I’m one of the lucky ones.
Though I missed the golden days of hot rodding and muscle cars (‘50s through early-’70s), I was lucky enough to be born in the ‘70s, which meant those cars were cheap when I was coming of age. I was also lucky enough to have a father that raised me to be a gearhead and weaned me on horsepower at a young age, so I knew what to look for when I hit driving age.
When that time came, it had to be a Chevy. And not just any Chevy, it had to be a 1955 or 1957 Chevy, whichever came first. Lucky for me it was an oxidized baby blue 150 (I didn’t even know what a 150 was back then) that I purchased for $1,500 way back in 1986. As time marched on, it went through a few different iterations (some I’d rather forget), but the most significant was from 2007 to 2009 when we completed a full frame-off restoration on it.
A big part of that restoration included upgrading the suspension. We added a parallel 4-link to the 12-bolt rearend, then grafted on a Fat Man Fabrication’s Stage III front stub, complete with rack-and-pinion steering, QA1 coilover shocks, and Wilwood disc brakes. The car has been amazing, but after racking up (pun intended) 6,000 miles-per-year on the car since completion, the rack-and-pinion sprung a leak. It was time for a change and I wanted something that performed and looked better than the basic OEM-style rack.
I knew just who to turn to — Flaming River out of Berea, Ohio. During the 30 years Flaming River has been in business, it’s become a well-respected mainstay in the automotive aftermarket. You can see its booth at major shows around the country each year. Known for quality, made-in-the-USA steering components, accessories, and electrical components, Flaming River prides itself on manufacturing brand new parts — nothing is rebuilt. That means it can control the quality, adapt with the times as new technology comes along, and even make parts look better than stock.
I met Mike Zenone and Brett Domin of Flaming River several months ago and we struck up a conversation about my ailing steering rack and the challenges with upgrading it because of the aftermarket front stub. They assured me they could find something that would work. And they did! If you are thinking about modifying your vehicle or already have one, know that there are companies like Flaming River out there who can work with you.
This is the great part about the automotive aftermarket; because they have been improving on OE parts for so long, they understand the challenges enthusiasts have when trying to retrofit a vehicle.
Fat Man Fabrication built the front-clip to accept a stock ‘79 to ‘93 Fox-Body Mustang rack so that it is easily replaceable — a smart and economical (for the consumer) idea — if you have a problem, a new rack can be bought at Napa and you are back on the road. That being said, an off-the-shelf steering rack is not necessarily the best rack. Enter Flaming River, who has been building racks for 20 years and have engineered a better solution.
Here Is The Challenge (There Is Always A Challenge)
Due to the aftermarket front stub, it wasn’t a straightforward, easy swap. There were a couple of other factors that made it tricky. The first order of business was for me to verify which rack I actually had. There are few different styles (years) of stock Mustang racks and each is a little bit different: ‘74-’78 Mustang II, ‘79-’93 Fox-body, and ‘94-’04 SN-95. The way to tell the differences is by measuring the center-to-center distance between mounting points (spike mounts), body (tube) length, and overall length (end-to-end, without tie-rod ends attached).
The ‘74-’78 Mustang II rack is 45 inches in overall length, body length is 19.5 inches, and the spike mount center-to-center is 16 inches. The ‘79-’93 Fox-body rack is the same overall and body lengths, but the spike mount is 15.5-inches center-to-center. The only difference from the Fox-body to the ‘94-’04 SN-95 rack is that the overall length is 48.5 inches.
With these measurements in hand, I dove under the ‘55 with my tape measure and camera. I found the spike mount center-to-center was 15.5-inches apart and the overall length was 45 inches. So, that confirmed I did indeed have a Fox-body rack. I snapped a few pictures and sent that information off to Mike at Flaming River.
