A couple of years ago I was on the hunt for a clean TJ to build. And like most modern- day Jeepers posed with this task, I developed a debilitating habit to one of the most addicting resources ever known to treasure hunters of the Jeep persuasion. That’d be Craigslist. With a budget of $6,000, I found plenty of older rigs that fit the bill, but being smack-dab in the middle of the Northeast Rust Belt, buying a sub-$6,000 TJ usually means a mandatory tetanus shot, and a prerequisite course in body/frame repair.
After turning Craigslist into my second job for about a month, my eventual “fix” came in the way of a twisted, taco’d, salvage-titled ’05 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. Regardless of its obvious faults, it did meet one of my most important criteria—it was 100 percent rust-free. Given this, and the fact that the frame had a clean bill of health, I was willing to overlook that the hard top was in three pieces and the only straight sheetmetal on the entire thing was the grille and tailgate. And, ensuring I’d be adding even more skin to the game by the time I was done was a slightly bent passenger axletube on the front Dana 30, complimented by a quartet of bent front control arms. But like a mother who only sees beauty in her bearded and unibrowed daughter, I thought it was pretty damned perfect, so on the trailer it went and homeward bound we were.
With the bodywork finally wrapped up, including full corner and rocker guards from T&T Customs that covered the dents I was too lazy to pull, I installed an el cheapo 4-inch short-arm suspension, some 33-inch tires on new wheels, a Craigslist-find factory soft top and half-doors, and proceeded to wheel it for the next year or so. But between the weird handling quirks of the short-arm kit and the slightly bent front axletube that was expediting tire wear, I knew all this was a temporary stopgap fix. If the LJ was going to remain in the fleet and serve as the reliable backcountry rig I wanted it to be, it was time to step up to the plate and pull the trigger on the hard parts required to make it so. First and foremost on the list was addressing the axles.
The LJ comes with a decent set of legs from the factory. The Dana 30 front and Dana 44 rear run 3.73 gears instead of the more pedestrian 3.07s common on short-wheelbase TJs. The gears served well with 33s, but I had my sights set on running 35s tires without the constant fear of easily snapping an axleshaft, tweaking an axletube, or downshifing all over the mountains of New Hampshire. The best solution, I determined, was a pair of brand new G2 Dana 44 axle assemblies. Not only do they arrive at your door completely assembled and ready to bolt in, but in my case, all the boxes on my axle wish list were checked off in one fell swoop. True, I might have been successful in straightening, sleeving, and gusseting the Dana 30 (or even finding a better high-pinion Dana 30 from an XJ), but when you factor labor costs of the gear/locker installs and being able to sell the rear Dana 44 to a TJ owner who’s sick of breaking shafts in his Dana 35—I’d be fast approaching the money I’d spend on aftermarket axle assemblies.
Install: What You’re Up Against
As far as installing a crate axle is concerned, if you can install a short-arm suspension system, you probably already have the tools and know-how to replace a couple of axle assemblies. Start to finish, you’re looking at maybe a weekend’s worth of wrenching on your garage floor. Less if you’ve got friends who do more than drink your beer.
Snags? Nothing big and scary, and all the problems we ran into were easily rectified. You will need either a new, shorter front driveshaft, or have your existing one shortened, as the pinion the Dana 44 is about 2 inches longer than the Dana 30. Also, if you have larger-than stock-diameter steering linkage, it will probably hit the thicker G2 front diff cover at full steering lock, as ours did. To help document this axle-ectomy, we enlisted the expert hands of the folks at Importech in Conway, New Hampshire. Despite the name, this shop is chock full of Jeep-enthusiast, talented fabricators, as well as ex-Chyrsler/Jeep technicians, all of whom are ASE-certified and fully capable of tackling anything you throw at them.
While our LJ is well on its way, we’re not done yet. You can look for the next round of polishing, when we will eject the problematic 4-inch short arm suspension for a long-arm solution from Rubicon Express.
Step By Step
1. If you’re taking the plunge and laying down the money for a pair of 100 percent new G2 axle assemblies, they’ll arrive via freight truck in a couple of well built crates like this. Don’t forget to add gear oil to the list, as they ship bone dry. Between the 102 locker and gear ratio choices for the rear, and 38 possible choices up front, you’ll have no trouble finding the right combination for your particular build.
2. Up front, our G2 Dana 44 represents a substantial increase in strength over the Dana 30, from the axleshafts inward. The 30-spline 4340 chromoly forged shafts employ added material around the U-joint caps to withstand higher torsional loads and gratuitous use of the go pedal. Spicer joints are held in place by full-circle retaining clips, and the included greaseable outer seals will ensure swamp muck doesn’t make its way into the axletubes.
3. Made from shot-peened and heat-treated aluminum in the USA, the cast G2 differential covers were designed to take a pounding while still offering the heat-dissipation qualities of aluminum. They come equipped with dual fill-plugs, all the required mounting hardware, and a machined mating surface for a leak-free seal. All in all, a pretty well engineered helmet for your new differential.
