You may remember Greg Raymond’s ’69 big-block Corvette from this sweet side-exhaust upgrade we wrote about a while back – it’s the focus of this performance upgrade as well. We already know Greg’s ‘Vette looks and sounds the part, but it’s time to upgrade the steering system to ensure that the car holds the road as good as it looks.
The older the car, the more susceptible it is to the elements. Parts and pieces break down due to the environment, general use, and component life, especially with yesteryear’s less-precise manufacturing capabilities that were not nearly as robust as they are today. The heavy steering feel of the manual box in this car combined with the thin wheel rim (which was also broken above the spokes) took its toll.
“I coined the term ‘suggestion wheel’ to describe it when we first got it in the shop. Lots of on-center play, combined with the broken top half of the wheel, made it an ordeal to drive,” says Corvette Online Editor Paul Huizenga.
Greg’s 1969 Corvette – a prime candidate for a steering column replacement thanks to internal parts that had seen better days, along with a floppy, broken-down steering wheel – and the guys at Flaming River and Billet Specialties were a perfect match.
Says Raymond, “I purchased the car in December of 1997. It was in a barn next to a Horse in Ramona, California. I actually traded a 1989 Z71 4×4 with 70K miles straight across for the Corvette. One of the true Barn Finds!”
The initial goal was to improve the performance and in-cabin look of our C3, but upon further inspection, the steering box itself was determined to have suffered a catastrophic failure, and the project became a bit larger in scope. Thankfully for us, the team at Flaming River also produces brand-new steering boxes for a variety of older vehicles.
The Flaming River C3 Corvette Floor Shift Key Column [PN FR30005BK] fits Corvettes from 1968-82 and is finished in a sweet black powdercoat for good looks and durability, although it is available in a polished or paintable finish as well.
In addition, the column is available in a variety of lengths from 28 to 35 inches, although we stuck with the stock 33-inch dimension. If you’re using one of the many rack-and-pinion kits on the market, of if you have special needs, speak with the Flaming River technical team and they can get you set up with the proper length column for your application. The Classic Series column has a number of other sizing questions to check on the ordering page, most importantly the dimension of the shaft connection.
“The height of the cone and shroud assembly that sits above the dash is the same length – the only difference is the length at the firewall side. Rack-and-pinion kits and integrated steering box kits that are out there require a shorter column also to fit the steering box in,” says Flaming River’s John Jennings.
During installation, you want to make sure that you’re not putting the column in a bind to ensure smooth steering. – John Jennings, Flaming River Industries
There is an integral ignition switch placed at the factory location, and the key is at three o’clock on the column. Flaming River offers the ability to purchase a dimmer switch kit [PN FR20118-3] at an additional cost, but you must order it at the same time as the column as it changes the build process slightly.
Jennings says, “The install is pretty easy with hand tools – you can basically just take the old one out and put the new one in. The electrical connections require about ten minutes of work – cut the old one off, put the new terminal ends on, plug them into the corresponding slot, and off you go. The switch we use has a GM 4 1/4-inch plug, and we set the customer up with one of our female wiring adapters – it’s a blank plug that replaces the plug on the factory harness and plugs right into the new steering column.”
We also procured the Column Installation Kit [PN FRCA108] to ease the installation process. This kit includes the FR20101VT ’68-’82 Corvette Swivel Floor Mount, the FR20114-5 ’68-’82 Factory Style Column Drop, the FR20118 Female Wiring Connector Kit, and the FR1734 1-inch-48 x 3/4-inch-30 billet U-joint.
All of these pieces work together in conjunction with our new column to simplify installation. The swivel floor mount uses a machined aluminum ball that allows the column to be positioned properly as it drops through the floor, and the U-joint mates up perfectly with the rest of our components to provide a trouble-free, one-time installation. The billet aluminum factory-style dash mount allows the Flaming River tilt column to mate up perfectly with the existing factory dashboard.
The outer portion of the column – the tube and shroud – is 304 stainless steel, and the shaft inside is carbon steel, all made in-house at Flaming River’s Ohio facility.
The New Box
As with all recirculating-ball-style steering boxes, the Corvette’s is prone to wear, and is one of the reasons rack-and-pinion steering is available in nearly every new car on the road today. The one in Greg’s Corvette was completely whupped, and as Huizenga reminded us, “A big-block C3 with a broken steering wheel and worn-out manual steering box is what they make you drive in hell.”
Flaming River’s ’69-’82 Corvette Replacement Steering Box [PN FR1513-30] offers a nice quick 16:1 ratio to improve steering feel. No cores or remanufactured parts are included in the box; just a brand-new component that carries a one year warranty and is dimensionally interchangeable with the original part. Everything from the casting and cap to the recirculating ball worm and nut, bushing and roller bearings are brand new.
