How to Restore Steering Wheel Column & Pedals in Muscle Cars

Look around your interior long enough, and you’ll come to the conclusion that just about everything in it is there for the sole purpose of the driver’s and passengers’ comfort and pleasure. The seats are there for the comfort of your hind end; the trim is there to make the interior more aesthetically pleasing; the carpet and padding are there, partially, to keep heat and noise from entering the cabin; the radio is there for your listening pleasure.

 


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And while you may gain pleasure from cranking the steering wheel on your favorite twisty mountain road or from stomping the loud pedal and initiating a big smoky burnout, the main purpose of those input devices is not to comfort or please the driver; they exist to control the car. Think about any stripped-down race car, and the interior will always contain at least a steering wheel and pedals (even the seat is nonessential as long as you have an empty milk crate laying around). For that reason, they’re going to be the most mechanical aspects of your interior restoration.

And that is not to say the steering wheel and pedals need to look mechanical as well. Your muscle car left the assembly plant with a definite purposeful aesthetic, but also with a touch of comfort, and the mechanical control inputs such as the steering wheel and pedals were no exception.

Steering Wheel Removal

Almost everything else in an interior can blend into the background, but the steering wheel has no other option than to stand out. It’s a role that’s often overlooked until somebody has replaced the stock steering wheel with a gaudy aftermarket wheel or until cracks develop in the rim of the steering wheel. The former problem can be solved by a straightforward replacement with a reproduction steering wheel, but the latter is a little trickier to solve, so all too often you see those parts-store steering wheel wraps used to cover up the signs of age and abuse.

In either case, you should start by removing the steering wheel currently on your car. Practically every factory steering wheel you come across attaches to the steering column by use of a splined shaft in the column, a mating hub in the steering wheel, and a big nut holding the wheel to the column. The nut is really only there for safety reasons; the splined coupling between the wheel and the column is usually so tight that it’s nearly impossible to separate the two by hand. In an accident, however, you want to be sure that the two don’t separate, thus the presence of the nut.

The whole coupling is concealed by the horn pad. Usually only two or three screws hold the horn pad to the steering wheel, and those screws are usually found on the back side of the steering wheel. Carefully remove the horn pad to access the horn button and wires and remove them, taking care not to lose the small spring for the horn button.

Our 1972 Buick Skylark convertible is more of a driver than a show car, and a few areas show it, including the steering wheel. We knew it had a couple cracks, but we kept a wrap on it, so we’d forgotten how bad the cracks really were (at three, nine, and twelve o’clock, and extensively on the back side). Fortunately, they’re easily repaired.

Our 1972 Buick Skylark convertible is more of a driver than a show car, and a few areas show it, including the steering wheel. We knew it had a couple cracks, but we kept a wrap on it, so we’d forgotten how bad the cracks really were (at three, nine, and twelve o’clock, and extensively on the back side). Fortunately, they’re easily repaired.

After removing the nut on the splined shaft, you can try yanking the steering wheel off the column to prove your Herculean strength, but you also run a risk of damaging the steering wheel rim or your face by doing so. Instead, and for those of us without Herculean strength, use a steering wheel puller, available at any decent auto parts store. If you’ve ever used a harmonic balancer puller, then you’ll see that a steering wheel puller works on the same principle: A threaded rod passes through a cast chunk of metal called a hub, with a pair of (or sometimes three) slotted ears on either side of the threaded rod. Through the ears, a couple long bolts attach to the steering wheel itself. It’s so simple, you could probably make one yourself as long as you have a thick enough chunk of metal, a large enough tap, and a good-sized length of threaded rod.

To use the puller, you back the threaded rod nearly all the way out of the cast hub of the puller, then rest the tip of the threaded rod against the splined shaft. Some steering column shafts may require a special foot adapter to go between the threaded rod and the splined shaft to prevent damage to the shaft. Many mechanics recommend leaving the nut on the steering column to give the steering wheel puller something to push against and to prevent damage to the splined shaft. Most steering wheel pullers come in a kit with an assortment of bolts that pass through the slots in the puller hub and thread into a corresponding pair of holes in the steering wheel. If you need bolts with a different thread, find a pair of Grade 8 bolts of the same length as the bolts in the steering wheel puller kit.

