Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Swapping the "Vega" Steering Wheel

1976 Corvette owners either love or hate what's commonly referred to as the "Vega" steering wheel.



It's an unfair moniker since Camaros of the era, as well as other models—including the Chevy Vega—used an identical steering wheel.

I don't necessarily hate it, but I'm not in love with it either, so since I've been busy collecting a few pieces to complete a 1978 steering column I purchased locally, it dawned on me that I actually had all the pieces necessary to—at least—replace the steering wheel with the 1978 unit I have.

And even though my plan is to eventually swap the steering column with the '78 unit I am rebuilding, that project is months away, and I figured this may be a good way to get in a practice run by replacing some of the internal components.

From my research, I have found some good information out there, but you have to sort it out first, then try to put it together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. That's not the best approach, in my opinion, so the aim of this exercise is to go into quite a bit of detail when it comes to removing the 76 steering wheel, making sure all components are working as they're supposed to, then installing the pieces needed for the 77-and-newer steering wheel to bolt onto the 76 column.

This is not one of those projects that will break the bank, but you can expect to spend upwards of  $350 including the steering wheel. Savvy shoppers will be able to save money since prices for some of the necessary components are all over the map. Taking the time to compare prices is a smart idea.

However, if you are the independently-wealthy kind, you can take a shortcut since there is at least one Corvette parts vendor that offers all the necessary parts as a kit, minus the steering wheel. (See Resources at the end of this article for a link).

Jim Shea is an authority when it comes to Corvette steering columns and has published a lot of great articles on the subject, including one on how to swap 76 steering wheels, and another on C3 steering column swaps. (Scroll down to Resources for links).

From his article we learn that—from your 76 Vette steering column—you will be able to use the original 1976 lower contact assembly (GM part no. 3994426), which must be secured to the 77-82 T&T hub assembly (GM part no. 3949110), the spring, the eyelet, and the insulator. And you will also be able to use the steering wheel nut and nut retaining clip, shim, star screw and the two screws that lock the star screw in place.

You will need to get the following parts:

  • Hub Assembly GM part no. 3949110
  • Extension GM part no. 458910
  • Spacer GM part no. 348325
  • Tele Lever GM part no. 459083 (aka telescopic lock)
  • Upper Horn Contact GM part no. 3949103
  • Contact Screws (3) GM part no. 3949107
  • Retainer GM part no. 3945459
  • Emblem GM part no. 458909
  • Horn Cap GM part no. 459082
  • Steering Wheel Screws (6) GM part no. 9428089
  • 1977-1982 Corvette or aftermarket steering wheel

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are photos of some of the parts you'll need to procure.

Hub Assembly GM part no. 3949110 with steering wheel screws (swap meet purchase).

Extension GM part no. 458910.

Spacer GM part no. 348325.

Telescopic Lever GM part no. 459083 (swap meet purchase).

Upper Horn Contact GM part no. 3949103, although I was able to reuse the original piece.

Retainer GM part no. 3945459 - (Shown installed with emblem and horn cap).

Horn cap with emblem and retainer in place (NOS found at a swap meet).

The steering wheel can set you back anywhere from $75 for a decent unit (I repainted mine with SEM spray), all the way to a couple hundred dollars for a fancy aftermarket steering wheel. Just make sure it will fit correctly and without the need for special adapters.

Once you have all the pieces needed for the conversion and all the necessary tools ready, disconnect your car's battery and start by removing the "Vega" steering wheel.

By the way, in case you're wondering, the diameter of the 1976 wheel compared to the 1977-and-later wheels is almost identical. The 1976 "Vega" wheel, for whatever reason, is not perfectly round (at least mine isn't). It measures 14 3/4 inches left to right and 14 inches top to bottom.  1977-and-later wheels are 14 1/4 inches all around. Maybe Chevy engineers were trying to give 76 Corvette drivers an easier way to egress the vehicle?

Here are detailed factory drawings of steering wheel components.



Before starting the steering wheel swap, I painted a few pieces so that they would be fully cured and ready for the install. As the photos show, I decided to use a textured finish for these pieces, since I really think the camera case finish looks great for this purpose, not to mention the fact that by using this paint I avoid having to prep all pieces to perfection. By going this route, I saved quite a bit of time.

Since my plan still includes a steering column swap in the future, I painted all the covers, but for this project I wanted specifically to have the telescopic bell or extension (GM part no. 458910) as well as the telescoping lever (GM part no. 459083), ready.


The lighting conditions make the finish look shiny when in reality is not shiny to that degree.

