Replacing tie rod ends

  • Worn-out tie rod ends will make your steering vague and your front tyres wear out rapidly. Picture by James Westman
  • Replacing tie rod ends
  • Replacing tie rod ends
Date:1 March 2008

Mike Alllen gives advice on replacing tie rod ends.

Parking is such sweet sorrow. The front end of your car used to be dead silent – as it should be – when you spun the steering wheel back and forth. But now, pops and groans emanate from the steering column when you parallel park. These odd noises are accompanied by a newfound vagueness in the steering. You need some front-end work. Let’s diagnose the problem.

The first step is to wheel your floor jack underneath the passenger-side front suspension corner and hoist the car up into the air. Why the passenger’s side? We’ll get to that later. Shake the elevated wheel back and forth with one hand on the 6 o’clock position and the other on 12. If there’s any perceptible play, it could be caused by a worn ball joint or wheel bearing. (See “Ball joint replacement”, November ’05, or “Replacing a sealed wheel bearing,” October ’06.) Now rock the wheel back and forth with your hands at 9 and 3. Any perceptible shake might be that pesky wheel bearing – or it could be a bad tie rod end. To determine if it’s the tie rod, crank the wheel all the way to one side so you can actually see the ball joint of the tie rod end. Wiggle the wheel some more – if the rod end is in good condition, you should see no movement or lost motion. Any perceptible movement between the ball and socket of the rod end means it needs to be replaced. Now check the other side. Customarily, the passenger side wears out first. That’s because the left side of the suspension gets more water and mud splashed on it – kerbs and storm water drains on this side take their toll. And because we drive on the left side of the road, lefthand turns are generally sharper than right-hand ones, requiring greater steering angles and putting more stress on the left-hand-side steering components.

Get it apart
Let’s replace that loosey-goosey tie rod end. Break the lug nuts loose on all four wheels and block the rear wheels with chocks. Jack the passenger front corner of the vehicle clear of the ground and set it on safety stands. Remove the wheel and place it under the chassis right behind the wheel well. (Most car and pick-up wheels are thicker than my head, so I always do this, in case the car falls off the jack stands.) Rod ends live in an environment of waterborne muck and constant vibration. Sometimes they’re reluctant to let go of their attachments. Now is the time to douse the tie rod end stud and the jam nut or clamp bolts with penetrating oil. The fasteners are probably going to be hard to turn, so hose them down liberally with penetrating oil and take a half-hour for lunch to give the lubricant a chance to soak in.

Use pliers to pull out the cotter pin, and then remove the castellated nut holding the rod end stud to the steering arm. First potential landmine: the stud spins endlessly in the body of the rod end, but the nut won’t run off its threads. If, like me, you’re lucky enough to have an air wrench handy, you can use it to spin the nut while you pry the tie rod toward the steering arm. This makes the stud tighter in the tapered hole in the steering arm as you pry. Penetrating oil and a couple of good whacks with a hammer should get the nut off.

Second potential landmine: the nut spins off fine, but has become one with the similarly tapered hole in the steering arm. Start by running the nut back on, upside down, until it’s flush with the end of the stud. This will keep the end of the stud from mushrooming when you whack on it, becoming larger than the hole it’s trying to fit through. Now whack the nut.

Still stuck? Try hammering both sides of the steering arm at the same time with two hammers. This usually pops even stubborn tie rod ends out. Still stuck? Time to buy or rent a tie rod end puller. A few cranks on the puller will pop even the most stubborn rod end loose.

Serious mechanics who replace a lot of tie rod ends have a more fun-to-use tool. It’s affectionately referred to as a pickle fork. A pickle fork is fine for removing worn rod ends, because it works fast. But it’s not suitable for removing parts that need to be reused, because it invariably destroys the rubber boot – and often the joint itself. Jam your pickle fork into the space between the rod end and the steering arm, whack the end a couple of times with a hammer to set it, and lever the whole mess apart.

Measure
Reinstall the rod end and nut fingertight, and measure the distance from the centre of the joint to some witness mark on the tie rod itself. Write the measurement down, to the nearest millimetre.

Turn it off
Loosen the jam nut or clamp nut, and turn the old rod end off the tie rod. Add a dab of antiseize, and thread the new rod end in until the assembly measures the same length as the old one. Tighten the jam nut, smear a dab of antiseize around the stud and install the grease seal. Grab the new nut and cotter pin from the new rod end box. Torque the nut and install the pin.

Quickie toe-in alignment
Reinstall the wheel and tyre, but don’t let the car down off the jack just yet. Scribe a circumferential line completely around the centre of the tyre in the rubber with a nail or something pointy. Lift up the other front tyre and do the same. Now put the car back down on the ground and push it back and forth about a metre a couple of times to even out the suspension. (We assume you’re doing this on a flat, level surface.)

Now measure the distance between the lines in front of and behind the tyres and subtract the front measurement from the rear. If you’ve done your homework, this distance should be 0 to 5 mm smaller in the front than in the rear, giving you toe-in. If you have toe-out, you’ll need to readjust the alignment by loosening the jam nut and spinning the tie rod to change its length.

Frankly, if you’ve driven your car far enough to wear out the tie rod ends, you should get a front-end alignment anyway. This quick-and-dirty procedure will at least get you to the alignment rack safely.

The steps
1 Measure the overall length of the rod end assembly from the centre of the joint, not from the wobbly end of the stud. The grease fi tting is a good place – if you actually have a grease fi tting on your old rod end.

2 Remove the cotter pin and castellated nut from the stud. That tapered stud has been pressed into a tapered hole for years – it may be reluctant to let go.

3 Whack the steering arm with two hammers at the same time to pop the rod end loose. Or use a nutcrackerstyle rod end puller.

4 Still can’t get the joint loose? This giant pickle fork will pry even stubborn ones apart.

5 Thread the new rod end on the tie rod until it’s the same length as the old one.

6 Install the cotter pin radially, like this. Don’t wrap it around the stud circumferentially.

7 Grease the fitting by pumping it full of grease until it bleeds out past the rubber seal. Use high-quality grease – it’s not expensive.

8 Check wheel alignment by measuring between the front and back of the front wheels. Scribe a line with something sharp – the edge of the tread pattern isn’t accurate enough for this. Toe-in should be 0 to 5 mm – check your manual, and get a proper pro alignment soon.

Latest Issue :

May-June 2022