Owning a classic car is one thing, but driving a restored or modified vintage ride is a whole other enchilada. Maintenance issues, finding the right parts, and the constant tinkering to keep them road worthy, can really drag on at times. Add to that some of the marginal safety features, sometimes certain parts should be swapped out for better parts. 1949-1951 Ford Shoebox steering boxes in particular have created a few problems for resto-mod builders.
The biggest issue at hand is the rear-steer set-up on these cars. With the drag-link and tie-rods running behind the oil pan, there just are not many options. All is not lost, however, as you are not stuck with a loose and sloppy stock gearbox. But to find the answer, we have to look over the Atlantic to Sweden. You might find it odd (and a bit ingenious) that the best solution for upgrading the stock steering box in an early-fifties Ford comes from a Volvo. A 1967, early 69 or 1971-1974 Series 140 or 160 Volvo to be exact, depending on whether or not you want power-assist. The Series 140 cars were almost exclusively manual steering, which feature a smaller, more compact gear box that is considered to be bulletproof, they simply do not break or wear out, and that’s Volvo engineering for you. If you desire power steering, and who doesn’t these days, then the Series 160 unit is for you, which is basically the same box as the 140, but with an added power-assist case bolted on the input shaft side.
The most difficult part of the entire install is finding a Volvo gear box, but we were lucky enough to score one from a local salvage yard. Simply finding the right Volvo box does not in itself solve the problem, they don’t exactly bolt in. To serve that function, Jamco Engineering manufactures an adapter kit that bolts to the stock frame and correctly positions the Volvo box to mate up with the stock steering column, while still clearing the motor, and retains the correct geometry for the pitman arm. While the kit is pretty simple, it accomplishes a lot. The installation is rather simple too; the box just bolts in place. The steering column however is a different matter.
If you desire to keep the stock column, the services of a certified welder MUST be employed. The stock Ford column is actually just a tube that bolts to the gear box, the column shaft however, is an integral part of the gear box and must be cut and welded to a section of Volvo-splined shaft in order to be used with the Volvo gear box. While a certified welder can make this happen safely, for ease of installation and a little extra peace of mind, it is highly suggested that you swap the steering column for either an aftermarket unit or a more modern OE column. For our Ford, we chose an Ididit steel column for added benefits of being brand new, tilt and just plain good looking, this is after all a resto-mod. But for those of you who will want to retain the stock column, we covered that part too, so you can see what all is involved.
The entire process, even cutting and welding the stock column, can be done in about a weekend (although you will need the assistance of a machine shop to re-taper the Volvo pitman arm), or even one day if you hustle. The end result is smooth turning, with a quicker turn ratio, which is always an added benefit, especially if you are sticking with a manual gear box.