Upgrading The Steering Rack

For All 1983-88 Cougars / Thunderbirds

Page Revised: 4 June 2021


Article by
Eric Dess

The steering racks used on stock, non-sport 1983-88 Cougars have a constant 20:1 ratio, and that's why you have to constantly turn the steering wheel while driving. They are approximately 2-3/4 turns, lock to lock, and are boosted quite a bit for low effort. Although the sportier cars came with a 15:1 ratio rack, those that weren't so lucky will probably want to swap out to a steering rack that gives more input. Or if you are into this sort of thing, a manual rack could be swapped in as well. It all depends on your car's purpose and your driving style.

NOTE: For those of you who may have carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis, you may want to stick with the stock 20:1 rack for increased boosted steering assist.

Fox-Chassis 15:1 Power Rack

If you're tired of the numbing feel given from the stock 20:1 rack or just want a better rack for more aggressive driving, then upgrading to at least a higher-effort Fox-chassis 15:1 rack is a good place to start. In fact, it's probably the single biggest front-end improvement you can make, simply bolting in and requiring just over 2 turns lock to lock.

15:1 Steering Rack

The Fox 15:1 steering rack—technically a 14.7:1—can be found in the Cougar XR-7 (1984-88), Thunderbird Sport V8 (1987-88), 5.0 Mustangs (1986-93), and all Thunderbird Turbo Coupes (1983-88). Once it's broken in, you'll notice a huge improvement in steering (and you'll find yourself going out of your way to find a really twisty road). The difference between the two racks is absolutely amazing. If your rack is shot, then the Fox 15:1 rack should be considered for a replacement.

It may be possible to get a new rack from Ford but it's going to be expensive. On the other end of the scale, a remanufactured rack can be purchased at online and brick-and-mortar auto stores. Currently we are using a remanufactured Atsco 15:1 rack and it seems to be of decent quality. In the middle/high end would be aftermarket racks, such as those sold by LMR and Unisteer. Really it's up to your budget but there is something available no matter what you can afford.

Since the steering shafts are SAE thread you can simply reuse your tie rods and accompanying jam nuts.

SN95-Chassis Power Rack

So several years ago we tried to install a stock 1994-98 SN95-chassis Mustang GT rack into our Fox-chassis car and let's say it didn't work out so well in the fitment department. Stock-for-stock, the racks are very different due to the geometry of the K-members. However, you CAN use an SN95 steering rack in a Fox car by swapping out a few components.

Why do this? Well, Ford improved a lot of things for the SN95 Mustang and the steering rack saw major late revisions to help with steering input. Fox racks can be rather...abrupt when quickly moving the wheel, and that's an inherent quality associated with the Fox chassis. We've all come to know and expect this. But the SN95 racks got a touch of refinement in this area.

There are several different styles of later SN95 racks (about 7 at last count), so knowing which one you want is half the battle here. Apparently the 1994-98 racks are not much different than Fox racks, so it's recommended to skip those. The 1999-2004 racks were set up differently for each car: Base, Mustang/Bullitt, Cobra, Y2K Cobra R, GT/Mach 1, etc. More on this below.

To use a later SN95 rack in a 1983-88 Fox car, you will need to swap out the inner tie rods to shorter Fox ones. Also, since the SN95 rack uses metric threads, you'll need to swap over to metric tie rods (we are unaware of any SAE-style swapping here). And the steering shaft input on the rack is a different shape, so you will need a new steering shaft from the column to the rack.

Otherwise everything else is the same: K-member mounting bushings, hydraulic line connections, even the hydraulic pump pressure. It's far from plug-and-play but at least some things are the same between the cars, making the swap a little less frustrating.

Fortunately the people at Maximum Motorsports have things figured out quite well with this SN95 rack swap and also carry the parts to do so. You will find much more information at this link, including which rack is best for your driving style and the type of steering shaft you'll need for the swap. It's also a great read and highly recommended if you're considering the swap or just want to brush up on the information to make the swap.

Just you might guess, this can be an expensive swap due to the juggling of components and need to buy multiple parts along with the rack. Be aware of costs before tackling this.

Manual Rack

If you are drag racing your car or want just want to eliminate power steering altogether in your car, you can use a Fox Mustang-oriented manual rack, such as those made by Flaming River. Occasionally you will find manual stock Mustang racks as well but they're getting rarer these days. Remember that this is an extremely high-effort rack without power boost.

Power Steering Pump
Power Steering Pump

YIf you're upgrading from a 20:1 to higher-effort 15:1 rack, you should also consider upgrading your power steering pump to match. There is a slight difference between the pumps, at least on paper. In reality, plenty of people have simply reused their old pumps without much issue. If there was some sort of serious problem then we'd definitely report it here; as of right now we're not aware of issues.