Dear Tom and Ray:
I recently had my car’s front end aligned by a mechanic whom I have trusted for more than 10 years. The problem is, to keep the car running straight on the road, I must have my steering wheel turned to the right by about 15 degrees. When I straighten out the wheel, the car pulls to the left. Shouldn’t a front-end alignment include making sure the steering wheel is straight? Isn’t that the idea behind getting a front-end alignment? — David
Tom: Well, it’s not “the idea” behind a front-end alignment. The idea of a front end alignment is to make sure the front wheels are pointing in exactly the same direction so that the car handles correctly and the tires don’t wear out prematurely. Your mechanic probably did do that.
Ray: But centering the steering wheel is something that should be done as part of a front-end alignment.
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Tom: Having the steering wheel “agree” with the direction of the wheels isn’t a mechanical necessity. Your car will steer fine regardless. But it’s an indication to you that the job was done conscientiously. It’s like when the dry cleaner folds your clean clothes and puts them on hangers, rather than just tossing them on the counter in a crumpled pile. They may still be clean, but it doesn’t leave you with the same feeling.
Ray: In the old days, adjusting the position of the steering wheel after the fact was a piece of cake. You could simply loosen a nut on the steering column and move the steering wheel to where you wanted it.
Tom: But now, with electronics that read the steering angle and air bags galore, it’s no longer so easy. So you have to do it before you start the alignment.
Ray: First, you place the steering wheel at dead center. Then you align the front wheels so that they’re pointing straight ahead. And when you’re done, everything should be as nature intended it.
Tom: If you don’t turn the steering wheel to its proper position first, once the alignment’s done you could find yourself out of luck (see: your car, David).
Ray: So it’s reasonable for you to take your car back to your mechanic and ask him to do it again. Tell him that someone forgot to center the steering wheel before doing the alignment, and now it’s crooked. Tell him that the angle of the steering wheel has become an unhealthy obsession for you.
Tom: Yeah. Tell him you haven’t eaten or bathed in three weeks. All you do is lie awake thinking about this cosmic mismatch.
Ray: Hopefully, you’ll frighten him just enough so that he’ll quickly get your steering wheel pointed in the right direction. But not so much that he’ll call the EMTs and have you carted off. Good luck, David.