Tom Wilson
June 4, 2012

Steering racks are not the stuff of Mustang passion, at least not until your Mustang goes wandering or you're building a track car that needs the last word in precision. Then you need the expertise of chassis experts who have been studying Ford steering to keep their customers headed where they want to.

You need Maximum Motorsports, in other words. Which is exactly where we headed when we noticed the directional control in our '91 Mustang daily driver had degenerated into something more akin to stirring walnut-laced oatmeal than precise guidance. What we found was a subject far more detailed than we had guessed, but with a few clear-cut choices for the enthusiast once past all the theory.

To keep this discussion within practical limits, we'll confine ourselves to '79-'04 Mustang steering. These are the Fox and SN-95 cars that typically need attention. The '05-'11 steering is mechanically similar but already incorporates the improvements developed during the Fox and SN-95 era, plus the later steering racks mount completely differently and offer no interchange possibilities.

Let's start at the beginning. All Fox and later Mustangs use rack and pinion steering. This means the steering wheel is attached to a shaft passing through the firewall and connected to what we all casually call the “steering rack” or simply “the rack.”

No matter what you call it, the rack assembly converts the rotation of the steering shaft into left-right motion. That left-right movement is connected to the front wheels via tie rods screwed to each end of the rack. The rack assembly also provides the steering gear ratio, plus controls and applies the hydraulic power assist from the power-steering pump.

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Inside the rack assembly are the pinion, which is the small gear at the bottom end of the steering shaft, and the steering rack, which is a horizontally mounted steel shaft with a series of teeth ground into it. The pinion gear meshes with the steering rack's teeth, which is where the steering gear ratio comes from (how much the steering wheel turns compared to how much the front wheels turn). So far, so easy.

The real fun begins with the hydraulic power steering used on the majority of Mustangs. Here pressurized fluid is piped from the power steering pump to a control valve built into the steering rack. This hydraulic servo valve, typically called the spool valve due to its design, directs fluid into the rack assembly where it applies pressure against one side or the other of a fence built onto the rack. The fluid pressure thus assists the driver in moving the rack against the tire's traction.

The devilish details lay in the intricacies of the spool valve. We auto enthusiasts are normally not familiar with spool valves as there's only one on a car--the one inside the steering rack. It's a reasonably complex device, and we never see it because spool valves don't require maintenance and we don't hot rod them. But--and this is the whole point in swapping steering racks--there are delicately machined details in the spool valve that give the steering rack assembly its characteristic steering feel.

To come right to the point, even after installing the best tires, new tie rods, urethane bushings, stiffer springs, a sport steering wheel, and all-metal intermediate steering shaft, there's still more precision to be gained by swapping a Fox steering rack for one of several SN-95 racks.

We're about to take a detailed look at the spool valve for those who want to know the hows and whys of its operation. There are a lot of words, so skip ahead if you just want the practical considerations, but you'll understand much more about your Mustang's steering if you wade through.

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