GM used a few different steering shaft designs. They all include a joint that connects to the stub shaft sticking out of the rack assembly, but those connections always need to have a bolt unscrewed or a roll pin punched out, THEN the splined joint can be pulled apart. The slip-shaft that can be pulled apart freely is much longer and typically needs to be pulled apart two or three inches before it will fall apart. That joint is usually inside the car under the dash, but it could also be right at the firewall where the upper part stays inside a rubber boot on the firewall.
The best way I can describe the clock spring is to compare it to the steering system that you can turn, ... Lets say one and a half turns from centered to full-left, and one and a half turns from centered to full-right. That means the steering wheel has a range of three turns "lock-to-lock". The clock spring will have a similar range with just a little more for a safety margin, perhaps three and a half turns. When the steering wheel is centered, the clock spring must be centered too. That way, the clock spring will never be forced to turn beyond its limits regardless of which way the steering wheel is turned or how far.
If everything is centered, then you disconnect the steering shaft from the steering gear, there won't be a problem if the steering wheel remains in that position AND the steering gear is put in that centered position before the shaft is reconnected. If the steering wheel is rotated one revolution either way, then the shaft is reconnected to the steering gear that is centered, the two will be out-of-sync by one revolution.
For example, lets say you started with everything centered, you dropped the cross member and the slip-shaft pulled apart, and during that time the steering wheel got rotated one revolution to the left. When everything is put back together while the wheels are straight ahead, the clock spring will already be one turn left. Now you can turn the steering gear one and a half turns to the left which puts the clock spring two and a half turns to the left. Depending on which way the ribbon cable is wound, it could become wound tight before you reach full-left, and forcing it further will tug it apart. If it's wound the other way, it will unwind in the housing until it can't go any further, then the end will fold over and bend. If that happens often enough it will crack apart. That usually doesn't happen because before that can happen, you will turn full-right and tear it apart that way.
A new clock spring will come with a paper tape through the center that instructs you to be sure the steering system is centered before you install it. If you get a used clock spring from a salvage yard, you have to be sure the steering system is centered before you remove it, and on all of them I'm familiar with, once removed, it can't be rotated on purpose or accidentally unless you press a pair of release buttons. Those buttons are pressed by the steering wheel when that is installed.
The only way I know of to check if a clock spring is centered is to remove the cover and look at the ribbon cable. If you're careful, you can turn it one way and feel when it gets tight, then back it off the other way slightly more than the one and a half turns in my sad example story, until it lines up with the steering shaft. The problem is knowing which way to turn it initially. If you go the wrong way, you could fold the ribbon cable over and go all the way the other way. It could actually work like that for a while, but eventually the end will fold over repeatedly until it cracks apart.
I was involved in a recall that required disconnecting the steering shaft inside the car to replace a joint. To gain access to the bolt that needed to be removed, the steering wheel had to be turned a half turn either way. On most cars, when a free-spinning steering wheel is upside-down, it has a heavy spot that makes it want to go back to its normal position. This is especially true on GM vehicles. If you didn't pay attention, you'd lose track of which way it went. Now you have a 50 percent chance it's out of sync. To avoid that, I used a rubber bungee strap to hold the steering wheel centered. Well, after a few dozen of those cars, I knew I was "so good" that I no longer needed to waste the extra time to find and use that strap. The problem was one day I knocked off for lunch with the shaft disconnected, and came back later to find the new kid sitting in the customer's car listening to the radio, and jokingly going "wheeee!" As he spun the steering wheel round and round. I donated my labor for the repair, but that mistake cost the dealership $150.00 for the clock spring, plus they lost my next hour of productivity. No one told the new kid with no formal training what would happen. No one impressed on him why we don't fiddle with customer controls and play in their cars, and I didn't leave the car with a warning note or some other indication that the steering wheel must not be turned. That's not the way we like to learn things.
Thursday, January 1st, 2015 AT 7:02 PM