Steering Wheel Removal

Step-1: Steering Wheel Removal

1The first step in removing the steering wheel consists of pulling off the horn pad. In the case of our Buick, we had two screws to loosen in the back side of the wheel, then we withdrew the horn contact wires from where they entered through the wheel itself, right by the nut at the center of the wheel.

 

 

Step-2: Steering Wheel Removal

2After removing the nut, we placed the steering wheel puller on the steering shaft, then inserted two bolts into the threaded holes on either side of the shaft. The steering wheel puller works by turning the center bolt, which pushes against the steering column shaft and, in turn, pulls the steering wheel off the splines farther down on the shaft.

 

Step-3: Steering Wheel Removal

3We put the nut back on the threads, so we wouldn’t lose it while repairing the steering wheel. Now would be a good time to go in and replace the turn signal cam and resolve any issues with the ignition lock.

 

 

 

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Make sure those two passthrough bolts are threaded an equal amount into the steering wheel, then use a socket wrench to start turning the threaded rod. As you crank on the threaded rod, the puller hub will first contact the heads of the bolts threaded into the steering wheel, then gradually start pulling the steering wheel off its splines. Once the steering wheel has separated from the column, remove the puller by unthreading the passthrough bolts.

At this point, you have access to the guts of the steering column, including the turn signal cam, ignition switch, hazards switch, column shifter (but really, what self-respecting muscle car owner shifts on the column?), and any other gizmos the factory loaded onto the steering column. Your factory service manual should contain instructions for repairing and replacing those items.

Also at this point, you need to decide whether you really want that chain-link steering wheel or if you want to restore your stock steering wheel. I’m going to assume you’re taking the restoration path.

Steering Wheel Repair and Restoration

As you’ll recall from the discussion on vinyl-covered dashboards in Chapter 2, UV exposure cooks plastics, and combined with age, makes plastics extremely brittle. And because windshields do nothing but let UV rays straight into your interior, both dashboards and steering wheels soak up way more UV exposure than the rest of the interior. Hairline cracks thus expand quickly as the plastic shrinks, forming huge gaps that expose the metal core of the steering wheel.

So what should you do with the gaps that inevitably show up on a plastic-rimmed steering wheel? Fortunately, a backyard mechanic with no special tools or fixtures can fix cracks on steering wheels with just a little patience. Several companies, including Eastwood, offer steering wheel restoration kits that any average home restorer can use. The upside to these kits is that they leave the steering wheel stronger in the repaired areas; the downside is that the remaining areas of the steering wheel are still at risk for cracks down the road, and only a labor-intensive total meltdown and remolding of the steering wheel will solve that issue.

Unfortunately, these restoration kits work only on the plastic-rimmed steering wheels that were fairly ubiquitous through the end of the traditional muscle car era. Wood-rimmed steering wheels, an option for a few muscle cars, can be repaired with a different process.

So after removing the steering wheel from the car and identifying all the areas that require repair, use a rotary tool to notch out the crack in a V-shape, cutting all the way down to the metal core of the steering wheel. A silicon carbide grinding wheel in the rotary tool at a bit more than half speed will make quick work of the V-notch without melting the surrounding plastic.

If the metal core of the steering wheel shows any surface rust, clean that off now with a narrow strip of sandpaper or sandblasting. If it shows any significant structural rust, stop right now and toss your steering wheel into the trash. The metal core should be solid enough to withstand the impact of a crash, and proper repair of significant structural rust is often not worth the time, effort, and money compared to simply replacing the steering wheel with a reproduction or NOS steering wheel.

But as long as your steering wheel is structurally sound, continue by thoroughly cleaning the repair area with denatured alcohol or Eastwood’s PRE Painting Prep. The next step involves mixing up a small batch of two-part epoxy such as PC-7, which is included in the Eastwood kit, or even the more common J-B Weld. Only a little is necessary, and you can always make more later if you didn’t mix enough the first time.

