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September 2011 Trail Head

Posted in Features on September 1, 2011
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Like some crazy lady holed up in a house filled with 200 cats, I’ve become a hoarder. Only I don’t have scattered piles of feces or dead dried up felines in my house that look like the stale beef jerky hidden under the sofa cushions. I horde axles, and they stay outside. For some reason I just can’t stand the idea of an axle being left out in a field to rot, or worse, recycled and made into a Prius. I need to have it in my yard. I’ll even take somewhat crappy axles as long as they have at least one part I think I can use. I guess I’m not really an axle hoarder, because I do get rid of stuff—just not very often.

Of all the components on a Jeep, axles and their related parts are the things you’ll most likely find languishing in my yard, shed, and garage. The above photo shows only part of my current collection. The other three axles not pictured are slated for projects and will eventually get the wrench. I like to keep a good mix of new and old axles and parts around for when I try to swap components.

Why am I an axle guy? I suppose axles are probably my most favorite component. It’s simple to understand how they work, they are relatively easy to work on, you don’t have to keep them spotlessly clean during assembly, you can do a lot to them to alter the performance of your Jeep both on- and off-road, and I enjoy mixing and matching parts to make them more useful.

Axle failures may not be as spectacular as a rod busting through the side of an engine block at 6,000 rpm, but they are a heck of a lot more common. The metallic crack of a shaft snapping or the gear-oil-deadened pinging of a ring gear launching its teeth is almost as rewarding to me—as long as it’s not my Jeep. But even so, I’m usually not one to run away from an axle-related trail repair.

Many years ago in Tennessee I was on the trail covering the now-defunct Rosser Roundup. A YJ sporting 35s and a Dana 30 front axle was really getting after it on a particularly steep and slimy climb. It was only a matter of time before something popped. An axleshaft U-joint gave up first. The driver continued to stay in the throttle causing the remnants of the U-joint to fling out and the axleshaft ears to pass each other. This resulted in the ball joints popping out of their sockets leaving the entire knuckle, brake, and wheel assembly sitting in the dirt after freeing itself from the Jeep. The driver didn’t know much about repairing his own Jeep so I put the camera aside, pulled the inner shaft, and cobbled the ball joints back together so he could turn around and head back to the main camp. I mean I wasn’t just gonna leave the guy there. Besides, while I was fixing his Jeep I stopped several times to take a few photos for an upcoming issue involving trail repairs.

When it comes to axles I like pushing the limits of what self-proclaimed hardcore guys think is acceptable. But that doesn’t mean I’ll put together a combination that I know will fail, like a locked Dana 35 with 35-inch tires. I’ll usually put combos together that I think I can make live in that particular Jeep, and I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. While far from ideal, I’ve somehow been able to keep the closed-knuckle Dana 44 in my ’73 J-truck alive despite having 37-inch tires, a V-8, and a low-geared manual transmission. But I’m not a fool—I don’t think it will last forever. In fact it’s already lasted longer than I thought it would because I carry plenty of spare shafts and I haven’t needed them. I have a much beefier, open-knuckle Dana 44 waiting on deck. When I eventually swap the axle I’ll probably keep the stock one around a while. I still have a Jeep that can use parts from it. And that is exactly how axles and their components propagate in my yard.

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