I have a 1998 Ford Econoline e350 van that had horrible steering when I got it. It was a bit of a big headache and I wanted to share with you guys what I found that fixed my wandering steering. When I started the van was downright dangerous to drive at high speed and hit a bump. The steering wheel would feel loose and sloppy and it would feel as if the van was lifting off the road surface.
Symptoms of Loose Steering Ford Econoline’s (e150, e250, e350, e450 and RV’s) 1970’s-2019)
- Sloppy Steering feeling even on low mileage vans or trucks ( can start at 20,000 miles)
- Wandering Steering Feeling While Driving
- Constant Corrections Needed During Freeway Speeds
- Potholes, Bumps, any imperfection in the road cause a steering looseness that can be scary.
- Sketchy Feeling Driving Freeway Speeds
Steps to Checking Your Ford Steering System:
- Jack, the front end up and put it safely on jack stands (on vans I like those rated for 6 tons)
- Check each tire at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock for any play in the system (watch this video to see this test)
- Use a pry bar and a helper to check ball joints for looseness or play (check everything well, on heavy-duty trucks sometimes play will only show up when using pry bars correctly to test each ball joint separately). How to video here.
- If you hear a clunk over bumps, check your sway bar bushings (these very commonly go bad, they are located inside the twin i-beams).
- Make sure to check your radius control arm bushings for play, and replace if any play is noted (these are common).
- Check the actual I-beam bushings where they bolt onto the van or truck frame for play.
- Make sure you have quality suspension shocks, these are hard to replace on Ford Econoline due to access, so only replace shocks with high-quality OEM or similar quality parts.
- Check the play in your steering gear box (sometimes called worm gear) and adjust if needed. THE ADJUSTMENT should be done by a qualified mechanic who has done plenty of these before. Here is a how-to guide if you want to try to tackle it yourself.
List of Problem Parts from Most Likely to Least Likely:
As a general guideline, this is my list of what I would look for first. People sometimes jump to conclusions or want to start replacing everything on their vehicle because one thing is bad. To avoid throwing parts at your Ford van/truck/RV that is driving badly down the road follow this general guideline list.
I found that of all the hours I spent fixing things on my 1998 Ford Econoline van that there were a couple items that made a WORLD of difference after I replaced them.
So here is my list of the most likely culprits that you should check first:
- Steering Gearbox Play
- If your steering gearbox has too much play (like mine did) then when you hit bumps your van will feel like it is lifting off the road and you are losing control of it. Adjusting a steering gearbox isn’t for an amateur as if you get it too tight you will ruin it, too lose and it is dangerous. I adjusted my own gearbox, but I didn’t even know it could be adjusted until I had already spent hours replacing other parts on the van.
- Steering Component Play
- Check your drag links for play. Inspect all the steering components and make sure there is no significant play in anything. Replace parts as needed.
- Radius Arm Bushings
- When these go bad they can cause the wheel to literally move forward and back during braking or accelerating. It can cause all kinds of weird feelings in the car, and should be replaced. These are not that bad to replace using kits that come online with all the necessary parts. Definitely check out your radius arm bushings if you are experiencing wandering steering– use a pry bar and look for cracked bushings.
- Sway Bar Bushings
- My sway bar bushings were completely ruined. This led to a metal on metal sound over bumps– and likely more “sway” in my van at high speeds.
- Energy suspension makes a cool kit that makes it easy to replace the factory sway bar bushings with a urethane set. Pro tip: make sure to use a Sawzall to cut out the old metal sleeve from the OEM bushings before installing the new set (you do not need a press for the new set). If you do choose to install OEM sway bar bushings you will need a press (as far as I remember).
- Twin I-Beam Bushings
- Make sure you actually test these before just shotgunning parts at your van. I replaced my i-beam bushings with the energy suspension kit, however, it wasn’t an easy job.
- I also found out after I replaced them that my I-beam bushings were not actually bad. If they are bad you will feel play in the bushing with a pry bar, and likely cracked/degraded rubber bushing.
- Bad Alignment
- Ok, so yes your alignment should be one of the first things to have checked (if you are a total car repair newbie).
- The problem is an alignment may help your wandering steering issue, but if you don’t fix the underlying issue it will never make the van drive as it should.
- There are tons of posts of people adding as much caster to the front end alignment as possible to help with freeway driveability on these Ford twin I-beam suspension Econoline/trucks. I totally recommend this as well, but please make sure to first address any underlying suspension or bushing play first.
