Quicker Steering For The Budget-Minded Stock Car Racer

About twenty or thirty years ago, there was a large segment of dirt-track racers that wouldn’t consider racing with a power-steering gearbox in their car. To them, the power steering felt a little loose and sloppy. Most drivers like the controlled feel of a tighter, manual-steering box on the track. Dirt track drivers like a quicker steering ratio to boot. Neither of these things were common in the ’60s and ’70s GM steering boxes. Many home-built bomber stocks, factory stocks, and street stocks are built with manual-steering boxes or those older, slushy, OE power-steering gearboxes. However, there is a low-cost and simple option for fast-ratio power-steering units.

power-steering

GM’s fast-ratio 800 power-steering gearboxes have gained popularity in dirt track stock-car classes in recent years.

Replacing the vintage, stock-steering boxes with power-steering units from the 1980s and 1990s is a quick, easy, and cheaper solution. Many of the mid-sized GM cars used in grassroots stock-car builds carried the quick-ratio GM 800 or 605 series power-steering boxes starting in the late 1970s. These can easily be transplanted into your stock car for more responsive steering, if you know what you are looking for.

power-steering

Thirty years ago, drivers avoided GM power-steering gearboxes in their dirt-track cars. Now, these GM 800 series gearboxes are commonplace.

What Cars Used The 800 And 605 Power-Steering Boxes?

These include the popular Monte Carlo/Grand Prix (1970-1988), Chevelle, Malibu, LeMans, Cutlass, Skylark, and Grand Sport (1964-1988), F-Body Camaros and Firebirds (1967-1992), and the GM X-Body Novas, Apollo, Ventura, and Omegas (1964-1979).

Oddly enough, the GM 800 series gearbox was also used in many Ford products under the Saginaw name. Many of these cars also have shown up in the bomber-stock classes. Those include the Fairlane, Torino, and Gran Torino (1972-1979), Mercury Cougars (1975-1979), LTD and Thunderbirds (1977-1979), Mercury Montego (1973-1975), Mustang (1971-1973), and the Ford Galaxie (1965-1969).

About the 800 and 605 Series Power-Steering Boxes 

General Motors designed most of the the early musclecar steering boxes in the 1960s with a wide-turn ratio of 17.5:1 by using variable pressure. Not only did it take as many as five turns of the steering wheel to go from lock-to-lock, the steering response was slow around the center-point with more response at the ends of the maximum range. Neither of these are desirable features in a race car. A more responsive 14.4:1 ratio box was introduced in 1970 in the full-sized GM models, and it is three and a half turns from lock-to-lock were greatly appreciated by luxury car drivers. By 1973, this quicker-ratio gearbox was used on all GM body styles, replacing the wide-turn ratio boxes.

The 800 series Saginaw power-steering box has a pitman cover that is retained by four bolts, where the 605 series utilizes a snap ring that holds the inset pitman cover to the box. The 605 series with the snap ring allows for more “walk” in the pitman shaft. These boxes are not the best choices for dirt-track racing.

power-steering

The 800 series Saginaw box typically has a three-point mounting base that matches most mid-sized and full-sized chassis from the late 1960s through the 1980s.

The 800 series may have a three-bolt or four-bolt mounting pattern, but aside from that, they are interchangeable. They may all look alike from the outside, but inside they can be very different. Some are variable ratio, which is not desirable in racing, and others are constant ratio.

Like many components offered in these cars from the factory, there were light-duty, medium-duty, and heavy-duty applications. High performance parts were usually hid under the heavy-duty name. The biggest difference in the three applications is the strength of the components inside the boxes. The heavy-duty pieces had stronger internals. GM Performance Parts specialist Jim Luikens called this process of part naming and numbering “hiding in plain sight.” Luikens made a name for himself finding these hidden high-performance parts, during the musclecar wars in the late ’60s and ’70s with Berger Chevrolet, one of GM’s special high-performance dealerships during that period.

What To Look For

When searching for a replacement gearbox, remember that the more responsive 14.4:1 ratio gearboxes replaced the earlier 17.5:1 ratio boxes in most Chevrolet models by the 1973 model year. The aluminum top cover will be ink-stamped with a two-letter ID designation, which will allow you to identify the type of gearbox that you are looking at. Any other numbers stamped or cast, except for the date code, are of no use in identifying the gearbox. A Julian date followed by a dash with the last digit of the year is the date code. The Julian date is simply the day of the year, from 1 through 365. So a box with a date code of 115-9 would be Friday the 25th of April in 1969.

Many junkyard pickers look for steering boxes from Camaro Z28 models for their handling characteristics. The unicorn of these gearboxes is the Camaro IROC-Z power-steering gearboxes. The IROC versions had a stiffer spool valve for higher steering effort. These “high effort,” fast-ratio boxes were fast and provided better road feel, exactly what racers are looking for in a power-assisted gearbox.

The mounting pad on these units, where the box bolts onto the frame, can be in a four-bolt H-pattern or a three-bolt pattern similar to the H-pattern but without the lower left bolt hole. The four-bolt H-pattern and the three-legged H-pattern will interchange for mounting purposes. As with all conversions we feature in this column, we recommend you carefully inspect your donor gearbox to make sure all splines are in good shape and the unit doesn’t leak. If it does, now would be a good time to throw a Pitman-shaft seal kit into it while you have it out. They are pretty cheap insurance at about $30; these units can be pretty heavy when putting them in and taking them back out again, so you don’t want to install them more than once.

power steering

Don’t get too concerned with the casting numbers and other stamped numbers on the gearbox. You cannot tell what ratio the box is by these numbers. Only the ID code on the end cap will identify what the ratio is.

