What Happens When Rack and Pinion Goes Out: Definitive Guide

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Losing control of the car is the worst thing you can face during a ride. It happens when there are problems with the rack and pinion. Steering system these days comes with rack and pinion.

It works as a central unit receiving input from the driver and sending a mechanical signal to turn.

It is not safe to drive with a bad rack and pinion as steering rack failure dangers are grave. If you know what causes rack and pinion problems, then you can easily avoid this issue happening to you.

In this article, I will discuss rack and pinion problems and symptoms and what happens when these two vital elements go out.

What Is a Rack and a Pinion?

Rack and pinion, when I heard about this first time, it was quite unfamiliar to me. Then I did some study what these are and what problems they make.

Most of the cars these days come with steering rack and pinion setup. They seem somehow related to steering.

Yeah, it’s system connects the steering wheel with the front wheels. The mechanism it uses, allows you to turn right and left.

When you rotate the steering, the pinion gear also rotates and allows the steering rack to move.

What Do Steering Rack and Pinion Do?

The rack and pinion steering system is made up of multiple parts. The main part consists of the gearbox found in the middle. The gearbox is more commonly known as the steering rack. 

The steering rack receives direct input from the driver. Basically, the steering rack is like the nervous system. It will send out the proper information so that the steering system does what the driver wants it to do. 

The steering rack is the core of the system. Around it is other parts such as universal joints, main and internal shafts, tie rod, and other parts of the rack and pinion steering system. While these parts have their own role, they’re not as essential compared to the steering rack. 

Why Does a Steering Rack Fail?

Even though necessary things related to the steering is made of steel, but it’s quite common for an older vehicle to have issue with the steering.

As the position of the rack is with elements of beneath the car, it exposed continuously to high under-hood temperatures. Road debris repeatedly hits the rack and damages the internal bushing that causes a leak. When the fluid becomes contaminated, abrasive grit gets into the gears.

A shot of a car engine with several racks

What Happens If the Steering Rack or Pinion Fails?

If the steering rack or pinion fails, then you are in huge trouble. You will lose control of your car and you don’t want that happening while you’re driving. 

You won’t be able to steer the wheel. Most especially if the core of the steering rack is damaged. If it’s just partially damaged, you may find a hard time steering the wheel. If you feel like the steering wheel is harder to steer, you should definitely have it checked. 

It’s important that you can spot it early on. The more damage it has, the more you will spend to fix it. You also don’t want it to completely fail while you are out driving. 

Causes of Rack and Pinion Going Out

Nothing happens without any reason. Same goes with the rack and pinion. Certain things mainly cause these two components to go out. If you know the reasons, then probably you will be able to minimize the problem.

1. Loose Fitting

When you don’t properly align or assemble a machine, it’s quite expected that the machine will not be able to perform with its full strength.

If your car’s steering rack and pinion are not properly fitted and they are too loose, then the power steering fluid will seep through. Make sure all the components of your car’s power steering system are properly fitted and aren’t loose.

2. Bad Gasket

If the gasket inside the power steering system is worn out or broken, then it will cause the fluid to leak out. Before the problem gets even worse, consider replacing the gasket.

3. Bad Seals

There are seals on the end of the steering rack that prevents power steering fluid from getting through. If by any chance, the seals are damaged, the fluid will get through.

You can repair the seals. But if the problem persists, you will need to replace the entire steering rack and pinion system as the seals are integrated and don’t come separately.

Symptoms Indicating Rack And Pinion Problem

You can tell if there is any problem with the rack and pinion. When these to vital parts of steering goes, you will notice strange behavior of your car.

1. Steering Feels Loose Or Tight

When the rack becomes malfunctioned, it causes your steering to be loose or tight. If heat builds up on the column of steering, it makes harder to steer.

On the other hand, when the wheels are not aligned properly with failing rack, the steering column tends to be loose. In this particular situation, your steering shakes and swerves to left and right even though you drive a straight course.

2. Dripping Steering Fluid

Are you noticing steering fluid dripping off here and there? Do not get confused with other fluids in the car. If it is the steering fluid, the color would be pinkish or reddish. Dripping off pinkish and reddish fluid indicates that there is a leak in the steering rack.

Or if you need to top off the steering fluid more frequently and you do not see any sign of falling fluid, it also tells you about a leak in the rack.

3. Noises

The common sign of any defect in any machine is, the machine makes unusual noise when it is turned on. It is not an exception to your car’s steering.

If the steering has a problem, it will make clunking, thudding and grinding sounds when you turn it. This behavior specifically indicates that the steering components are loose.

Another reason why the steering makes noise is due to not having been properly lubricated. If the gearbox is not lubricated properly, it will make grinding noises when metal touches other metals.

A shot inside a car with a steering wheel and a sound system

4. Tires Wobble

It is a bad timing that you shined your tires when you are having this problem. Getting the steering column out of alignment is another reason why car owners’ face issue with the steering rack. When it is the case, tire control becomes rough that results in shaky wheels.

5. Burning Smell

Whenever you get burning smell, you know that something is going wrong. Except when it’s about a BBQ party. If you are familiar with burnt oil smell, then you can fix this kind of problem within a moment.

If your steering rack has any leak in it, it will leak power steering fluid, and this burnt fluid will consume the cabin with a burning smell. It happens when there is not enough fluid for the hydraulics in the transmission to function properly.

6. When the Steering Wheel Isn’t in the Center Position

In normal condition, the steering wheel returns to the centered position when both the steering rack and pinion function properly. But when the steering isn’t in the center position, know that there is a leak behind this problem.

7. The Numb Spot

I know it sounds weird, but this might be the case you are having with your car’s steering. It happens when you turn the steering wheels, but at the particular spot the front wheel doesn’t move and feels like the steering wheel is disconnected from the car.

If this happens to you, consider replacing the entire gear unit.

8. Excessive Vibration of the Steering

When you turn a corner, does the steering vibrate? If yes, then it is because of faulty tie rods. Rectify the problem as soon as you experience it. Otherwise, it will cause the entire car to vibrate and lead to loss of steering.

Several racks stacked together

How to Prevent a Steering Rack From Falling

Some of these problems are out of control, but still if you ensure proper maintenance; it will make the steering rack last longer. Make sure you change power steering fluid on time to ensure maximum performance and reliability.

If you are having any difficulty with the steering of your car, see if any of the symptoms match with your problem. If yes, then seek professional help before it generates more problem.

Just as you can prevent engine problems with an oil catch, you can prevent further rack and pinion problems by not leaving any space that can cause this problem to occur.


You don’t want your rack and pinion going out on you. Safety should always be your priority. Hence, it’s important to have your car regularly check along with its steering rack and pinion system. Early detection will reduce repairs and will keep your car safe.