The wearing of an outer steering track rod end ball joint is quite common (Steering outer tie rod end) and can usually be found to be the culprit of wearing out prematurely the inner edge of both front tyres. Another indicator is a slight ‘offset’ to the natural straight ahead position of the steering wheel, even though the vehicle appears to steer straight. Frequently this is the only ‘give-away’ to this type of wear, due to the nature and size of the vehicle, very little wandering or any other symptom is rarely detected. If your steering wheel ‘straight ahead’ position is turning slightly to the left, where it used to be dead-ahead – the worn component will more often than not be located at the right hand road wheel and vice versa.
To check out the condition of the steering track rod end ball joint, jack and support the front of the vehicle on the side you wish to test. Grasp the road wheel at the front and back outer edges of the tyre (horizontal) and push and pull the wheel about the hub. You should detect little to no play. If you feel play when you push and pull the wheel, inspect the steering ball joint for movement as indicated in the short video clip below.
If you feel a little play and the ball joint seems sound, follow the tie rod into the steering rack bellows and grip/pinch where it connects to the end of the rack (Inner tie rod ball joint) If you detect a slight movement here this is due to wear in the inner ball joint. In many cases this ‘small play’ is acceptable on high mile vehicles, but can be eliminated by replacing the tie rod and inner joint as one assembly (screws into the end of the steering rack). For the purpose of this post we will investigate only the replacement of the outer ball joint.
This is quite a straight forward job and should take no longer than an hour to complete. Before you commence to raise the vehicle, wire brush the long thread and lock nut on the tie rod end, also cleaning off the ball joint lock nut on the hub steering arm, giving both a liberal spraying of penetrant.
Slacken the wheel lug nuts then jack and support the Sprinter allowing total removal of the road wheel. You can see the Tippex lines I use on the lug nuts once torqued to the correct tightness, so that a quick visual check of the nuts can be made. It is easy for the driver to then spot if any nut is out of position, indicating that perhaps a nut could be coming loose. This is especially useful on the rear nearside (UK) wheel that is often the one to ‘amazingly’ undo itself over time!
Once the road wheel is removed (You can see the damage to the tyre that has occurred due to the worn joint in only a few days) begin by undoing the 24mm lock nut on the ball joint taper, then using a 24mm open ended spanner undo the lock nut on the tie rod – just slightly – enough just to back it off the casting of the ball joint. Spray more penetrant. If this nut is stubborn you may need to use a little heat to assist its removal.
Using a stout hammer, strike the hub casting on the steering arm / ball joint taper. Do this accurately and with suitable force in two positions and the joint should ‘pop’. If this technique does not work for you then use a ball joint splitter for this job – either a lever type or pickle fork. Once the ball joint taper is released, unscrew the ball joint casting from the tie rod and screw on the new unit up to the lock nut. This maintains the distance and position of the new component to that of the old one, until you can get it checked for correct steering alignment – perhaps in the next day or so.
Insert the ball joint taper into the hub arm and tighten the nut, then using the 24mm spanner nip up the lock nut on the tie rod end shaft.
Now check to see if your play has gone, if so refit the wheel and lower the vehicle to the ground. If you still detect some play investigate further following the description above regarding testing the inner tie rod ball joint or possibly investigating the lower control arm ball joint for play.
NB. Don’t forget to replace any worn tyres!