Says Jennings, “There are quite a few wear items inside the OEM steering box – the bushings that stabilize the sector shaft, the worm gear bearing races, and the teeth on the worm-and-nut assembly where it meets the sector shaft. That’s where you feel the majority of the slop that occurs.”
The Wheel Deal
Since Greg’s steering wheel had seen much, much better days, the decision was made to enlist Billet Specialties to craft a brand-new, billet steering wheel to solidify the steering process in the C3.
Their 6061-T6 billet steering wheels offer many cool features like milled finger notches on the back-side of the wheel for comfort and top-grain leather on the front. With so many styles to choose from Billet Specialties makes it easy to select a combo to complement your vehicle on their website (see sidebar). For this installation Greg selected the Interceptor design.
Our Interceptor wheel has three split spokes – one each at three, six, and nine-o’clock, with a milled pattern in each spoke. Greg chose the black leather half-wrap ring, which sets off nicely with the interior of his Corvette.
According to Billet Specialties’ Scott Sandoval, “The wheel in the ‘Vette features one of our Pro-Style horn buttons and the Interceptor is our newest design and just happens to complement the Corvette’s styling very well.”
We were also curious as to how a user would go about selecting the proper steering-wheel size – they offer both a 15.5-inch wheel and 14-inch wheel in various designs.
Sandoval explains, “Wheel size is best determined by application, vehicles like full size 60’s cars and trucks have large interiors and a 15.5-inch wheel keeps everything in proportion. Smaller vehicles like sports cars such as this ‘Vette, street rods and most muscle cars have a smaller interior/dash and a 14-inch wheel works best in those.”
“Non power-steering C3 cars, especially with big block engines are heavy on the steering. I have gone through two factory wheels where they both have cracked and failed at the same point. This is a common issue and C3 guys have all broken a factory wheel. The Billet Specialties wheel is comfortable and matches the interior very well, while being a billet piece, it still maintains the style of the Corvette wheel in a far more comfortable package.. It is also indestructible, there will be no need for a new steering wheel in the future!,” says Raymond.
Build Your Own
Using the Billet Specialties Steering Wheel Configurator couldn’t be more simple – you pick the size of the wheel, the wheel style, the wrap material, horn button, and column adapter. There are plenty of styles – 22 to choose from just in the 14-inch dimension Greg picked – and nine different colors of half-wrap material. You can also choose to leave the wheel in its aluminum finish, cover it in simulated burlwood, or cover it in carbon-fiber-patterned embossed vinyl.
From there, you’ve got 14 more choices of horn button style, and then ten different types of column adapters to mate the wheel with the column you’re using. The Billet Specialties website walks you through all of these choices, and at the end of the selection process you’ve got exactly the steering wheel you want, in exactly the style you want.
Putting It All Together
Installation of the column and wheel is not a difficult process, and the Flaming River folks have a fine set of instructions that comes with every column, or can be found on their website.
The first order of business for us was to remove the old, worn-out column, wheel, and steering box. The column and wheel came out as one piece, and the box required the removal of just a few fasteners and attendant hardware. Power Automedia’s shop foreman, Sean Goude, made quick work of this process, and had the car set up for the installation of the new parts in no time flat.
In order to set the column into place, Flaming River instructs you to position the floor mount to the bottom of the column, but not to tighten it down until the column is in the final position. Place the column into the car, install the column drop that comes in the installation kit, and adjust the floor mount to hold the column tight to the floor.
Make the final adjustments to make sure all of the parts and pieces line up properly, then tighten everything down. From there, it’s just a matter of installing the turn signal arm and knob, the tilt arm and knob, and the hazard-light knob using the provided hardware. Flaming River provides a new GM male plug with the installation kit; simply swap the wiring around, plug it in, and it’s time to move to the installation of the steering box.
Prior to bolting the new manual steering box into the car, you must follow the centering process provided by Flaming River to prevent premature wear. This process is simple – place the box into a bench vise, put your U-joint onto the pinion’s input shaft, and turn the shaft clockwise all the way until steering lock.
Then, turn the shaft all the way in the opposite direction, counting the number of turns while doing so. One you hit the steering lock, turn the shaft back to the right half the number of turns to center it. At this point, the wide spline on the output shaft will align wit the center of the steering box casting, and your new box is centered. From there, it’s just a matter of removing the box from the vise, installing it into the car, and reconnecting all of your existing steering gear. Of course, now is a good time to check out that center link, Pitman arm, idler arm, and tie rods for wear, then replace if necessary.
“The Flaming River components are flawless. The new column has the same impact. This new unit adds a mandatory tilt feature to a car driven by a 6 foot, 250 pound man. Ignition mechanicals are tight and responsive. It’s clear that they have thought out the ignition key placement on the column. It is natural and where it should be. The steering box has made the car considerably more responsive than the factory box. Without exaggeration, the Corvette has never had this level of feel for the road, and I am very pleased,” says Raymond.