Restoring a 54 Year Old Steering Wheel
It has been said more than once, "restoring a car is a massive project made up of multiple smaller projects". I don't know who said it, but this is a very true statement. Actually, in order to complete a project this massive you have to break it into small, separate projects which must be completed one by one. Part of the challenge is to make sure you complete these small projects in an order that makes sense and doesn't waste time or money.
With the wiring 99.9% complete we are well on the way to a running moving car. However, that doesn't mean it will be driveable. In my case I need this car to be movable in and out of the garage on its own power. I have other projects that needs to be done in the garage and with the Polara taking up most of the room, there just isn't enough area to work. So the next project that will put us on the road to a movable car is to restore the steering column and steering wheel.
When it comes to the steering column itself, mine was in good condition. All the turn signal parts had been replaced by the previous owner so I didn't have to disassemble the entire shaft and replace a bunch of plastic parts. I did have to replace the lower shaft bearing and rebuild the coupling box. These were simple procedures and only took a few minutes to do so I'm not going to cover them in detail here. Suffice to say that all the parts needed are available from RockAuto.com and are relatively inexpensive. The picture below shows the new bearing and rebuilt coupling box after installation of the steering column. The rubber bearing retainer can be seen at the end of the big end of the column and the coupling box can be seen where it connects to the steering box. The small red color rubber seal sticks out of the coupling box slightly and seals the grease in the box. This box actually takes the place of the traditional "rag joint" and functions very much like the ball and trunion unit on the drive shaft.
Once these two small jobs were finished the column was cleaned, sanded and finish painted to match the interior color. Then it was installed in the car.
So much for the easy stuff. Now comes the steering wheel. Restoration of a 54 year old Bakelite steering wheel is a real project. The Bakelite plastic tends to shrink, crack and separate over time, especially when subjected to the UV rays of the sun. Southern cars tend to be worse than northern cars for this exact reason. This car was an Alabama car its entire life and the sun really did a number on it. The pictures below show some of the damage that needed to be repaired.
As you can see, the damage was substantial. Many I'm sure would look at this and say, that's too much damage why not just buy an aftermarket wheel. That is a viable option, but this is a budget build so anywhere I can save a few bucks, I'm going to do it.
If you go to YOUTUBE you can find several videos on how to restore steering wheels. There are even "KITS" available if you want to pay the $$$ for them. However, you don't really need a "kit". All you need is some good quality epoxy paste and a little patience. I used JB Weld paste and also some JB QuickWeld epoxy on this wheel. The paste was used to fill in the large gaps in the wheel and the QuickWeld was used to repair where the Bakelite had separated from the metal framework because it has superior strength. Below are pictures of the wheel after the repairs had been made and a couple coats of filler primer had been applied.
The wheel was then finish sanded and painted to match the interior color.
Is the finished product concourse perfect? No. Is it almost that good? In my opinion, yes. If I wanted to spend a few more hours doing finishing work it could be concourse perfect, but this build isn't a concourse restoration. Its a budget fun classic Mopar muscle car and doesn't need to be "perfect". So this is a case where almost perfect is good enough.
With the painting done the wheel was installed in the car and looks pretty damn good if you ask me.
A word about chrome. The trim and horn ring on the wheel were pitted and the chrome was pretty rusty. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about the pitting except re-chroming the parts. However, the rust can be removed and the chrome's luster restored simply by using aluminum foil and white vinegar. I know it sounds weird but believe me... it works.
Here's an example of what vinegar and aluminum foil can do. This is one of the trim pieces that go between the dash and the "A" pillar. As you can see it is rusty and pitted.
After 5 minutes with the foil and vinegar here is the result. You can see the obvious difference when compared to the same part from the other side of the dash. Well worth the effort.
So you can see why I used this method to clean up the steering wheel trim and horn ring.
That's it for this update. The next project will be the headliner followed by installation of the windshield and rear glass. This may take a little time since I've never done a fabric headliner before. Wish me luck.
Check back often for more updates...
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