With the epoxy mixed, you have about 1 hour to work with it before it sets, so take your time packing the epoxy into the crack. Build it up a little beyond the surface of the rim and over the sides of the crack. If you applied too much epoxy to the crack, carve away the excess with a hobby knife or scraper tool while the epoxy remains pliable. The more excess epoxy you leave around the repair area now, the more you’ll have to grind away after it hardens, so take care to make the repair as neat as possible. To smooth the surface of the epoxy, wet your finger with denatured alcohol or water and rub your finger over the repair, creating a nice mound over the filled-in crack.

After the epoxy has hardened for at least 24 hours, it can be shaped. The silicon carbide bit used earlier in the rotary tool won’t touch the epoxy, but a sanding drum at about the same speed will quickly and effectively remove the hardened epoxy. It’s a good idea to wear at least a dust mask and shop glasses while shaping the epoxy.

Steering Wheel Restoration

Step-1: Steering Wheel Removal

1The heart of the steering wheel repair kit is the PC-7 two-part epoxy, very similar to (if not exactly the same as) J-B Weld. It seems to take just a little longer than J-B Weld to set up, however, which gives you ample time to work with the epoxy

 

 

 

Step-2: Steering Wheel Removal

2Repairing the steering wheel itself starts with grinding out the crack to have a decent working surface. Technically, you’re supposed to grind the crack in a V-shape, but this crack was so wide, we just made sure the sides of the canyon were at least parallel. We also cleaned out as much rust as we could from the steel ring at the core of the steering wheel.

 

Step-3: Steering Wheel Removal

3Once again, preparation is the key. After grinding out the crack, we wanted to remove any grease or dirt or loose particles in the areas, so we wiped the crack down with Eastwood’s PRE Painting Prep. Denatured alcohol or acetone works just as well.

 

 

 

 

Step-4: Steering Wheel Removal

4Dig out equal amounts of both parts of the epoxy and thoroughly knead them together. If you see streaks of either part (black or light gray), the epoxy is not yet thoroughly mixed. Note that we used an old cookie tin as a work surface; this stuff gets messy and we didn’t want our workbench spattered with epoxy.

 

 

 

Step-5: Steering Wheel Removal

5Force as much epoxy into the crack as possible. You want the crack thoroughly packed with the epoxy because any air pockets will weaken the bond. We used way more epoxy than necessary, but we also had several other cracks to fill, so what we didn’t use in this crack, we used in the next.

 

 

 

Step-6: Steering Wheel Removal

6Once we scraped away the excess epoxy, we thinned and smoothed the remaining epoxy by wetting a finger with denatured alcohol. Some people prefer to use water for wetting the epoxy, but we found the alcohol is a little more aggressive at thinning the epoxy and dries off quicker than water.

 

 

 

Step-7: Steering Wheel Removal

7The more we thinned the epoxy away from the crack, the more of it we could scrape away. In the end, we wanted a nice mound of epoxy above the crack, with the excess epoxy extending only 1/4 to 1/2 inch on either side of the crack. The less excess we have now, the less we’ll have to sand away once the epoxy cures.

 

 

 

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Step-8: Steering Wheel Removal

8After letting the epoxy set up at least overnight (we gave it two nights because the crack was very wide), we busted out the rotary tool with the sanding drum attachment and started sanding away the epoxy. We found that the sanding drum was capable of grinding away too much material and biting into the existing steering wheel plastic, but with careful sanding on the medium-to-high setting and by constantly moving the sanding drum, we were able to evenly grind away the epoxy

 

 

 

 

 

Step-9: Steering Wheel Removal

9With the excess epoxy sanded away, the remaining epoxy should take the form of the crack. Note the few pockets on the surface left from small air bubbles. That shows us we should have kneaded and smoothed the epoxy a little more than we did.

 

 

 

Step-10: Steering Wheel Removal

10Grinding the front side is rather simple: Go side to side and don’t create any low spots. Grinding the back side with the finger grips is a little tougher and requires some patience and care to replicate the grips’ compound curves. The same goes for the cracks at the spokes: Just look to the surrounding contours as guides for the appropriate shapes.

