When it comes to steering systems, rack and pinion systems are light years ahead of the recirculating ball steering boxes found in our favorite 1960s and ‘70s muscle cars and trucks. A recirculating ball steering box system is heavy, bulky, and complex, especially when you factor in the steering linkage.
In sharp contrast is the rack and pinion system.
In a rack and pinion steering system, the steering wheel and steering shaft are connected to a pinion gear. The pinion gear meshes with a straight shaft (the rack) that has gear teeth machined into one side and is connected directly to the front wheels. When you turn the steering wheel, the pinion gear turns, which moves the rack in the direction of the turn and moves the wheels.
The steering gear is mounted inside a compact rack assembly. The steering linkage consists of two inner tie rod ends attached to the steering rack, protected by a pair of rubber boots (bellows). They are linked to outer tie rod ends, which are attached to the suspension arms on the steering knuckles.
The real beauty of a rack and pinion system is that it eliminates much of the steering linkage found in a recirculating ball steering system. For example, you can mount a rack in a “front steer” layout, which places the linkage ahead of the front axle centerline. This frees up considerable space under the engine for things like the oil pan and headers.
The Ford Pinto rack and pinion system is a drag racing favorite. Summit Racing offers Pinto racks from both Wilwood and Flaming River. These racks are quick (3.75 turns lock-to-lock), have aluminum housings, and tip the scales at a mere 12 pounds. Rack travel is 5.25 inches; overall length of the assembly is compact 45.5 inches. Summit Racing also offers Flaming River Pinto racks that are five inches narrower than stock. They’re perfect for Willys, Anglia and other narrow chassis applications. This is particularly appealing if you’re building a nostalgia-style race car.
In some applications, the rear steer (linkage behind the front axle centerline), a Dodge Omni-style rack might work better. It’s particularly useful in cars where something like a radiator or front suspension crossmember might interfere with the steering shaft. This rear-steer design mounts behind the crossmember but still provides adequate oil pan clearance—for example, a small block Ford engine with a front sump pan. The Omni rack is designed to accommodate Mustang II-type spindles and outer tie rod ends.
Summit Racing also offers Flaming River Mustang II and Fox body Mustang racks as replacements for manual steering, conversions from power to manual steering, etc. There is even an MGB/Cobra rack for Cobra kit cars that weighs less than 10 pounds.
It’s easy to see why rack and pinion steering has become the system of choice for both major automobile manufacturers and racers, alike. They’re simple, reliable, and light.