4. With the brake hardware unbolted and hung from the frame, you can proceed to zip off the axle spindle nuts with an impact, remove the three unitbearing bolts from the backside of the knuckles, pop the bearings out, and yank the axleshafts from of the housing. If you live in the Rust Belt, be prepared for the three unitbearing bolts to put up a fight.
5. Once the axleshafts have been pulled clear of the housing, you can yank the cotter pins out of the ball joint castle nuts and gun the nuts off with an impact. At this point, the outer knuckles may need a little convincing to part ways with the ball joints, but tapping the ears of the knuckles with a hammer is usually all it takes to shock ’em loose.
6. The last major components holding the front end in are the track bar, steering linkage and shocks—all of which came out willingly with air tools. No need to yank any of these all the way out (unless you’re replacing them.) The shocks can dangle from their upper mounts and you can cinch everything else up out of the way with tie straps or bungee cords. You’re almost there, but don’t forget the small things like the driveshaft and vent tube.
7. With the Dana 30 on the garage floor, and all of the suspension/steering/brake components held clear, our LJ was ready to take delivery of its new front G2 Dana 44. The combination of a vehicle lift and steel cart made the task of locating the axle and bolting on the control arms a breeze. Although amenities like this are nice to have, a couple of pairs of jack stands and a floor jack will get the job done on the garage floor at home.
8. The only parts you’ll be recycling from your Dana 30 are the outer knuckles, unitbearings, and brakes, so while they were off we took the time to clean and paint them with VHT’s super-durable epoxy paint. New Spicer ball joints with red polyurethane boots are part of the G2 package. When reinstalling the knuckles, our bottom ball joint castle-nuts were torqued to spec at 80 lb-ft, and then the tops to 75 lb-ft.
9. With the brake calipers and backing plates hung from the framerails, and the control arms, track bar, shocks, sway bar and driveshaft all unbolted, the rear axle was ready to part ways with our LJ. The new rear assembly goes back in the same way the old came out. Like the front, all of the rear-brake hardware will get reused, and since we were able to keep the brake lines attached and simply unbolt the junction block from the axle, brake bleeding was circumvented.
10. The big news is G2’s new heavy-duty Dana 44 rear housing features 3-inch diameter, 0.250-wall DOM axletubes and stout 1⁄4-inch-thick suspension brackets. Unlike the factory housing, the upper control arm brackets that are welded to the G2 tubes feature slotted holes to make small changes in pinion angle. We’ll be showing more of this new axle in the next installment, including the machined flat area with drilled and tapped holes atop the centersection, which facilitates mounting the rear upper Tri-Link arm in the 4.5-inch Rubicon Express Extreme Duty Long Arm suspension system.
11. Compared to the factory 30-spline axles, the 1.5-inch-diameter, 35-spline G2 4140 chromoly shafts were designed to withstand a much higher level of abuse. Mating to a matching 35-spline ARB locker and a 4:88 G2 ring & pinion in the centersection, traction, strength and proper gearing can all be checked off the list. I’ll have to try really hard to break anything back there with the factory 4.0L powerplant and 35-inch tires.
12. Besides getting a killer-looking black-anodized finish, the flanges on the rear G2 chromoly axles come pre-drilled for both 5-on-41⁄2-inch and 5-on-51⁄2-inch bolt patterns. New wheel studs come installed in the 5-on-41⁄2-inch TJ pattern, but if you’re retrofitting any older rig like a CJ-7, all you need to do is simply swap the studs to the correct bolt pattern. Sitting just behind the flange are new axle retaining plates and top-quality Timken axle bearings.
13. We ran into a snag after buttoning up the steering linkage, and that was, well, we couldn’t steer. Our larger-than-stock tie rod contacted the front diff cover at full steering lock. Since we needed more than 50 percent of our steering angle, we looked into milling-down the protruding face of the cover, but there simply wasn’t enough meat in the offending area. Bummer.
14. Our solution for tie rod clearance was to run a factory-stamped Dana 44 front cover, and this Rugged Ridge differential skidplate from Omix-ADA. Factory front covers are substantially thicker than most rear covers, so bear this in mind if you’re fixing the same problem. Not only did this combination create the necessary clearance up top, but also armored the all-important bottom-half in 3⁄16-inch steel. As a stand-alone installation, there’s no need to drain the gear fluid. Simply unscrew the lower five bolts and slap the skid on.
15. The 2.65 cfm ARB model CKMA12 air compressor we used to feed the lockers is super-small and ultra-quiet, and can pull double-duty as an inflation device with the optional ARB Air Pump-Up Kit. It comes complete with all the wiring, switches and other hardware you need for the install. And, almost as if Chrysler knew you might need a spot for an air compressor, the vacant tray beneath the brake-booster (some years have ABS components here) served as the ideal mounting location.
16. One of the final steps in the entire process was to run the air locker lines all the way from the differentials up to the underhood, compressor-mounted manifolds. While ARB’s plastic airline is relatively durable, we wanted to give it an extra measure of protection from heat and abrasion by running it through 5⁄16-inch clear tubing. We chose clear over black tubing so that in the event the line does get damaged or kinked, we will be able to spot it easier out on the trail.