 

Step-11: Steering Wheel Removal

11A second, thinner coat of epoxy might be necessary to fill in air pockets and deep grinding marks. By hitting the area with a succession of sandpaper grits, you should be able to smooth out any rough patches without removing too much material. Before painting the steering wheel, apply some adhesion promoter (included in the kit) to allow your paint to fully bond with the steering wheel surface.

 

Be careful not to be too aggressive with the sanding drum, however; it’ll easily remove hard plastic from either side of the repaired crack. Instead of running the sanding drum constantly back and forth over the hardened epoxy, thus creating wear spots in the hard plastic where you reverse direction, try swirling the sanding drum to remove the bulk of the material, then follow up with a couple light passes back and forth. You’ll likely find your own sanding techniques, but the important part is to only press lightly on the rotary tool and let the action of the sanding drum be its own pressure against the epoxy. The real artistry then comes on the back side, where the finger grips form a less-thanregular surface.

If you do mess up and cut too deep, never fear—you can always add more epoxy and try again. If the repair is acceptably smooth and blends well with the rest of the steering wheel (by touch, that is; it doesn’t visibly blend just yet), then the next step is to rough up the surrounding rim of the steering wheel with sandpaper. About 450 grit is the finest you’ll want to use. Follow with a couple light coats of a self-etching primer; some plastics may require a coat of adhesion promoter before the primer, so test the primer on an inconspicuous surface of the steering wheel first. Follow that with a vinyl dye in your choice of colors. And make sure the primer and vinyl dye are both compatible with whatever UV-blocking interior protector you decide to use. Even though the unrepaired areas of the steering wheel are still prone to cracking, you’ll want to do your best to prevent that from happening by keeping the steering wheel clean and by keeping the UV rays off it.

Installing the steering wheel after restoring it is actually much simpler than removing it. If the steering wheel has a dead spline or some other method of correctly aligning the steering wheel hub onto the steering column, use that to center the wheel to the column. Otherwise, use your best judgment and try to have the steering wheel and the front wheels pointing straight forward together. Push the steering wheel hub down on the steering column splines far enough to start the nut, then tighten the nut to finish pushing the wheel down onto the column. Replace your horn pad and bask in the thought of the money you just saved by not sending the steering wheel out to a specialty shop.

Wood-Grained Steering Wheels

Somewhere between plain ol’ steering wheels and actual woodrimmed steering wheels lies the wood-grained steering wheel, a wheel with a hard plastic rim painted to look like wood. Sure, a woodgrained steering wheel still feels like plastic, still shrinks and cracks under UV exposure like plastic, but hey, it looks like a more expensive steering wheel, right?

Except that over time, it doesn’t. Constant rubbing from your hands, and the oils and dirt left behind, erase the black ink from the steering wheel surface, leaving a dull brown, unmarked finish. The worst part is that the black wears away only where you repeatedly put your hands (at the ten and two o’clock positions, if you paid attention to your driving instructor), but remains on the rest of the steering wheel surface, advertising to the world that your car’s restoration still isn’t complete.

Woodgraining is a fairly simple process with the right tools, and all those woodgrainers whose services you see advertised in the back of your favorite magazines use much the same process. They evenly spread ink over a metal or vinyl plate with a specific pattern etched into it, with different patterns to represent different types of wood. Using hard rubber rollers of varying sizes, they pick up the ink in that pattern, then roll the ink onto the piece to be grained, carefully matching the end points to repeat the grain pattern. If you don’t like the way it turned out, wipe it off and start again.

However, a certain amount of artistry and patience is required to blend the grain patterns, and an extra heavy dose of dexterity and expertise is required to apply the patterns to a complex surface like a steering wheel. It’s certainly possible to replicate your steering wheel’s wood grain, and companies such as Grain-It Technologies in Winter Haven, Florida, offer the tools and supplies necessary to do woodgraining at home. But, as with replacing your dashboard in Chapter 2, why go through all that trouble and expense perfecting a technique you’ll use once or twice in your life? Instead, you may find that it’s much easier to save your pennies and either purchase a reproduction steering wheel or let a woodgraining service take care of your existing wheel.

