Arms tired? You might want to make the jump to power steering
The dirty little secret about vintage collectibles is that many classics can be a pain to drive, especially those with manual steering. Installing modern radial tires is a common fix for those who don’t just drive their sweethearts on and off the trailer. But wait, there’s more: thanks to the persistent march of new car engineering, you can now upgrade your classic car’s steering to 21st century standards.
To save weight, cost, and fuel consumption, new-car makers are switching hydraulic power steering assist systems to electric-motor helpers. Inevitably, the technology has trickled down to the aftermarket. EPAS Performance of Sarasota, Florida, sells the $1450 kit shown here installed on a 1947 Packard Super Clipper long-wheelbase, seven-passenger sedan. American Powertrain and Unisteer Performance offer similar bolt-in systems.
The EPAS package consists of a one-horsepower, 60-amp electric motor combined with a worm gear drive and an electronic control box. The motor and drive components are supported by the car’s steering column jacket after it’s been modified. The motor’s driveshaft is connected in series with the original steering shaft after it’s been chopped in two. All of the new EPAS parts are hidden out of sight under the dash.
A Ypsilanti, Michigan, restoration shop handled this particular Packard installation. Step one: Detach the stock column from the recirculating-ball steering gear. After removal from the car and bench disassembly, foot-long sections were cut from both the outer steering column sleeve and the internal steering shaft to prepare for the installation of the new EPAS components.
Of course, a serious problem arose. This Packard uses a three-on-the-tree shift linkage residing where the new EPAS equipment mounts. Converting to a floor-mounted shifter was considered and rejected to preserve authenticity. The solution was to reorient the shifter shaft at a skew angle with respect to the steering column to provide the necessary clearance. It was reattached to the bottom of the column using a long muffler clamp. Of course, links connecting the shifter shaft to levers running to the transmission also required modification. Fortunately, the column shift issue doesn’t crop up that often in the collector car world.
For improved cranking and to power the EPAS electronic module, the Packard’s original six-volt positive-ground electrical system was upgraded to 12-volt negative ground. A converter module switched the electricity back to six volts for the factory gauges and other equipment. Rerouting the horn-relay wire was necessary because the EPAS motor blocked the original path through the hollow center of the steering shaft. Minor alterations to the turn signals were also necessary.
Compared to the typical eight-hour installation touted by EPAS, this Packard job required three times that effort. The car’s owner Kirk Seaman is a patient man who takes such hardship in stride after fiddling with his fleet of old cars for decades.
This EPAS system is smart enough to know how much steering assistance is needed with a built-in torque sensor. A potentiometer mounted discreetly under the dash allows adjusting the effort to the driver’s whim. There is no change to the 4.7 turns lock-to-lock the factory built into this Packard.
The reduction in effort at parking speed is remarkable. The original truck-like agony has been eliminated without making this Packard touchy once it gets rolling. On-center feel and sensitivity during highway cruising are unchanged. In other words, still good. This 70-year-old seven-passenger limo doesn’t feel a day over 40.
The EPAS website offers photos, videos, and hardware descriptions for study before you commit to purchase. EPAS will perform the modifications in house for owners who’d prefer shipping their steering column to the manufacturer. Mustang owners can exchange their worn power steering gears for a manual unit refurbished by EPAS that is ready for the electric assist upgrade. This company also offers power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering gears with an electric motor attached to the pinion shaft for those ready to dump their recirculating-ball system.
A drawback is the deduction that concours judges typically inflict for an engineering upgrade of this sort. But for those whose driving ventures beyond the show field, electric power assist is an excellent means of enriching their classic car love affair.