil and make sure you can move its Pitman arm smoothly from lockto-lock. You should feel very slight tightness when the arm passes its dead-centre position. There should be no play in this position, but play will increase either side of the centre.
On the other side, give the idler a rare bit of attention. Release the top nut and push the shaft out. Inspect for corrosion and worn bushes. Clean, lubricate and reassemble. Set the top nut with just enough tension that the idler’s Pitman arm can just be moved with light pressure from one finger. Make sure the steering wheel moves freely. On older cars with rigid steering columns, the column must be in perfect alignment with the steering box. You can shift the bracket that holds the column under the dash. If there’s no adjustment left, then fit a shim under the steering box to angle it slightly. A millimetre at the box will translate to 5mm or more at the top of the column.
Reassemble and set the toein (or ‘tracking’). We recommend investing in a DIY tracking gauge and doing this yourself. If everything’s moving freely and the tracking is
correct, you should find that the steering self-centres well at higher speeds and doesn’t need constant correction. It should hold a straight line over rough surfaces, too.
If the steering becomes heavy when entering a sharp bend at speed and seems to weight up the more you turn in, this relates to the camber and castor of the front suspension. Start by looking for bent arms and poor accident repairs. Replace worn-out bushes, which will allow the geometry to alter as they sag. Castor and camber are not adjustable on some cars, so it’s likely to be broadly correct. If they are adjustable, they may have been badly set-up in the first place or fiddled around with since. In the case of your Volvo, they are adjustable by adding or removing shims at the upper wishbone mounts. We showed you how to measure castor and camber in the August 2018 issue of