Wood-Rim Steering Wheels

Typically, within the domain of Italian exotics and sports cars is the actual wood-rimmed steering wheel, though a couple muscle cars, including the Shelby GT 350 (rather exotic and sporty itself, actually), do sport real wood on the tillers. What you gain with those wooden steering wheels besides bragging rights is questionable, though: They still crack, deteriorate, and lose their finish over time, just like their plebeian plastic counterparts. The splits in the wood usually follow the grain of the wood rather than crack against it, however, and a proper repair takes that into account.

They can be repaired by stripping off the varnish and sealer, applying wood filler or wood glue in the cracks, and then clamping the split shut while the wood glue dries and sets. Some woodworkers like to use string wrapped tightly around the wheel as an improvised clamp. The wheel can then be carefully sanded smooth before being revarnished and sealed.

If it were me, though, I’d just take it to a local cabinet maker.

Steering Column and Pedals

Boil down the function and the physics of the steering wheel and you’ll soon come to the conclusion that it’s simply a big round lever— just try to turn the splined shaft that the steering wheel mates to without the steering wheel itself. Boil down the steering column and you’ll find that it’s just a long shaft that transmits the steering wheel’s leverage. What complicates a steering column are the accessories that the manufacturers have hung off the columns: turn signal stalks, horn buttons, ignition switches, and columnmounted shifters, for much of the era with which we’re concerned.

Almost any problem with the operation of a turn signal stalk boils down to the plastic turn signal cam inside the column. That cam tends to be the first thing you see in the steering column after removing the wheel and the horn switch. It’s a plastic ring with a couple tabs protruding from it, a couple springs associated with it, and a whole mess of wires heading down the column from it. Either the springs, or more likely the cam, tend to crack over time—it seems each different cam design has its own foible that manifests over the decades—causing the switches in the cam not to remain in place or not to self-cancel. Most new turn signal cams, which are often available at corner parts stores under the Help! section, will include not only the plastic ring, but also the springs and the wiring.

On the right is a typical thermal flasher unit for your turn signals and on the left is an electronic turn signal flasher unit. The electronic unit plugs in to the same fixture as the thermal unit. It comes at a higher price, but blinks at the same rate, even under varying loads.

On the right is a typical thermal flasher unit for your turn signals and on the left is an electronic turn signal flasher unit. The electronic unit plugs in to the same fixture as the thermal unit. It comes at a higher price, but blinks at the same rate, even under varying loads.

Note that the actual flashing of the turn signals is accomplished not by any mechanism in the steering column, but by the aluminum-cased thermal flasher units usually plugged into the fuse block. The turn signal stalk only activates the switch that causes the resistive wire in the flasher to bend a small piece of metal, making the contact that activates the turn signal bulbs. So as long as the wiring from the turn signal stalk to the flasher checks out, any problems in the turn signal circuit can usually be traced to a bad flasher, bad grounds, or a burned-out bulb. If the flasher is bad, consider replacing the thermal unit with a full electronic flasher. Electronic versions, while more expensive, are not as susceptible to varying loads (say, from a burned-out bulb) as the thermal versions.

Similarly, the horn button in the steering column is a simple switch that activates another device away from the steering column. Though in this case, the other device is a relay, usually located in the engine compartment, close to the horns themselves.

The column-mounted ignition switch sometimes uses a two-part design. Up toward the steering wheel is the lock cylinder, into which you insert and turn the ignition key. In the two-part design, rather than directly activating a switch up high in the steering column, turning the lock cylinder instead pushes or pulls a rod that runs the length of the column. At the other end of the rod is the ignition switch itself, along with the associated wiring, mounted to the outside of the column. The disadvantage of such a design means that you have twice the number of parts, but the advantage comes in being able to isolate electrical problems to the switch down low on the column, and mechanical problems to the lock cylinder up high on the column.

As for pedals, which also work on the leverage principal, new bushings (usually available at your corner parts store), go a long way toward smoothing the operation of the pedals. Should you find the pivot holes eggshaped or otherwise misshapen from repeated use, oversize bushings are available and only require drilling out the pivot hole by a small amount. New rubber pads should be available from restoration supply companies and installed simply by expanding around the face of the pedal.

 

Written by Daniel Strohl and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks

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