Can You Save Money With A Solid-Axle Conversion?
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