- Bad Shocks
- Bad shocks should be suspect if your van feels “bouncy” or won’t hold the road tight. However, with my van the looseness in the steering was different than a bounce from bad shocks. I replaced the shocks and felt almost zero difference in the wandering steering feeling at high speeds (and the old shocks “felt bad”).
- It is never a bad idea to make sure your shocks are working properly. However, these are less likely to be the magic fix to your wandering steering problem– but, one of the most likely “shotgunned” parts from shops to fix it.
Finding the Right Shop for Diagnoses:
Pro tip: find a shop that does fleet maintenance on Ford’s. Trust me, when I say that all alignment shops are not created equal. You want a technician that will be able to accurately diagnose steering problems on your Ford truck. You want the shop with the older guy that has been there for decades and has done tons of work on these Ford twin i-beam trucks. Ideally, you want someone that when asked if they can adjust your steering gearbox (or check adjustment) they simply respond “absolutely.”
Also, sometimes it won’t be just one item that is causing wandering steering. However, a lot of shops will just shotgun parts because that is the most likely way they will fix the problem.
For example, they may miss the fact that the steering gear box needs an alignment because it has a ton of slop. But they recommend you shocks, ball joints, sway bar bushings and radius arm bushings for a grand total of like $2,500 out the door. Little do you know that if you started with the steering gear box adjustment your van may drive 100x times better and only cost like $150.
- Radius Arm Bushings for Ford Econoline (my recommended set)
- I-Beam Bushing Set Energy Suspension (also called axle pivot bushing)
- Front Shocks Ford Econoline
Ok, this is another item that often comes up when people discuss steering problems on their Ford Econoline, trucks, and other twin I-beam style cars.
The idea is pretty simple, you install a steering dampener (which is basically like adding a shock absorber) to your steering drive. This makes it feel stiffer and reduces the jerkiness (or touchiness) of your steering.
I did this on my van (1998 Ford Econoline e350) and while it helped it was not the ultimate fix to my wandering steering problem. The fix was properly adjusting my steering gearbox and replacing my worn to shreds radius control arm bushings.
So I can’t stress enough, you need to replace any parts and make sure to check the adjustment of your steering gearbox before you throw tons of money at parts or at bandaids that won’t actually fix the underlying problem.
I do highly recommend adding a steering dampener once you get everything else sorted. Here is a great guide online and a video to watch showing you the install. I found my dampener off an Econoline ambulance at a local junkyard. It cost me less than $50 total and took less than an hour to install.
Conclusions & Related Questions:
All you have to do is search on google for Ford Econoline steering problems and you will find thousands of forum posts of people complaining about their steering woes.
That was me when I first bought my Econoline. I hated the way it drove down the road, and it was downright dangerous. I wouldn’t let anyone else drive it on the freeway because I was scared for our safety. I basically had to let it float over bumps on the freeway and trust it would hold its line on the road.
I spent days under my van trying to replace everything under the sun before I realized I could adjust the steering gearbox. Not saying that will be your magic fix, but it is definitely one of the first things I would check.
If you don’t feel comfortable putting a super heavy van on jack stands and working with heavy-duty suspension parts please go to a qualified shop! As I always recommend find someone that specializes in this specific vehicle. A Ford fleet maintenance shop will be miles ahead of just a random shop that works on everything. Especially problems that are specific to certain vehicles it is especially important to find the right shop.
Can I install aftermarket camber bushings that are adjustable on my Ford? Yes, you can. But I will give you a bit of warning on doing this. You MUST find an alignment shop that is experienced doing these kinds of adjustable camber bushings. I highly recommend calling around and finding a 4×4 shop that has experience doing this. Many people recommend online asking for the “most amount of front positive camber possible” to help with ford wandering steering problems. I did find this helpful with my own Econoline, however, the first time an alignment shop tried to adjust the adjustable camber bushings the bushings weren’t tightened correctly and I almost lost control of my van on the freeway. The bushings had begun to work themselves out and were literally coming apart. As always fix any underlying mechanical issues causing looseness before applying a bandaid– like adjusting the camber for your alignment.
Will replacing my steering gearbox fix my wandering steering problem? No, not unless your steering gearbox has an internal mechanical failure. That needs to be diagnosed by a professional. I made the mistake of replacing my steering gearbox when I didn’t need to. The used one I put in was out of adjustment just like the one on my van. There was no mechanical failure with either, and the new (used one) I put in was no tighter than my old one. That is why you should always make sure to adjust the steering gearbox play before just deciding to buy a new one.
Important Video How To Guides:
For a better understanding of everything discussed in this article watch these videos.