Swapping Steering Columns Page 1 of 2

I was hoping to use the original 54's "3 on a tree" steering column and convert it so that it would change the automatic's gears (PRND12). Unfortunately, the steering column is connected directly to the steering box which meant that I would have to cut the column. No big deal until I realized after cutting a good column, that I would have to install lower bearings and a retainer for the steering shaft in the column. Not to mention trying to figure out how to modify the manual linkage to work with the automatic transmission and have an indicator to show which gear I was in.

I went to the junkyard and found that most early 60s Chevs and Pontiacs had steering columns that met my criteria:

  • Column shift automatic
  • Gear indicator (PRND12) on column
  • No ignition switch
  • Signal light lever

They also had nice steering wheels with chrome horn rings. All of the early 60s cars I looked at were broken or missing critical parts - not usable. After spending a couple of hours scrounging the various junkyards and coming up empty. I started to look at later model cars. The problem was that the steering wheels looked too modern and they had the ignition key switch on the column. My ignition switch is on the dash where they are supposed to be!

I happened to check a late 80s GM van and surprise, it met all of my criteria plus had an emergency lights switch too! It seems that GM vans had the key on the dash up until about the middle 80s. I tried to find a tilt column but the only one was on a camperized van and had one of those multi signal light/cruise control levers on it. I pulled a column out of a 1980 van.

Steering column

Steering column in pieces

The column was 4 1/4" too long so I took it apart. There are basically 3 parts to a steering column: steering shaft, auto tranny shifter shaft and outside shell. Because the engine compartment end of the steering column has bearings and the shift linkage on it, I had to cut the 4 1/4" out of the middle of the column.

I carefully marked a line down both the shifter shaft and outside shell so that I could align the cutoff end with the rest of the steering column. I cut off the ends fo the shifter shaft and outside shell using a die grinder. Ideally, the ends should be cut off in a lathe. The excess 4 1/2" was cut out of the remaining middle parts. The ends were then welded back to the steering wheel sides.

Steering column shaft shortening detail

I shortened the steering column shaft by 3 1/2" then turned down one end to 3/8" dia by 1" long for a total reduction of 4 1/2". I drilled a slightly larger hole in the other end so that the two pieces will line up nicely.

First I tinned both ends with silver solder then I silver soldered the two pieces together while aligning them in a lathe. Leave a little bit of space between the two pieces so that the solder can flow through. I did it in a lathe cause you can keep the two pieces aligned - you don't want a wow in the shaft. When you silver solder, the solder will flow and try to separate the two pieces. The pieces can be held in place with one piece in the chuck and the other held with the tailpiece. I turned off The excess solder on the lathe just to make it look pretty - it is almost invisible.

You also want to make sure that the junction between the two pieces does not end up right at the column end bearing. The shaft can actually be longer than the column - no reason that it can't stick out more (probably an advantage). The first shaft I made was too short and my knees were hitting the bottom of the steering wheel. With silver solder, you just heat it up again with a torch and with a little bit of work, off comes the end. I machined another shaft end to the right length and added it on to the existing piece.

The silver solder is rated at something like 25,000 lbs and it is very strong. An alternative is to weld the two pieces together but then the welding may warp the shaft. Brazing is another choice but silver solder when done correctly works very well and is very safe.

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Copyright March 2011 Eugene Blanchard