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This is pretty common on older boats. What has happened is the steering shaft pin, which is a high grade of steel, has chewed out the gimbal ring, which is softer aluminum.
The gimbal ring itself runs 700 to 800, there are 2 types. One for a square steering shaft pin, and 1 for a splined steering pin. You just take it apart and see which one is in there before you order the new one. While you are in there, you also typically replace all of the bellows, the gimbal bearing, and the shift cable.
The problem with this job is that in most boats there is no access to the bolt that holds the steering lever to the steering pin. So there are 2 options for doing the job.
1. Removing the engine to access it.
2. Drilling holes the gimbal housing to access the bolt. In this case. After the holes are there. The holes get tapped to insert a plug into them, to keep it water tight.
Different shops will do the job different ways. The drill and plug method is approved by Mercury. However, if the gimbal housing cracks while drilling or tapping that adds to the expense greatly. So some shops will not do it. All in all, your looking for the complete job (new gimbal ring, bellows, bearing, shift cable) about 2500 on the low end if they go the drill and tap route, and the gimbal housing does not crack. About 32 to 3300 on the high end if the shop prefers to pull the engine.
It's a pretty common job, I have done it a few times.
Post back with any questions
you say: 700 to 800 for the "unit" for the unit as was described to me, or just the ring? Ring being bearing? Merc 260 Alpha one is an inboard. Engine must be pulled? The outdrive can't be pulled without removing the engine?
Sorry for the delay. We get busy here sometimes and have lots of customers that all ask questions at once.
I'm going to pull some pictures together for you. Give me about 5 mintes here to post another reply.
You stated in your initial question "there is play back and forth indicating too much instability of direction by steering"
What that is, that play, is a worn out gimbal ring.
Here is a picture of the gimbal ring. The part of the picture I circled in red is the part of it that wears out. That opeining in the top of the gimbal ring is where the steering pin goes through.
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The gimbal rings run 700 to 800 retail for a new one, depending on which gimbal ring you have, there are 2 different styles of them.
The outdrive can be pulled without removing the engine, and is always pulled before an engine is removed.
As far as removing the engine vs drilling the gimbal housing, have a look at these 2 pictures below. This shows the gimbal housing and how the drilling works.
Now some shops will do the drill procedure. Other shops do not like to do it, and will opt to pull the engine in order to remove the bolt that holds that gimbal ring and steering pin together.
I hope that helps explain it better. If you need more clarification just let me know.