In the early days of the motorized age, everything under the sun was considered a possible means to steer a vehicle. The first ones (horseless carriages) steered with a tiller, a simple device not unlike a folding Radio Flyer wagon handle. With the introduction of numerous brand names by 1903, various different types of steering mechanisms were utilized on American vehicles. To name a few, the '03 Oldsmobile and '03 Rambler steered with tillers connected to what could best be described as variations of Rudolph Ackermann's steering arrangement patented in London, England, in 1817. The most notable system was the adjustable rack-and-pinion steering installed on the new Cadillac introduced in October 1902 at the New York Auto Show.
By 1912, the second American automobile with a French name destined to become a part of the General Motors lineup debuted. The first Chevrolet appeared with a steering apparatus known as the worm and gear type. The characteristic differences inherent between the two types of steering introduced over 100 years ago on Chevrolets and Cadillacs still exist in today's modern rack-and-pinion and recirculating-ball steering arrangements.
As the weight of Cadillac cars (not to be confused with Cadillac trucks of that era) grew with each year, the advantages offered by rack-and-pinion steering diminished until it was necessary to abandon it in favor of a variation of a worm and screw setup. By the early '50s the worm and gear arrangement had evolved into recirculating-ball. Essentially, recirculating-ball operates in the same fashion as worm and gear, with the exception of the ball bearings functioning in place of the threads on the steering worm. The advantages of recirculating-ball over worm and gear are twofold: First, the ball bearings reduce friction and wear, which translates into a lighter feel and longer steering component life. Second, they reduce play in the gears. Without the ball bearings filling in the gap between the steering gear's meshing teeth, the additional clearance translates into steering slop. For the benefit of Custom Classic Trucks' valued readers, we'll discuss the pluses and minuses of recirculating-ball versus rack-and-pinion steering with and without power assist.
Starting with vehicles set up to drag race, recirculating-ball manual steering as equipped from the factory (provided it is in good condition) will work just fine. There's a weight advantage of 20-30 pounds sans the power steering pump with its related gear, and no horsepower lost driving the pump. A dragster, typically with skinny meats on the front and little demand to handle g-induced understeer, isn't likely to overburden its ability to steer. But add wide rubber to the front end and throw the same dragster into the curves and things can get a little intense.