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Steering Wheel Repair

By John Ellis

This article will describe the Y type steering wheel, and the following stages of restoration for normal wear and tear.

  • Preparation

  • Gluing and clamping

  • Filling and sanding

  • Painting

I am grateful to Ben Cordsen for his interesting article on the MG TA, TB, TC series steering wheels on our sister web-site http://www.mg-tabc.org/techn-up/mg steering wheels.htm.  Also there is a concise description of the steering wheel on Page 38 of “Let There Be Y’s.  The steering wheel has an outer steel rim which is shrouded in a plastic material which has been described as Bakelite, (elsewhere described as celluloid or cellulose acetate, which are in fact completely different plastics).  Y steering wheels were normally a tan colour or had a swirled marble effect right through the plastic, and it’s this plastic that has been prone to splitting.

The plastic rim covering is smooth at the front, but underneath there are finger-grip indentations around the circumference of the wheel. There are three sets of four spokes grouped in pairs, which have been described as chrome plated, but I’m pretty sure that mine are stainless steel as I was able to easily repolish them with fine emery.  My conclusion that the spokes are stainless steel may only apply to the steering wheels I have seen in Australia, which may be export versions and differ from the types sold on cars sold in the UK.

The spokes radiate from a central solid aluminium alloy hub, which typically was originally painted bronze. In my restoration I did not attempt to replicate the original colour of the rim or wheel, as I used a modern, highly durable finish that is not available in bronze.

Typical Wear and Tear

Generally the paintwork on the hub may be worn, the alloy may be cracked

(I’m no expert on that), the spokes could be in good condition or in the worst case bent. The most common problem is severe splitting at the “fillet”, the joint of the spokes and the rim outer covering. This does not necessarily mean that the steering wheel is terminally weakened, as it is a very strong piece of equipment. Even if the steel rim is broken, and spokes bent, the steering wheel is repairable. The splitting at the fillets looks terrible, but it’s mainly cosmetic. Note that there are three fillets, each with a back and front, which on my wheel, were splitting open, so there were six places to repair.

Replace or Repair?

In making this decision, repair will require about 10 hours of work and about AUD $20 in materials, although you will have unused and expensive paint and filler left over at the end of the job, which will have cost you about AUD $100.

To have a steering wheel professionally refurbished, in Australia, would cost several hundred dollars including freight, but it’s worth mentioning that if you want the ultimate finish, Pearlcraft in Queensland restore steering wheels to a very high standard.

However, if you live in the UK, you may find a good one on eBay for less than £50.

Materials

Superglue is reported to be an ideal adhesive for Bakelite (e.g. for the repair of antique radio cabinets), and it was this that encouraged me to try to repair my steering wheel, thereby also giving Superglue some credibility in the vintage car world.

You will need:

  • Solvent cleaner

  • Superglue –small tube

  • Superglue solvent if you are a perfectionist.

  • Three G clamps, or (better still) bar clamps

  • Epoxy filler – small tin ( I used Epifill)

  • Wet and dry carborundum papers in 360, 600, 1200 grades – 2 sheets of each.

  • ½” paint brush

  • 100 ml paint – POR 15 is perfect but colours are restricted to black, white, or grey.

  • Two plastic drinking straws, and/or some masking tape

Remove Steering Wheel

Disconnect the battery,

  • On one side of the steering wheel boss you'll see a screw. This holds the horn switch in place. Remove the switch & undo the wire,

  • Technically, you'll now use a socket to undo the steering wheel nut. As you'll see, it's very big. You'll probably also find evidence of previous removal in the shape of chisel or centre punch marks which is the "usual" method of removal when a large socket isn't handy.

  • Undo the nut a few turns but don't take it right off.

  • Hopefully, with a bit of wiggling & holding your tongue the right way, the steering wheel will release & come loose. This might be easy, or this might be hard depending on when it was last removed. Sometimes banging the steering wheel rim can shock it loose but if it's really, really tight, then a puller might be required (I've never come to that stage though).

  • When the steering wheel is loose, remove the nut & then the wheel.

There are two types of steering wheel to column fitments:

  • The early type locates using a keyway,

  • The later type uses splines.

Cleaning

The first step is to clean the wheel thoroughly and get rid of any loose paint and Bakelite fragments. Inspect, clean and polish the spokes. I suggest cleaning with fine (000) steel wool, finishing with 1200 emery and metal polish.

Broken Steel Rim

Chip away the Bakelite from that area (it will probably be falling off anyway, and expose sufficient of the rim that you can see what has happened. De-rust and have it welded back together, prior to re-modelling the plastic covering, using epoxy filler as described below.

Splitting at the Fillets (Spoke/Rim Junctions)

  1. Do some more cleaning, try to clean inside the splits with a solvent such as iso-propyl alcohol, using a small brush. A CO Contact Cleaner aerosol spray of the type sold for cleaning electrical contacts may also work.

  2. Get four G clamps or bar clamps ready, with some wood or felt packing pieces to prevent additional surface damage to the bakelite

  3. Starting with one spoke/rim fillet, work Superglue deep into the splits at the back and front, as quickly as you can. Use a piece of thin card to really tease the glue right into the split.