Herein lies my particular problem — a stock Fox-body Mustang rack-and-pinion is 45-inches end-to-end (without tie-rod ends). If you thread-on the tie-rod end until it seats (or as close as possible), it adds another 1.5 inches on each end for a total of 48-inches overall. But, because the frame is so wide (compared to a Mustang), guess how far apart the Chevy’s steering arms are . . . 50 inches. Yep, doing the math that is 2-inches short of where it needs to be. The threaded area on the tie-rod end is only about 2 inches. Some might ask, why don’t I just adjust the tie-rod ends out and inch on either side and call it done?
Here is why I couldn’t consider that option: In order to snake the steering linkage down past the headers, side-engine mounts, and oil pan on its aftermarket front stub, Fat Man Fabrication offsets the rack toward the driver’s side.
To combat this offset, Fat Man provides a 2-inch spacer for the passenger-side tie-rod that you screw into the piston, then the tie rod is screwed into the spacer. This gives you an overall width on the rack of 47 inches, allowing the tie rod to get enough bite into the thread of the tie-rod end on the passenger side.
Without the spacer, it would only grab a few threads, which of course, is seriously dangerous. Add the extra 1.5-inches per side when you install the tie-rod end and you get an overall width of 50 inches — a perfect fit!
Making The Selection
With schematics and measurements sorted out, we mulled over a few scenarios. My first thought was to order Flaming River’s XL Front Steer Power Rack-and-Pinion which is 49 inches — a full 4-inches longer than a regular-sized rack. Mike pointed out that wouldn’t work for two reasons: “the tie-rod angle would be too harsh, resulting in bumpsteer, and it would also be too long once the tie-rod ends are added” (49+1.5+1.5 = 52 inches). He also ruled out the SN-95 rack because it would end up 51.5 inches. Mike determined the FR40037 Fox-body rack was the best option. Once I received it, if I determined I needed a spacer, I could use the one off of the old rack.
From the pictures I sent, Mike was also concerned about the clearance of the valve housing hitting the rack mount, so I might need to do some cutting. I would also need a different u-joint and a couple of 6AN fittings. I was ok with that, so I ordered the FR40037, along with the needed U-joint and fittings.
The Flaming River ‘79-’93 Fox-Body Mustang Power Rack and Pinion includes all-new components and is robot-welded for strength and durability. The die-cast housing features the same line position as OE, has an adjustable pinion housing with a 12:1 ratio and only requires 2.7 turns lock-to-lock.
“A lot of professional builders choose this rack for the adjustability we build into it,” Mike says. “They like the 12:1 ratio and adjustable pinion, along with the fact it has six inches of travel. Additionally, all Flaming River racks are made right here in our facility in Ohio. We fluid and pressure test and certify every rack before it leaves the door — the test sheet is included with the rack — so builder’s know they can count on it working right out of the box.”
The rack arrived all nicely wrapped with the u-joint and fittings inside the box. Though it might have seemed like a straight swap, it had challenges as well, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome with Flaming River’s help. Before removing the old rack, we put the car on jackstands so we could take some measurements. We made sure both the steering wheel and wheels were straight — making sure not to move the steering wheel (not a major deal, but it kept us from having to readjust the wheel later), and removed the wheels.
Next (and more importantly), we measured the distance from one brake rotor to the other, both front and back. This was important, because once you remove the tie-rod ends, the spindle assembly is going to move. Having the measurement both front and back let’s you know the amount of toe you have. You will still want to take it to an alignment shop later, but this will get you in-the-ballpark.
Once we removed the old rack, we measured how deep the tie rod went into the tie-rod ends, then removed them. We installed them on the new Flaming River unit to the same depth, then mocked the rack into place.
The first thing we noticed is we would definitely need a spacer, so we removed the one from the old rack and figured out we had another challenge. The Flaming River rack wouldn’t accept the spacer from the old rack. The piston in the old rack had male threads, while the one on the new unit had female threads. With that revelation, we knew we wouldn’t finish that day, but decided to double-check everything else.
