Skidplates: What works, and what doesn't
When we built our project "Ain't It Grand-er" Grand Cherokee, Bob Levenhagen of T&T Customs (www.tntcustoms.com) put a lot of thought into the skidplate/crossmember combination to ensure more than adequate protection, and it has served us well. Chris Overracker of Code 4x4 (www.Code4x4.com) convinced me that I really needed a skidplate on the underside of the Ford 8.8-inch rearend, as the housing design was a real rock catcher, so I fabricated one up. A Superlift diff guard went over the differential cover plate to ensure its safety. Up front, the high-pinion Dana 30 got an ARB steel cover that not only protected the gears but added some strength to the housing.
But I also made a big mistake. I never built anything to protect the lightweight stock lower control-arm brackets. I didn't put it on my high-priority list, so it just kept being put off. Yep, they have been bashed pretty badly, and to the point where the lip was bent so badly that I couldn't even get the control-arm retaining bolts out. While a bit on the late side, it was time to correct this problem and prevent it from happening again. Skid Row Off Road (www.skidrowoffroad.com) had just what I needed (plus lots of other Jeep-based skidplates). Instead of welding on directly to the brackets, these control-arm skidplates bolted on using both the control-arm mounting bolt and some U-bolts. A nice, easy, clean installation. However, after a few trips, the powdercoated black finish is no longer nice and shiny, proving that they are doing their job.
This brings up the subject of skidplates in general. Skidplates on an off-road vehicle are quite necessary. However, as far as I am concerned, you can pretty much forget about the ones that come from the factory. Generally speaking, they are too light in weight, ill-supported, and generally don't cover enough of the area that they are trying to protect. In some instances, they are more of a hindrance than a help. Yes, I have also seen people get carried away with trying to protect the undersides and end up with a lot of unnecessary weight that hinders access to under chassis components.
So what makes a skidplate a "good" skidplate? First, it must provide protection to an area of the vehicle that is vulnerable to damage if it should come into contact with a solid object that's harder than the part that it is trying to protect without hindering the operation of other components. Okay, that makes a bit of sense. But what are these areas?
Let's start up front with the differential. I went for years with just a standard cover on my front differential. Maybe I didn't four-wheel as hard as I presently do, or just got lucky. One day I smacked a big rock at a faster speed that I should have been traveling, and put a nasty dent in the cover-so bad, the cover was up against the ring gear. The gear teeth were like cutters. Luckily, it was near the end of the trip, so I just unlocked the front hubs and drove home. Now I run a heavy-duty cover or at least some type of a diff guard.
Tie rod and steering components? Well, for the tie-rods, it's just something that gets in the way and causes more problems that it's worth. Now, the steering box on some vehicles, like some J-series Jeeps-where it sits out front and is exposed-is something that I highly recommend. Well, at least on the end. That big round cover on Saginaw steering boxes is just stamped metal held in place with a snap ring. Bang it on a rock just right, and off it comes, and there goes your steering.
Engine oil pan? Probably not needed. The pan sits behind the front axle or the IFS unit and is pretty well protected on most vehicles.
Transmission and transfer case? These are pretty important components that generally really do need to be protected.