Is It Worth Looking For A Junkyard Steering Gearbox?

Many auto parts stores also sell these boxes on an exchange basis in the $225 to $300 range, but expect to pay a core charge if you are not trading in a unit, or if the trade-in is not the same as the unit you are purchasing.

Taking one of the models we have outlined and ordering a remanufactured unit from the local parts store might not yield what you were looking for. You may not get the quick-ratio box that you wanted. The guys that rebuild these boxes don’t always care if the internals are fast or not. They simply want a complete unit that works to put back on the shelf. Most of the people buying these remanufactured units don’t know or care if they are fast ratio or not — and they probably couldn’t tell the difference anyway — so that is probably not the best way to source a box.

Remanufactured steering boxes made by companies specializing in race components will add such features as cap screws with lock wire holes to help secure the top plate.

If you are lucky enough to find the right power-steering box at a salvage yard, you are probably going to pay a decent price for it. These yards know what they have, and charge you nearly new prices for components these days. You can expect to pay around $80 for one of these boxes — and most are over 30 years old or more!

We strongly recommend getting rebuild kits to change the Pitman-shaft seal and other seals that can dry out and crack over time. This also gives you a chance to take a look at the internals to see if there is any obvious damage. Remember, cars these parts are pulled from are in the junk yard for a reason. Many were wrecked and damaged beyond repair. One of the systems in a car that takes a lot of abuse in a crash is the steering system.

An aftermarket steering quickener can be too touchy for some drivers. In this case, as 12.7:1 fast-ratio power-steering box works well. Most novice drivers will do better without the 2:1 steering quickener.

Don’t expect a junkyard box to be in perfect condition. While this article focuses on finding a budget steering box, a total recondition and new parts to make the gearbox work in your racecar can cost $250-$350 (including purchase price). You can probably get close to this pricetag from an aftermarket automotive parts company that builds parts specifically for racers, and these are either new parts or rebuilt to new condition. There are benefits to both. A Borgeson Saginaw/Delphi 700 series 12.7:1 ratio remanufactured power-steering box is priced just over $300.

Keep an eye out for our future related articles explaining how to build a steering shaft, manual to power-steering conversions, changing pressure flow in power-steering units, and other interesting steering system information.

The steering-box ID codes were stamped in ink on the end cap of the box. Many of these codes have been worn away, rubbed away, or wind-blasted off through the years. Rebuilt boxes will usually have these end caps painted over and the codes are no longer visible. This photo shows a worn end cap with the YA code nearly worn away.

Where To Look For Fast Ratio Steering Boxes With 12.7:1 Ratio

Where To Look For Fast Ratio Steering Boxes With 12.7:1 Ratio

ID Code     Year & Original Application

  • BW: 1980-81 Chevy V8 Camaro
  • BX: 1971-72 Chevy V8 Camaro
  • CB: 1979 Chevy Camaro V8
  • CC: 1979 Chevy Camaro w/Performance V8
  • CF: 1980-81 Chevy Camaro w/Performance V8
  • CH: 1971-72 GM X -Body w/V8
  • CL: 1971-72 GM X -Body SS
  • CP: 1988-1994 Chevy Impala w/FE2 Suspension
  • CT: 1995 Chevy Impala w/FE2 Suspension
  • DU: 1995 Chevy B-Body Police w/FE3 Suspension
  • FB: 1992-1994 Chevy B Impala SS
  • FK: 1995 Buick Roadmaster w/FE Suspension
  • GB: 1973 GM X-Body w/V8
  • HL: 1992-1994 Chevy B-Body Police
  • KL: 1994 Buick Roadmaster w/FE-1 Suspension
  • KW: 1996 Chevy Impala/Caprice w/FE Suspension
  • MX: 1996 Chevy B-Body Police w/FE3
  • SV: 1974 Nova
  • TW: 1996 Chevy Impala/Caprice w/FE2 Suspension
  • VW: 1976 Chevy Camaro w/V8
  • WP: 1982-85 Chevy Berlinetta
  • WS:
    • 1973 Chevy Camaro w/V8
    • 1982-84 Chevy F-Body Camaro
    • 1985 Chevy F-Body IROC-Z
    • 1985 Chevy F-Body Z28
    • 1987-1993 Chevy Camaro Z28
  • WV: 1973 Chevy Z28
  • WX: 1976 Chevy Z28
  • WZ: 1988-1990 Chevy Impala w/F41 Suspension
  • XE: 1974 Chevy Camaro w/V8
  • XF: 1974 Chevy Z28
  • XH:
    • 1985 Chevy F-Body IROC-Z
    • 1987-1993 Chevy Camaro Z28
  • XT: 1977-78 Chevy Z28
  • YA:
    • 1983 Monte Carlo SS
    • 1983-87 Olds Hurst/Olds Cutlass
    • 1985 Chevy Monte Carlo SS
    • 1985 Buick Regal S/C Turbo
    • 1985-1993 Monte Carlo SS
    • 1986-87 Buick Regal w/HO
    • 1986 Chevy G-Body Eurosport

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
Read My Articles

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