If you experience “heavy” steering; notched steering; and/or crunchy steering, try checking these three items below. The first two are caused by faulty designs. The third was probably caused by someone (not me) forgetting to disconnect the lower steering knuckle before lowering the rear portion of the front sub-frame. The steering column is designed to move in many directions: That motion isn’t one of them. It’s a $125-$150 part if you can find it (part number 32306763722 #1 in the drawing below).
Heavy Steering. Cause: Power-steering pump failure. This is a common failure on 1st Gen MINIs. For me, the PS fan failed and then the pump soon after. Listen for excessive whining from the pump when turning close to lock. The whine should grow louder as you approach lock, but if it seems like it is really suffering, then it is probably on the way out. The fan will sound like a bad bearing. You can tell if it is the fan or the pump by disconnecting the fan and turning the car on (not for long). If the noise went away, it was the fan. That’s an easy fix. Pump, no so much.
Notched Steering: Sound comes from the front of the car, not the interior. At first I thought it was spring binding, but it turned out to be the strut bearing in the mount that had failed. The large washer isn’t enough to protect the bearing from all of the road gunk from this past winter causing the strut spindle to bind in the bearing race as the wheel was turned. Replacing the bearing solved the problem. Sometimes just cleaning and repacking the bearing will work too. (See this post for more info about strut mounts.
Creaky Steering: My steering sounded like the groaning deck plates of the Black Pearl. Not just at lock, but any movement off center caused creaking and groaning. Sound was inside the cabin. Cause was lower steering column shaft failure. Sometimes it can be lessened by applying grease (it’s a telescoping shaft), but if the shaft is bent, you have to replace it. Not difficult to do, once you figure it out. (Hint: Connect the upper knuckle before the lower one: I just saved you an hour of frustration.) Here’s how to replace it:
1. Raise the front of the car safely on jack-stands and ensure it’s high enough that you can safely work under the steering rack.
2. If you have any security codes for your radio, be sure you have them handy, then disconnect the battery.
3. Go get a cup of coffee and wait 15 minutes. You are going to disconnect the airbag and you don’t want it to blow up in your face. That would be what we call “bad.” (You don’t have to remove the steering wheel, but it will make it much easier to work on the lower steering column if you do. In the long run, you’ll save time and save your back.)
4. Remove knee bolster or parcel shelf and set it aside.
5. Make sure the wheels are pointed straight forward and remove your key to lock the steering wheel in position. Unlike other cars, the MINI wheel is very easy to remove and very easy to center. Still, having it centered before you begin makes it even easier.
6. Optional: Remove the airbag and the wheel if you need more room to maneuver. (Thanks for the tip from Townfryers below.) (Follow the instructions here.) Mark the bottom of the spindle so you know how to reorient the wheel later.
7. Using an interior trim removal tool, carefully remove the rubber boot that surrounds the ignition keylock.
8. Remove Key Surround
9. Locate and remove the two hex screws at the top of the lower column cover and release the two clips at the bottom by pinching them together
10. Remove Lower Cover and set it aside.
11. Locate the upper knuckle on the lower steering column shaft, it has a 10mm nut on one end.
12. Place the steering wheel back on the spindle, put the key in to release the steering lock, turn the wheel until you get the nut into a position you can wrench it. Loosen the nut and re-center the wheel. Do not remove the upper knuckle from the spindle at this time. Remove the wheel, leave the key. When it comes time to reinstall, remember to start with the upper knuckle.
13. Working under the car, locate the nut on the lower knuckle. You may have to spin the knuckle to get into a position for wrenching. Remove the nut and bolt. (MINI recommends replacing the nut [part no. 32206782616] whenever you remove it.) Recenter the wheels and then fold the knuckle out of the way.
14. Working from inside the cabin again, remove the key to lock the steering column. Separate the steering shaft rubber cover from the boot at the foot-well.
15. Separate the upper knuckle from the spindle and remove the lower steering shaft by pulling it into the cabin.
16. Installation is the reverse of removal. Connect the upper knuckle first before extending the new shaft into the foot well. Get the rubber cap seated and then pull the lower knuckle onto the steering rack spindle.
Words of Caution. Don’t worry too much about losing center if you don’t have a steering angle sensor (no DSC). The mini steering rack is only five turns lock to lock. The wheel can go on in only one position. If you get totally lost take the following steps: Fold the lower knuckle back up. Get the front wheels pointed more or less straight forward. Go into the cabin and move the spindle so the lower mark you placed earlier is straight down. Reattach the lower knuckle. Looking at the steering wheel interface you’ll notice a white plastic ring. Grab the pin and spin it slowly to lock right or left. Do not force it, let it stop. Go back the other direction five turns and stop. Now go back the other way 2 1/2 turns. The pin should be located at the bottom and match the hole in your wheel when you put it back on. If you have a steering angle sensor (have DSC) the process is similar but you have to first do it with the spindle and then do it with the white plastic ring. Working with the lower knuckle folded, spin the shaft left or right to lock. Turn five times to the other lock, and then back 2 1/2 turns. It should be centered with the mark at the bottom. When in doubt, refer to your service manual and read this post.