1969 Dodge Charger Project Car Update: Let's Deal With That Floating Steering
Guides & Gear's Mopar project gets some steering upgrades.
- Cars 101
- Guides & Gear
The 1969 Dodge Charger. The apple of my eye. The reason I’m into cars in the first place. And, most of all, the source of my ever-increasing madness.
I remember my uncle telling me that owning a car like this means you’re going to work on it every weekend. To me that sounded like the cars were kind of junky and that you’d always be fixing something. Sure enough, he was right.
My car is a rolling project, and that means there’s always something for me to be working on. Paired with my obsessive need to constantly update or improve things that otherwise don’t need fixing, the workload is virtually never-ending.
In this case, I opted to jump on the factory steering to see if I could get just a little more life out of the front end. My primary concern was to get more response with a tighter steering ratio. And because I can’t stand the lack of resistance in the steering wheel, it’d be nice to take care of that along the way.
What’s the Deal with the Steering?
After the story introducing my project Charger went live, a commenter asked about the car’s driving manners and overall experience. The problem is that I can’t provide much insight into what I consider to be an authentic driving experience—not because it’s modified to be radically different from a stock Charger but because it’s a work in progress.
Suffice to say, I love my car, regardless of the checklist of problems and my dreamy ideas of how to solve them all. I don’t find it to be too big, I don’t mind the exhaust drone, and I even love the fact that it’s nowhere near complete. That allows me to treat it like an open canvas. One of the few things that I can say with certainty, though, is that the steering system is the same as it is on a factory Charger.
The factory power steering in that car is a thing of wonder. It’s very floaty and unresponsive. With nearly zero turning resistance, it truly feels like navigating a boat on the open water. It makes me wonder how more didn’t wind up wrapped around telephone poles. Some opine that this sensation adds to the nostalgic vibes of the car and that you can learn to deal with it. I can’t argue that point. After all, an authentic driving experience includes all of the quirks.
Even so, authenticity is one thing and practicality is another, and I wanted to address the less-than-precise steering as soon as possible. The methods I opted to explore were installing some quick-ratio steering arms and the pump-down procedure many put to use on these cars.
What Are Longer Steering Arms?
Mopar B-bodies aren’t exactly known to handle turns like they’re on rails. If you wanted that back then, you probably would've sprung for something like an MG or a Triumph or a BMW 2002. Even then, handling dynamics were nowhere near what modern machines can do. And most American performance cars built back then were bullets in the quarter-mile that did an OK job getting grandma to the grocery store. Today's ultra-high standards for steering and handling obviously weren’t in sight.
Thankfully, there’s plenty of support for those looking to dial in the handling of their classic muscle cars. You can do virtually anything to them, including modifying the entire front end to accept rack-and-pinion steering and coilovers. My plans include improvement, but I don’t want to take the car that far from its roots, and I don’t have the budget or facility to make that happen anyway.
If you read the last piece, you’ll know that I currently have QA1 control arms and a K-member to match with a sway bar to tie things together. You’ll also know that I made those updates simply because I was replacing the factory stuff anyway. I applied the same school of thought when it came to tightening up the steering.
My power steering box doesn’t have any issues. Aside from a leak I found and addressed on the high-pressure line, it’s still running strong. So, there was no real need for me to replace it. My pitman and idler arm, on the other hand, weren’t looking like spring chickens anymore, so that’s what I opted to update.
The steering arms I swapped in were from Hotchkis Sport Suspension (part number 3004). These are called quick-ratio arms because they effectively increase the steering ratio of the car. The reason that happens is because the arms are a little more than an inch longer than the factory, effectively bringing the steering ratio down from 16:1 to 12:1.
I should clarify that the additional length of the Hotchkis quick-ratio arms can run into clearance issues with some applications. I spoke to a rep who let me know that they might bind on full-length headers, which I have on my car. I wouldn’t have minded breaking out the torch and the hammer, but they slipped right into place without a hitch. Others making the mod might not be quite as lucky.
I Didn’t Pump It Down. Here’s Why.
I said I was thinking about pairing the longer steering arms with the coveted pump-it-down procedure in the last post, but like anything else related to wrenching, plans changed.
This procedure is something muscle-car nuts have been putting to work for some time. Basically, what you’re doing is dialing down the pressure in the power steering system. The reason folks do this is to decrease the floaty feeling in the steering wheel.
I’m not exaggerating when I say you could easily turn the steering wheel with one finger. In fact, I’d say a light breeze hitting the wheel might abruptly send you into a ditch. Sure, that sounds great on paper, but it’s unnerving when you drive a car that doesn’t provide any real feedback. I’m not out there road racing, but I still like to feel engaged with the car at all times.
I highly recommend the pump-it-down test to anyone else who doesn’t like the “natural” feel of their old car’s steering. Companies like Borgeson (more on that in a minute) offer bushing kits with thorough instructions to get the job done. I did buy one of those kits, but I ultimately opted against installing it.
I didn’t perform the pump-it-down procedure because of the impact those steering arms had. I’m no engineer, but common sense tells us that the longer steering arms use their extended reach as a means to increase the rate at which your wheels are turned. But the additional leverage works both ways, and more effort is needed to turn those wheels.
In other words, the steering wheel tightened right up with those steering arms in place. It’s not right where I want it, but I have reservations about decreasing pressure in the system at this point. Mostly because I’m going to need new tires soon, and I want to go wider on the front. This will also directly impact the amount of effort that it takes to turn the steering wheel. Bringing down the pressure might make it tighter than I want.
Why Not a Better Steering Box?
If you’re familiar with Borgeson, you’ll know the company makes power-steering boxes that solve both of the issues I’m talking about. They offer an improved steering ratio and provide feedback in an effort to create the feeling and performance of a modern steering box. I’ve read countless positive reviews about these boxes and even spoke to a guy with one in his own second-generation Charger while doing my homework on the quick-ratio arms.
Full disclosure: I believe that installing one of those boxes is a superior method and will provide much better results. I just didn’t want to cough up the $1,400 it would take to get one in my car when I already have a steering box that works perfectly fine.
Plus, the Hotchkis quick-ratio steering arms do make a big difference. I live in the mountains of Pennsylvania, and they complement cruising through the winding roads quite well. But the biggest improvement is in parking lots and other tight quarters. It used to be that manning the stick while turning the wheel 400 times to get out of parking spaces would send me into a spiraling rage. Now, I just slip right in and out. Considering that a set of factory Pitman & Idler arms are about the same price, I say they’re definitely worth the effort to install.
What’s Next for the Charger?
These steering arms might be a small update, but they almost serve as a landmark. This steering situation has been something of a loose thread for some time. With that out of the way, I can start to focus on some much-needed repairs and updates.
On the roster right now is a laundry list of basic maintenance tasks. Ironically, the power steering pump has started screaming bloody murder, and I need to address it before I lose my mind.
Other than that, it needs brakes, the shocks are bunk, the wheel bearings are busted, and the tires are ready to be repurposed. Obviously, I’ll use these all as excuses to make tweaks and adjustments where necessary. Larger tires all around are at the top of that list. I’ve also been toying with some ideas that I’m not quite ready to commit to, but big unnecessary changes may be on the horizon.
It’s also time to start getting serious about some of the rust I’ve ignored and bodywork sins I’ve committed along the way. I’m not going to make any promises to myself regarding a timeline to get it done, but my battle against Mother Nature’s rusty clutches is far from over, and I need to get back in the fight. The sooner I do that, the better.
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