Your ability to steer a heavy vehicle in the direction you choose is often taken for granted. Steering linkage connects the driver to the wheels on the road, and depends on several smaller, lesser-known components.
Tie rod ends are one of these vital pieces, and bad tie rod ends can cause all sorts of problems, as severe as dangerous failures that knock out steering ability altogether. Know the signs of tie rod failure and get them replaced before your situation gets to that point.
If you’ve never heard of them, tie rod ends are essentially well-greased ball joints that connect the steering rack to the steering knuckles. They must transmit direct force while simultaneously allowing rotation. The joint itself is protected by a rubber boot that keeps grease in and dirt particles out. Ends can be expected to fail over time, but they will fail much more quickly when contaminated or improperly lubricated. If they pop apart completely, you’ll know it, but it’s more likely they’ll give you a few warning signs that they’re on their way out.
Straighten Up and Drive Right
Because tie rod ends play a key role in keeping your wheels in place, when they start to wear out, your alignment will suffer. If, when you’re driving straight, you remove your hands from the wheel and the vehicle veers one way or the other, you could have bad tie rod ends.
Over time, alignment problems will result in uneven tire wear. There are many reasons and ways for tires to wear, but if they’re doing so on either the outside or inside edges, then this might indicate a fault in the tie rod ends.
Twist and Shake
Likewise, loose joints lead to loose steering. If you turn the wheel and notice a delay or lack of response, it could be because there’s too much wiggle room to allow a direct transmission of force. As you can imagine, this can be a particularly dangerous situation to find yourself in. You might also notice a bumpy ride, especially at lower speeds, when the ends are no longer doing their part to hold everything as closely together.
Let’s Make Some Noise
If your ends are loose, and especially if they’ve lost lubrication, you might notice a short, high-pitched squeaking noise in addition to that bumpy ride, especially around turns. This is the sound of metal scraping against metal in the ball and socket. It means one of two things: Either the ends haven’t received proper maintenance, or the rubber boots have been breached, allowing the grease to escape and leaving the joints unprotected.
Check and Protect
These symptoms can also be caused by other problems, so it’s important to have a mechanic take a look. But if you’re inclined to look yourself, follow these steps: With the vehicle safely supported on jack stands, grab the tires by the sides and try to wiggle them back and forth, pulling one hand toward you and pushing with the other. If there is a lot of play here, you almost certainly have a tie rod end problem. You can also grab the tie rod itself and try to jiggle it, looking for excess play.
If your tie rod ends are faulty or failing, have them replaced immediately. While you can expect them to wear out someday, they’ll take you much farther with proper upkeep, greasing and alignment checks.
Check out all the steering and suspension parts
Photos courtesy of Blair Lampe.
Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.