Technology has a funny way of changing the world. Sure, we love our modern cellphones and appreciate that with the push of a button we can order just about anything our hearts desire on-line, but there are certain things that we are just not ready to let go of. A prime example of this is the solid front axle. Despite the fact that it’s been well over a decade since the last straight-axle ½-ton pickup was produced in the U.S., we are slow to rally behind the modern independent front suspension that took its place.
Part of the problem is the complexity and frailness of the components fitted with stock IFS. While stock IFS vehicles have drawn aftermarket support, the cost of the independent component upgrades is largely out of reach for the average consumer. For our use, a solid-front axle, such as the tried-and-true kingpin and ball joint Dana 44 and 60, is what works best off-road. The function and components of the straight-axle make it easy to build and maintain, and the robust design allows for a more controlled and predicable suspension configuration.
The want for a solid front axle under a late-model 4x4 hasn’t been overlooked by the aftermarket. And probably the vehicles with the most draw and demand for the straight-axle conversion are ’88-’98 Chevys and GMC ½- and ¾-ton trucks and SUVs. With thousands of the GM 4x4s still on the roads today, the square-bodied fullsize rigs continue to gain support in the enthusiast market. This is largely due to their low price, reliable powertrains, and roomy interiors. So this got us thinking about just how much money it would cost to swap in a solid axle under an ’88-’98 GM. And, could you actually save money by ditching the costly and weak IFS setup under your rig? The following is what we found.
Front Axle Options
The first item you’ll need to source before you can even think of making your solid-axle swap dreams a reality is a solid front axle. Since nearly all ’88-’98 4x4 fullsize GM trucks and SUVs were fitted with a driver-side-drop transfer case, you’ll need a driver-side-drop differential. Sure, you can swap out the T-case and convert to a passenger-side drop, but you’ve just increased the time and complexity of the swap.
Your fabrication skills and type of suspension you plan to use may narrow your axle options. Many of the solid-axle conversions that use leaf springs suggest sourcing a late-’70s Ford high-pinion Dana 60 front axle. Later-model high-pinion Dana 60 front axles are just as strong, but more kits are designed for the spring-perch offset of the late ’70s axles. A late ’70s Ford high-pinion Dana 60 on enthusiast forums and on-line auction sites tends to list for $800 to $1,200.
In the September ’12 issue we did a cost-comparison Dana 60 article (“Rebuilt Dana Sixty vs. Dynatrac 60”) that focused on what it would cost to build a used Dana 60 front axle versus purchasing a completely-built new unit from an aftermarket company such as Dynatrac. Ultimately, going junkyard will still save you that initial wallop, but you’ll be pretty close to the same amount spent when it’s all said and done. If you are on a budget, we suggest swapping in a fresh set of spindle bearings, new calipers, and rotors at the very least. Of course, you’ll also need to inspect the kingpins or ball joints for excessive slop or wear.
Another axle option is a driver-side-drop Dana 44 or 10-bolt. If you can get an 8-lug high-pinion Dana 44 and only plan to run up to a 37-inch tall tire, it’s worth it. We wouldn’t bother with the 10-bolt. What type of traction aid, axleshafts, and gearset will all directly affect how much you’ll have invested in the axle. About $5,000 is a pretty common figure when building a Dana 60 and some well-built Dana 44 front axles.
Estimated cost: $1,200 to $7,400
IFS Replacement Parts
The harder you use your truck, the more likely and often you’ll need to replace the stock components. When combined with larger tires, the stock components can also fatigue more rapidly. Below is a list of the most common items serviced under high-mileage and well-used ’88-’98 GM pickups and SUVs. The prices are approximates complied from comparing a handful of replacement parts stores such as Auto Zone and Car Quest. Assuming you could R&R (remove and replace) all of the parts yourself, this would be the cost breakdown and total before taxes.