The new U-joint fit the steering shaft perfectly, and the fittings matched up with my hoses, so we were good to go there. But, Mike’s concern about the valve housing when looking at the pictures of the old rack, proved worthy. The housing on the Flaming River rack is substantially larger than a stock one, which required a little bit of cutting to the corner of the rack mount. Nothing a cut-off wheel couldn’t handle, and it wouldn’t be seen, so we lopped it off. Once, that was complete, we were good to go and done for the day.
The next morning, I placed a call to Flaming River and asked if they made a spacer. Lucky for me they did! Mike said it is not a part they advertise, because it’s rarely needed and usually only used on racks built in their custom shop. Part #100432 is a 1.81-inch spacer — exactly what I needed, so I ordered it. The part arrived a few days later and we were back in business.
We used some threadlocker and installed the new spacer, then attached the tie-rod ends to the spindles. Once the castle nuts were secured with cotter pins, we took out the tape measure again to check our front/back measurements on the rotor, adjusted the tie rods to match our original measurements, and locked them down with the jam nut.
Bleeding The System
It was now time to double check all of our nuts, bolts, and fittings, then turn our attention to the Flaming River instruction sheet for the correct bleeding procedure. I can’t stress enough how important it is to go slow, follow the procedures step-by-step, and not skip any, while also paying close attention to the fluid level all the way through. Get some beer ready, because you will need a friend to turn the steering wheel — a lot — and you’re going to owe them a few cold ones.
With the ignition off and wheels off the ground, turn the wheel full-left. Fill the reservoir to about an inch above the intake — don’t overfill it — the level will rise and fall throughout the process and it will burp out trapped air. If you overfill it, you’re going to be cleaning fluid off of everything (ask me how I know). Now, your assistant will start turning the wheel back to the right (slowly, or suffer the volcano!) and then back to the left, lock-to-lock. All the while you should be keeping an eye on the fluid level and watching the bubbles as air is bled from the system.
While bubbles are fun for kids, it’s not fun to have any in your power steering fluid. It can cause all sorts of problems with steering, but ultimately means you have a leak somewhere. If you get a bunch of bubbles suspended in the fluid, take a break and let them settle out so you aren’t putting air back into the system. Your assistant will continue turning lock-to-lock a minimum of 20 times.
On bigger cars like mine, you will most likely have to turn the wheel upwards of 40 times. We ended up in the 60-range before I was comfortable all the air was out. The bubbles will get smaller and less frequent as you approach the end, so this is one place you want to overdo it. Even if you think they’ve stopped, go about 10 more times to make sure.
Once you are truly convinced, center the wheels, drop the car off the jackstands, check the fluid level, put the cap back on, and start the engine. Let the engine warm up for a few minutes then turn the wheel a few times each way.
It is also good at this point to double check for any clearance issues with the steering linkage, or even the tires. The Flaming River rack probably has more turning radius than your original one. The steering should be smooth and noiseless. Return the wheels to center and turn the engine off to check the fluid. It should be at the same level it was before and there should be no bubbles, foam, or discoloration.
After we verified all steps were complete and all conditions were met, it was time to hit the road! Because of the leak in the old rack, the pump would whine after a while of driving as air entered the system. The leak was small, so the steering was rarely affected unless I was going slow, like in a parking lot, then it would give me feedback through the steering wheel as the pump strained with the bubbles.
None of those conditions exist now. The steering is butter-smooth, feels more responsive, and generally tighter. The pump doesn’t make a sound during low RPM parking situations and I no longer have a fear that the steering is going to fight back at me. On top of that, the Flaming River rack looks outstanding.
If you have an aftermarket application like me, or are just looking to replace your stock steering rack, I recommend you take a look at Flaming River for a high-quality, American-built product backed up with top-notch customer service. I had a great experience with the ordering process, even after I had to call back to order the spacer. Shipping of the original order was timely and the spacer went out the same day. Lastly, Flaming River has some other great looking products including steering columns, pumps, alternators, battery disconnects, and a whole lot more. Time to get that credit card warmed up!