Nadine White Co-ordinator
LVVTA Aftermarket Steering Column Safety Alert
The Low Volume Vehicle Technical Association (Inc) has identified that some serious safety defects exist within a number of aftermarket steering columns, which, if not replaced, could result in a total loss of steering control of the vehicle to which it is fitted.
Most of the affected columns are known as ‘tilt’ columns – typically used in hot rods, street machines, and custom cars - which are designed to tilt up and down to aid entry and exit, and can also be used to alter the position of the steering wheel. These unsafe columns – initially discovered by wide-awake LVV Certifiers - have the appearance of being American-made (sometimes arriving in American packaging) but are in fact manufactured in China, and employ sub-standard components and manufacturing processes within the tilt mechanism, and in some cases poor weld quality of the steering shaft sections.
LVVTA’s inspections of some of these dismantled brand new unsafe columns have showed that the tilt mechanism consisted of a poor-quality plastic bush with an insufficiently-engaged pinning system. ‘Slop’ was evident in the brand new column, and the design appeared to be such that the plastic bush and pin system had the potential to completely fail, rendering a vehicle unable to be steered. This theory has in fact just been proven in practice during the last week of April 2013, when exactly such a failure happened to Auckland’s Paul Haaker whilst manoeuvring his almost-finished 1960 El Camino in his driveway. The column internals in Paul’s car suddenly disintegrated, and while his steering wheel spun freely, his front wheels did not turn.
The unsafe tilt steering columns that LVVTA have inspected, including the one that collapsed causing a complete steering failure, are made in China and have no brand markings on them, and are therefore very difficult to identify. However, LVVTA believes that the unsafe brands may include ‘Helix’, ‘Autoloc’, ‘Proheader’, ‘Wysco’, and ‘CCP’. LVVTA understands that some of these brands are marketed by an American company known as the Hoffman Group.
The principle difference between well-made aftermarket tilt columns and their unsafe counter-parts is that the tilt mechanisms within good quality columns employ a proper miniature constant velocity-like joint (that replicates the OEM system used by General Motors in their tilt columns) which cannot disconnect within the column housing, whereas the dangerous products coming out of China use a low-grade plastic bush and pin system which can – and have – fallen apart during operation, leaving no connection whatsoever between the steering wheel and the steering shaft.
There are also some tilt columns coming out of China which have a correctly-made tilt mechanism, but which feature very poor quality welding of the various welded sections of the steering shaft.
The affected columns are typically very cheap compared to the long-established and reputable name-brands, and generally have no identification or branding on them. “These columns are cheap and nasty knock-offs of reputable aftermarket brands, made in China and built entirely on price” LVVTA CEO Tony Johnson says. “Although they look great on the outside, it would seem that whoever has designed this rubbish neither understands automotive engineering nor gives a toss about people’s lives.”
Johnson urges anyone who thinks they may have such a column not to drive the vehicle until the column’s origins and internal design have been verified by an expert. “I really urge vehicle owners not to take this issue lightly” Johnson says. “We’ve just taken possession of a brand new column that has gone into a vehicle, and after nothing more than a couple of laps around the block, has literally broken in half leaving the owner with no steering whatsoever. This is as serious as it gets. If you think you might have one of these columns, please don’t drive your car at all. Get it looked at straight away by an LVV Certifier or suitably-experienced industry expert.”
High quality aftermarket steering columns have never presented any safety problems as far as LVVTA is aware. At this stage, LVVTA understands that the ‘Ididit’ and ‘Flaming River’ brands (there may be others) are correctly designed, and there are no known problems or failures associated with these aftermarket tilt column brands.
LVVTA is currently conducting a brand quality-verification process, and once this has been completed and other aspects of this whole steering column issue have been fully resolved, an LVVTA Information Sheet will provide all of the relevant information which a vehicle owner will need in order to fully understand the situation, and to be able to make the right choices in terms of steering column purchase. It's expected that this LVVTA Information Sheet will be available from the LVVTA website www.lvvta.org.nz by May 24 2013.
People who have been sold these unsafe steering columns should note that legislation has always existed that requires steering systems and components to be safe, durable, and fit for their purpose, and sellers have a legal obligation – under both Transport Law and the Consumer Guarantees Act - to ensure that products they sell are both legal and fit for their intended purpose.
Any vehicle owners requiring any further technical information or advice are welcome to contact Justin Hansen or Dan Myers at the LVVTA office in Wellington on (04) 238-4343, or alternatively, they can talk to an LVV Certifier, who can be found through the LVVTA website www.lvvta.org.nz.
Auckland’s Paul Haaker has been building this tough-looking ’60 El Camino, and assumed that the aftermarket column he purchased would be up to the job of safely steering his pride and joy. The angle change within the tilt mechanism to position the steering wheel at a comfortable position can be seen in this photograph.
Paul’s column was purchased via the internet from a lower North Island hot rod shop, and advertised as a ‘Helix’ brand.
The connection of the two steering shaft sections at the tilt mechanism relies on this poorly-made plastic bush, which has – in brand new condition - fallen completely to bits, and left the car without any steering.