November 20, 2019

Going Straight to the Source

• By John F. Chisholm •

Sometimes it’s very difficult knowing the source of problems. No matter. Knowing is important. At times it’s extremely important. In fact, there are times when knowing exactly what is behind certain facts is far beyond even that. Sometimes it’s critical.

This was all brought home to me recently. There was something odd about the Jeep’s steering. It kept misbehaving. On right-hand turns something, sh\omehow, somewhere was awry. The column made a noise. There was a palpable stiff spot in the wheel. As soon as I turned left, the difficulty disappeared. But, turn right again, there it was.

I don’t know about you, but I seem to make as many right-hand turns as I do left.

How very strange.

It was tempting to say, “Well, when it breaks, I’ll fix it.”

There is a problem with that approach. It’s waiting for your steering to fail. Eventually that gave me pause, too.

Because steering is useful. Very. That’s particularly true at say, 50 miles per hour, although the thought of losing control of a vehicle makes me extremely squeamish even at much lower speeds.

I corrected my attitude. I changed the power-steering pump, imagining that a worn impellor was trapping air within the system.

My left-hand turns became silky smooth and easier than ever. Alas! Turns to the right remained less than stellar.

Perhaps the two miniature universal joints within the column itself were failing? I checked. It was true that they hadn’t suffered from excessive care or doting attention. I tried my best to correct that lapse. But those efforts didn’t make any difference in how the vehicle handled.

I examined the tie-rod ends, installed a new steering damper and checked for leaks in the steering box.

None of that made a bit of difference.

What was the source of the problem? it was driving me crazy – an extremely short trip.

Finally, I asked my friend Doug Latham to help. Two people make an enormous difference. With two, I could turn the wheel while Doug inspected the column. “There’s your issue,” he said, pointing. “The column isn’t turning true.”

We traded places. He turned the wheel back and forth for me so that I could observe.

From there, it was easy to identify the source. Underneath the radiator overflow tank, completely hidden from view, the steering column was in the process of detaching from the steering box. The splined and supposedly clamped junction of the two had slipped considerably. In fact, it was almost completely off. From underneath, I reached up and wiggled the whole thing. It wasn’t confidence-inspiring.

But the fix was surprisingly simple. We cleaned, reattached and retightened the retaining clamp. The column ran true at last. That mysterious bump in my right-hand turns completely disappeared.


I thought about all these events my entire trip home. The Jeep steered properly so that it was hard to forget just how close I’d come to disaster.
What if I’d waited until the steering separated in order to identify the problem?

That’s when it struck me  just how analogous this entire story is to so many other issues. Finding the root, the source of any problem can be unbelievably difficult. At times it’s frustrating. It’s certainly time consuming. Moreover, the job frequently requires assistance.

But giving up, letting events determine you instead of the other way around, is never a palatable or sensible course.

As the Jeep just showed me, sitting around and waiting to see what happens is simply another way of planning an accident. In truth, it’s far too easy to become your own worst enemy.