One day, out of the blue, the steering wheel on my 1991 Jeep YJ was suddenly loose. It felt like the tilt column had a lot of play in it, and I could move it about an inch up, down, left, right, and in-between. Apparently, this is a fairly common problem in GM-style steering columns, possibly caused by repeated use of the steering wheel as a hand-hold when getting climbing into the vehicle. The root of the problem is simple: four loose bolts. Tightening them is easy. Getting to them is the tough part. I read several write-ups of how to disassemble the column but found precious few photos. I talked to a couple of people who had done it before and they said it was a big hassle with lots of fiddly bits to fall on the ground, plus there were some special tools that were required. But just before I was going to have a shop deal with it, my brother mentioned that he had done a complete dis-assembly of the steering column on his Cherokee over a year ago, and he had the special tools. So with his help, we went to work on my Jeep.
The special tools are:
Steering wheel puller (or a harmonic balancer remover).
Lock plate compressor. This is a squared-off C-shape piece of steel with a hole in the middle large enough to fit over the steering shaft. Can be found for pretty cheap in most auto parts stores.
Pivot Pin Removal Tool GM part J21854-01. My brother got his from Canadian Tire or Lordco.
After doing the job, I'd have to say that it wasn't as difficult as I thought it'd be. But it helps a LOT to have someone helping who has done it before. It's definitely a two-man job, though, unless you've got a lot of good tools (such as really tiny snap-ring pliers). I suppose it'd be about as difficult as spending a pleasant weekend afternoon defusing a bomb.
As a public service for anyone afflicted with the loose steering column problem, I've posted photos from our experience. Most of them were taken as we were re-assembling the column, but I'm presenting them as illustrations for how to take the column apart. So if you're wondering why some parts look cleaner at the start than at the end, now you know. And don't take these pics as a 100% step-by-step guide. You'll still need to rely on common sense and making careful notes/photos of your own dis-assembly.
The starting point. Pull the horn cover off.
Now remove these three screws.
Once the screws have been removed, you can pull off the metal "dish." Beneath it is a convex plate. Remove that. When re-installing, remember that the bulged side faces up.
Here's where the steering wheel puller comes in. Attach the puller's two long bolts to the steering wheel and then tighten the center bolt until the wheel is pulled off the splined shaft.
You'll now see a plastic dust cover which can be pried off using a slot head screwdriver.
Below the dust cover is a metal lock plate that is held in place by a snap-ring. The first step in removing that snap-ring is to use a special tool (a tool which you can easily make out of some flat stock) to press the lock plate inwards, onto the very stiff spring behind it. The tool is basically a squared C-shape with a hole in the middle. You slip it over the steering shaft and cinch it down using the steering wheel nut. Once you tighten it enough that the snap-ring is fully exposed, you can remove the clip.
Removing the snap-ring was a two-person job. In this shot, I'm trying to pry it out with a screwdriver, to no avail. The problem is that the ends of the ring were so close together that none of my snap-ring pliers could fit in to spread the ends apart. What finally worked was using a very, very small flat-bladed screwdriver to pry out one the side of the snap-ring. This caused the ends to pull apart just enough to fit my snap-ring pliers in and spread them apart. So, referring to the photo, I used my screwdriver on the left side, and once it pulled that end of the spring-clip towards the left, my brother was able to insert the snap-ring pliers from the right.
Success! The snap-ring has been removed from the groove and slip up along the shaft. Now we can loosen off the nut that is compressing the tool against the lock plate and spring.
Once the notched plate is out of the way, we're presented with...more stuff to remove. We can start by removing the spring from the shaft.
Next, remove the screws holding the plastic switch module in place.
Pulling the plastic module over the shaft is difficult because the wires aren't quite long enough. So prior to removing the module, I looked under the dash and found the two bundles of wires running along the bottom of the steering column. I unplugged them from their connectors which gave us about an inch of slack at the other end, which was all we needed.
Remove the lock cylinder. To do this, put the keys in and turn to the ON position. Then slip a thin, flat blade screwdriver into the vertical slot (circled in red). You'll feel a spring-like resistance. Press it down as far as you can and pull the key and cylinder out. This may require some wiggling but it will work.
Pull out this electric contact.
Remove the Torx bolts.
Now we need to remove the cover to get at more of the guts. On my YJ, which is an automatic with a shifter on the column, I had to remove just this one bolt (circled in red). It was hidden under the gear selector indicator housing.
At this point, I unscrewed the tilt lever so I could remove the top-rear part of the cover. But re-installed the lever later on, since it's still needed for further dis-assembly. To remove the other part of the cover, I had to unscrew the Hazard light button.
Now to remove another spring. It's behind the round cover with the square hole (marked in red). We stuck a large Philips head bit into it, then pushed it down and turned about a quarter-turn counter-clockwise. The spring then pushed it out of the hole. We also pulled off the bearing cover that was sitting around the steering shaft (visible at the base of the shaft's splines).
Here's where we need that third special tool. It is used to pull out two pivot pins, one on each side of the column (circled in red).
To use the tool, you simply thread the small, inner bolt into the pivot pin.
Once the inner bolt is threaded into the pivot pin, turn the silver nut, which will pull out the bolt and the pivot pin along with it.
The pivot pin.
With both pivot pins removed, the final step is to screw the tilt lever back in. Then pull on the lever and twist the entire assembly about 1/4 turn clockwise. Then pull it out. A black plastic piece used to push on the dimmer switch rod will fall out right about now.
All that work was done just to reach four of these reverse Torx heads (circled in red). As expected, they were loose. I used a 12-point 1/4" socket to tighten them. You'll want to use a small drive socket because a larger size might not fit between the steering shaft joint.
Re-assembly is the reverse of the dis-assembly. HA HA. I've always wanted to use that line. As you're re-assembling everything, do your best to make sure everything works. Taking lots of photos as you disassemble is a very good idea. Video is also useful. And a big thanks to my brother, Bill, for showing me how to dis-assemble, and more importantly, re-assemble, my steering column!