Upper ball joint: $39.99 (x2)
Lower ball joint: $24.99 (x2)
Idler arm: $45.99
Pitman arm: $27.99
Tie-rod end: $30.99 (x2)
Unit bearing: $207.99 (x2)
Sway bar bushing kit: $29.99
Steering stabilizer: $29.99
CV axle: $58.99 (x2)
Front differential actuator: $92.99
Total cost: $952.85
Determining the exact amount that it will cost you to perform a solid-axle conversion is a little tricky. There are certain tools that you may need to purchase along the way, and professional help that you might need to sub out. We used the bolt-on straight-axle conversion from Offroad Design as a template and divided the prices into the following. Some prices are approximate and range depending on the brand type or source (i.e., a junkyard shock mount will cost you much less than a new one). As before, this cost breakdown is pre-tax and without labor.
Offroad Design ’88-’98 solid-axle conversion: $525
Offroad Design crossover steering: $440 to $800
Front leaf springs: $399
Front driveshaft: $300 to $600
Ford drill-in shock mounts (PN E5TZ-18188-A): $46
Shocks: $39.99 (x2)
Front brake lines: $112
Total cost: $1901.98 to $2,561.98
Congrats! You’ve just installed a solid-axle under the front of your 4x4! Now, you just have to finish the back! This is where the cost of the total build can get messy. If you started with a 3500 series GM truck, then you already have a 14-bolt full-float 8-lug rear axle. This means you just need to raise the rear of the truck to match the front. If however, you are working with a ½-ton platform, you will need a bit more to finish out the swap. Here are a few items that we commonly encountered on past straight-axle conversions and how they’ve added up.
Exhaust modification: $100 to $300
Rear axle (14-bolt or Dana 60): $150 to $3,500
Rear leaf springs: $399
Rear driveshaft: $300 to $600
Rear brake line: $80
Rear shocks: $39.99 (x2)
Total estimate: $1,108.98 to $4,958.98
Sticker Shock or Not?
So, now that you’ve had a little time to adjust to the sticker shock of just how much the parts needed to perform a straight-axle conversion can cost, the question may be, is it worth it? The answer is often found when you look at how you actually use your truck and how important the conversion is to you. Is it feasible that you could perform a sold-axle conversion in your driveway for a few grand? Sure, but most solid-axle wheelers we’ve spoken to have all invested closer to the $8,000 to $10,000 range.
OK, $10K is no small figure, but when you look at the cost of adding on an IFS suspension lift and replacing many of the stock frontend parts, it’s not an unreasonable figure, especially when you break it down a little at a time. With a solid-front axle the truck will be twice as reliable off-road, which is peace of mind that can be priceless when you are on the trail and far from home. One item that we haven’t mentioned much is the labor involved. If you have to pay someone to work on your truck, then understand that this can nearly double your investment.
Sometimes you can work with shops by doing all of the teardown and prep-work beforehand to save a little dough, but not all shops are open for this. Some of the solid-axle conversion kits are very installer-friendly and can be installed in your driveway over a weekend. Welding used to be the largest hurdle for many at-home installers, but bolt-on conversions overcome that issue.
Below are a handful of the companies that offer solid-axle conversion kits and components for the ’88-’98 GM trucks and SUVs. Many of the systems listed work with two- and four-wheel-drive models.
Bolt-on leaf spring conversions with different height, component, and steering options. Works with GM and Ford Dana 44 and 60 axles. Kits are offered in a raw or powdercoated finish.
Info: 707/578-9679, www.fabworxoffroad.com
Bolt-on kits for two- and four-wheel-drive ½- and ¾-ton trucks. ORD suggests the use of leaf springs from ’73-’87 Chevy trucks. Additional steering, suspension, and axle options are available.
Info: 970/945-7777, www.offroaddesign.com
Off Road Unlimited
Complete leaf-spring systems for two- and four-wheel-drive trucks. Off Road Unlimited also offers multiple lift height and steering components, along with complete front axlehousings.
Info: 877/563-1208, www.offroadunlimited.com
Sky offers both complete and partial solid-axle kits that are designed to use leaf springs. A variety of shock and width options are available.
Info: 541/736-3743, www.sky-manufacturing.com
XXX Traction’s solid-axle conversions use coilovers and a four-link suspension design. The conversions can be optioned from 7- to 13-inch lift heights. The XXX kit requires the use of a ’05 and newer F-350 Dana 60 front axle.
Info: 831/899-2144, www.xxxtraction.com