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High-Riding 2001 Nissan Frontier on Portal Axles

Posted in Features on August 17, 2015
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Little did Chris Conners know 15 years ago when he ordered this 2001 Nissan Frontier that it would end up as it is today. You see, it was originally a 2WD Desert Runner model that he drove for a few years until he was mildly bit by the off-road bug. By 2004 he had converted the truck to 4WD using salvaged factory Nissan IFS parts and some aftermarket pieces.

There were a few other mods here and there over the next seven years while Chris spent some trail time in his converted IFS truck, but a major rebuild started in the summer of 2011. The bed had seen contact with a few trees and obstacles and was looking a little worse for wear, so it was scrapped to make room for a fresher one. The front IFS was stripped to the frame and the rear axle removed.

A high-pinion Ford Dana 60 front axle was sourced and retubed to get the differential in the right location, then Reid Racing inner knuckles were installed by East Coast Gear Supply. A Corporate 14-bolt axle received similar surgery for the rear, then AxleTech portal boxes were added to both axles. An ARB air locker resides up front and a Detroit locker sits in the rear. The ring-and-pinion ratio is 4.10:1, while the portals provide a 1.5:1 ratio on the high-clearance axles. Wilwood disc brakes were added all around.

After plating the front framerails, Chris began to fabricate the front three-link suspension using 12-inch-travel ORI STX struts. A 9-inch-stroke AGR hydro assist ram was added to help the Ford F-150 box and 1-ton GM tie-rod components with steering chores. Chris modified the rear spring hangers to accommodate spring-under Alcan leaf packs with Revolver shackles and Fox 2.0 air shocks. A modified RuffStuff track bar helps keep axlewrap in check.

The factory V-6 engine powers the Frontier, but Chris swapped Nissan Pathfinder manual transmission internals into his Frontier housing to gain lower ratios for the first three gears. Further gear reduction comes from Calmini 3.92:1 low-range gearing in the transfer case. Speedometer correction was accomplished using a Dakota Digital SGI-5C to modify the vehicle speed sensor signal. To hold the rig in place when parked, Chris used a modified TSM disc brake at the transfer case. A custom 1350 yoke was built to accommodate the disc, and Chris fabricated custom bracketry to mount the caliper.

The goal was to build a competent rig that could tackle serious trails and travel highway distances between those trails. Loaded with extra fuel, onboard air, and other supplies, this truck is ready to tackle a wide range of East Coast trails. What started years ago as a 2WD Frontier is now a portal-axle explorer.


Chris Connors designed and fabricated a custom three-link front suspension using Ballistic 3.0 forged joints on the 2 1/4-inch DOM tubing links. Once everything was in place he suspended the front end with a pair of ORI STX struts with piggyback reservoirs. The 12-inch-travel shocks are mounted to custom strut towers that Chris fabricated. A forward-facing steering box from a 1978 Ford F-150 runs a flat pitman arm for the crossover steering.

Poke your head under the front of this truck and you'll find a sweet 16 inches of clearance under the differential. That's because Chris mated a set of AxleTech portal boxes (1.5:1 reduction) to the modified Ford high-pinion Dana 60. Stopping power is increased with a Ford SuperDuty brake master cylinder pushing fluid to Wilwood calipers.

Chris has gotten good service from the factory 3.3L V-6 engine, so has left it alone. Behind that sits a Nissan D22 manual transmission modified for lower gearing. The transfer case is a Nissan TX-10A unit with Calmini 3.92:1 low-range gearing. A yellow Optima under the hood is the primary battery; a second one mounted in the bed provides backup power. A simple crossover tube was added in the engine compartment to tie the two front shock towers together.

Out back Chris took a 14-bolt axle and shaved the bottom using a Ballistic Fabrication kit and added a pinion guard. Further getting him to his current 17 inches of ground clearance, he placed AxleTech portal boxes on each end of the axle. Inside he installed a Detroit Locker spinning 4.10 gears. Stopping power on the rear comes again from Wilwood disc brakes.

Chris opted to run 3-inch-lift Alcan leaf springs in the rear in a spring-under configuration. The addition of Revolver shackles allows the rear axle to really droop when combined with 16-inch-travel Fox 2.0 air shocks, and the shocks allow Chris to do some tuning for bed load by varying the nitrogen pressure a bit. Handy on long trips.

Chris trimmed the bottom skirts on the bed, then fabricated his own bumpers and swingout tire carrier. ShrockWorks rock sliders protect the rockers. Up front he has tucked a Warn 8274 winch into the bumper. It has been upgraded with a modern 9.5XP motor and contactor. Out back is a Warn M8000 winch behind the custom bumper.

Treads are 37-inch Maxxis Trepadors on 17x10 Stazworks double-beadlock wheels with 8 inches of backspacing. The bumpers have excellent recovery points, and Chris fabricated slots in each bumper to securely accept a Hi-Lift jack foot. A custom 19-gallon auxiliary fuel tank sits in the bed with a dedicated fuel pump under a roll-top bed cover.


Tech Specs
2001 Nissan Frontier

>Drivetrain
Engine: Stock 3.3L V-6
Transmission: Nissan D21 internals in D22 case, 4.05:1 first gear
Transfer Case: Nissan TX-10A with Calmini 3.92:1 low-range
Front Axle: High-pinion D60, ARB air locker, 4.10 gears, Reid Racing inner Cs, AxleTech portals, chromoly shafts, Wilwood disc brakes
Rear Axle: Corporate 14-bolt, Detroit locker, 4.10 gears, AxleTech portals, pinion guard, Wilwood disc brakes

>Suspension
Springs & Such: 12-inch-travel ORI STX struts with 3-link (front); Alcan spring-under leaf packs, Revolver shackles, Fox 2.0 16-inch-travel air shocks, RuffStuff traction bar (rear)
Tires & Wheels: 37x12.50R17 Maxxis Trepador radials on 17x10 Stazworks double beadlocks
Steering: Forward-facing 1978 F-150 box, crossover steering, AGR hydraulic assist ram and TC pump
Other Stuff: Custom bumpers and swingout tire carrier, ShrockWorks sliders and fuel tank skid, Warn 8274 (front) and M8000 (rear) winches upgraded with contactors, Hella lighting, rear-mounted battery, custom UHMW poly belly pan, custom 9-gallon auxiliary fuel tank, ARB air compressor and under-bed air tank


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