Also, from reading a couple of related articles, I went ahead and purchased a 1969-1989 C3 Corvette horn contact retainer (GM part no. 7808385). These pieces tend to become very brittle with age, and it is a good idea to replace them when you have the opportunity. They are available from Corvette parts vendors and on eBay.



Anyway, I started this project tonight and it took me about 3 hours of non-stop work to swap the steering wheel. Not a difficult project, but steps have to be done in a certain order for everything to fit right. In addition to that, I realized that in order for my '78 steering wheel to be aligned just as the '76 had been, I would have to modify the telescoping cover which was a simple procedure, but I am glad I caught that before everything was installed in the car.

As Jim Shea mentions in one of his articles, your column will end up with an uncovered space when you use the shorter telescopic extension, which is of no concern to me. As a matter of fact, I was really tempted to Loctite a set screw in place of the star screw in order to lock the telescoping feature all the way in. I really don't see the benefit of a telescoping steering wheel for a C3 Corvette, but that's just me.

Needless to say, the first order of business is always to disconnect the battery! When that's done, you can get started.

Here's my steering column sporting the Vega-style wheel.

Start by removing the horn button. It will snap out of the retainer, but you may need to exert
quite a bit of pressure for it to release.

Next, remove the upper horn contact and shims. For the record, I was able to use the one that
came with the car, so you don't really need to buy a new one.

I then removed the two screws that lock the star screw in place...

... followed by the star screw. Again, this one allows the telescoping feature to operate.

With the star screw removed, the telescopic lever comes off.

Next, remove the three screws that secure the horn spacer...

... and the spacer can be removed. You will need a different one, GM Part No. 348325.

You can now remove the horn brush, plastic spacer, and spring. You will need one from
a 1977-on steering column which provides a longer brush and spring.

You can now remove the steering column nut lock clip. Having a set of snap ring pliers
makes the job easy, although you can also get it done with a pair of needle nose pliers.

With everything out of the way, you are now ready to remove the steering wheel,
which includes the steering hub. Notice the shaft and hub alignment marks.

Using the right tools to remove a steering wheel is a must. These are not expensive tools
and you can get one from your local auto parts store. DO NOT attempt to remove the steering wheel
by pulling on it like a crazy person. You may damage the steering column and you will not succeed.
Buy a steering wheel puller and do the job safely and the correct way.

With the steering wheel hub puller in place, a few turns of the center bolt will release the steering wheel and that's it. Notice I used a spacer (provided with the puller) in order to protect the shaft threads. This is very important as threads can be damaged easily.

The Vega steering wheel has left the building!

Surprisingly enough, the original horn contact retainer was in fine shape, so I left it alone.

I then installed the hub assembly and the telescoping spring, making sure the alignment marks
lined up properly, then locked it in place with the nut and clip.

Here you can see the difference in height and shape of the horn spacers.
The newer one is on the left.

And here are the telescopic extensions side by side. The original one is on the right.

Since I had a set of new steering wheel screws, I used those.

Test fitting the cover. And after turning it around several times, I realized that I needed to add three additional cut-outs for the horn spacer in order for the steering wheel to be aligned properly.

Here are the horn brushes and springs side by side. The longer one is needed for the conversion.

Steering wheel, horn contact brush, and spring in place.

The horn spacer goes in first...

... followed by the telescopic lock/unlock lever. At this point I also installed the star screw and secured it in place with the two small screws shown, once I determined it was working properly.

I then installed the original upper horn contact and secured everything with the three long screws
that came with the kit.


At this point, you are ready to snap the horn button in place. 

The photo above shows the extension bell all the way in. You can also see the difference
between the factory finish and the nicer textured finish I used.

And this is what happens when you extend the telescopic steering all the way out.
Not a pretty sight. But no worries since I would never extend it that far, if at all.
I want the steering wheel away from me, not any closer!

Here's a close up of the horn button and the telescopic lever.

This shot shows the drastic difference in textures. It does not look bad, just different.

And the finished product. Quite an improvement over the original look, the steering wheel is
properly aligned, and the horn works perfectly!


Resources

Corvette Central offers a kit with all necessary parts: Upgrading your 1976 Corvette’s Steering Wheel.

Jim Shea wrote an excellent article (PDF) on the steering wheel swap subject: Adapting a 1977-82 T&T Steering Wheel to a 1976 T&T Column.

Note: Another valuable Jim Shea article about swapping 1977-1982 steering columns on 1968-1976 Corvettes (the 78-82 columns are approx. 2 inches shorter) is: Installing a 1977 thru 1982 C3 Steering Column Into an Earlier 1969 thru 1976 Model Corvette.