  4. When you are sure the split has taken all the glue it can, clamp this junction up tightly – as tight as you can make it without further damaging the bakelite. It’s quite tough in fact. Wipe away excess glue. Clamping will force the fillets quite close to the original shape.

  5. You may like to leave the job for a couple of days at this stage to see how glueing your first joint has worked out.

  6. When all three fillets are clamped, leave for a couple of days to allow the glue to fully cure. Obviously a warm place will help, I will leave that to your ingenuity and domestic tact and diplomacy.

  7. After two days, carefully remove the clamps. You should not have any problem with splits opening up again.

Filling

The next step is to fill the remaining cracks which will now be significantly narrower than when you started. However before you mix filler, I suggest you mask the spokes at both the centre and rim ends. I used short pieces of ordinary plastic drinking straw, split along the length, which curls nicely around the spoke – secured with tape at the end away from the fillet. However this method is rather tedious and fiddly as it requires the cutting and attaching of 24 pieces of drinking straw. It could be almost as effective to wrap some masking tape around all four spokes at each fillet and the middle ends, although, to work in between the spokes you will need to poke under the edge of the masking tape.

I used white Epifill two-part epoxy resin filler bought from a marine supplier, but you may already have a suitable filler available.

Use the filler sparingly as some careful shaping at this stage, will save a lot of tedious sanding later on. I suggest you do this work in several stages, mixing small quantities of filler at a time, and also being sure not to spoil sections not yet set, whilst trying to do too much at once.

Once the filler is all set, the work can be sanded carefully to shape using rat-tail files, and wet emery papers, progressing through say 360, 600 to 1200 grades. Be very careful not to scratch the spokes whist filing and sanding around the ends of the spokes. If the finger indentations have been treated with filler, pay attention to re-shaping them evenly. Use a strong light, and your sense of touch to help achieve a good shape and finish. You are re-sculpting your wheel at this stage of the work. Inevitably you will need to do some additional filling to achieve a good final result.

Painting

I strongly recommend POR 15, which is an exceptional and forgiving paint product that flows on beautifully from the brush, and cures by drawing moisture from the atmosphere, to an almost flawless glass-hard finish, free from brush-marks.

POR 15 is available in black gloss and semi-gloss, white, clear and silver. I could only buy gloss black in Perth, so that is what I used, but I think semi -gloss would have given a more authentic looking finish. It is an expensive paint but you will find other uses for it after you have finished your steering wheel. A primer is not strictly necessary.

If you prefer to retain an authentic colour you will need to look for an alternative paint – you may find a two part epoxy paint in a tan or brown shade.

Personally I think a black wheel looks rather smart and will go with any other colour scheme on the car. The important thing is (perhaps) to restore the original wheel so it can give another 60 years of service, rather than fit a wood/aluminium substitute.

To support the wheel during painting, I clamped a 10mm bolt upright in a vice and sat on it a tapered bottle cap of suitable diameter, which fitted tightly into the hole in the central alloy boss. This set-up supported the steering wheel and enabled it to be rotated without touching the rim.

After final smoothing with the 1200 grade emery, dry the wheel and wipe it very thoroughly with a dust and lint free cloth (“tack cloth”), a clean microfibre duster is suitable.

Cleanliness, and precautions against dust are essential during painting. You may wish to get a new, good quality brush, ½ “size is suitable. I suggest you transfer about 80 ml of the paint from the tin, into a clean coffee jar.

Use a strong light whilst painting. I painted the front, (top) of the wheel and boss first. By turning the wheel as you paint, you can paint most of the underside at the same time, by peering underneath, but it will be difficult to get the finish right, and it’s more important to concentrate on getting a good even finish on the top part and sides, which will be visible. You can finish the underside of the rim and boss later. Make sure you pick up all runnels of excess paint, and at the same time that you paint carefully into the gaps around and between the spokes. Lay off your brush strokes, and examine the wet paint surface carefully for dust specks and remove them.

Leave the area and close the door to avoid raising dust into the air, and allow to dry for at least six hours, then inspect the finish to see if any major flaws need removing. Turn the wheel over and finish painting the underside and allow to dry for 6 hours.

If you have been very careful with your brush work you may not require a second coat, but if you do need to apply a second coat, you may have to do a little more work with emery papers, which should be done before the paint is fully cured, (i.e. in the first 24 hours).

When the paint is dry your renovation is almost complete, but you will need to remove the making tape from the spokes, and clean and repolish any places where your painting was more successful than your masking.

I hope you will be more than satisfied with the end result, which in my case, using the gloss black POR 15, was a gleaming steering wheel that looks almost as though it has come straight out of the factory. A fellow Y owner pronounced it to be “better than new”, so I did consider attempting to sand it back to resemble a more vintage patina, but - having tried previously to rub back POR 15, and discretion being the better part of valour, I have contented myself with the high gloss finish for the time being.

If you see anyone quietly smiling whilst closely inspecting steering wheels, at any vintage car event around Perth, it’s probably yours truly.  If you have any questions, please contact me here.