Building a capable weekend mudder and adventure vehicle that's reliable and comfortable enough to get someone to and from work all week long is easier than everyone thinks. In most cases it's not necessary to have an expensive shop engineer a custom suspension to get a daily driver off-road capable and out in the field. With years of research and experience, companies such as Rancho Suspension have already done the hard work of engineering, building, and testing—now all anyone has to do is jack up their rig, bolt-on the suspension system, slap on some new tires, and go. Rancho has been around since the 1950s, and in 1988 Rancho launched what would later become one of the bestselling shock absorbers ever produced, the RS5000. Rancho offers bolt-in, reliable suspension systems and an array of shock absorbers for most trucks, Jeeps, and SUVs.
We took our recently purchased bone-stock '06 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited LJ (sic) and started building it into a rig that could be driven to and from the office daily, wheeled around mud events, and taken into the field hunting. It is going to be our universal mud Jeep. We didn't want to go too big and tall because we want to drive to and from our adventures. We also wanted to maintain reasonable fuel economy. We jumped on Rancho's website and did a little research into this particular vehicle. We ended up ordering a 3½-inch short-arm suspension that's designed to allow the use of 35-inch tires. We also picked up Rancho's RS7000MT shocks and upgraded to a heavy-duty steering stabilizer.
Rancho also offers a full line of technical support, which includes recommendations on wheel size and tires sizes, wheel offsets and backspacing, and alignment specs. Our Jeeps factory 15-inch wheels were great for the stock 33-inch tires, but we wanted to kick it up in tire size and also install some great-looking rugged wheels. The tech folks at Rancho let us know that in order to fit a 35-inch tire we would need a rim with a different backspacing than the factory wheels have. This will ensure that we have full clearance during a hard turn so the tires would not rub on the lower control arms. We also picked up five 17x8 Teflon-coated Mojave wheels from American Racing with a +0 offset. To wrap around the wheels, we found a great deal on a set of Nitto Trail Grapplers, which are high-quality mud-terrain tires. The Trail Grapplers are designed for exceptional traction in wet, muddy conditions yet offer a highway-friendly ride. The look screams off-road, and we have had excellent luck and performance with ATX/American Racing on other vehicles.
We've found that our universal mud Jeep is already a big hit amongst our readership. We know our major focus is mega trucks, race trucks, swamp buggies, and custom rigs, so we had to throw in a project that most four-wheelers own or can relate to. We know that everyone can't afford a $50K-$100K rig and we need to make do with the vehicles we have—so here we go!
Step By Step
If a pressure washer is handy, use it! Swapping a suspension out on a muddy rig is not fun. A dirty rig and mud also raises the risk of contaminating the new joints. Mud has a tendency to stick around—even after months it still mysteriously drops off on the driveway.
We’ve had an overwhelming amount of requests for some driveway tech, so that’s just what we did. We spent a Saturday in the driveway wrenching away. It can be good family time and a good time to teach the youngsters how to turn a wrench.
After securing our Jeep in the driveway we removed the wheels and got started. First we removed the factory track bars (Panhard). With the track bars off, the suspension will have more droop and make it easier to remove the factory coil springs.
Once the cotter pin is pulled out the 3/4-inch crown bolt can be removed and the track bar will swing free.
The new adjustable track bars will keep the axles centered under the lifted Jeep.
Here is the difference between the factory track bar and the Rancho track bar.
The Rancho system comes with a drop pitman arm. We tapped on the side of the old pitman arm a little, but it didn’t drop off like they sometimes do! We do not recommend muscling or hammering on the old arm because it could damage the steering gear. We used a gear puller to remove it. Keep in mind pullers and tools can be rented or even loaded from most major and local parts stores.
We do not recommend muscling or hammering on the old arm because it could damage the steering gear. We used a gear puller to remove it. Keep in mind pullers and tools can be rented or even loaded from most major and local parts stores.
Disconnecting the original sway bar will be necessary to remove the old coil springs. After loosening the nut, we loosened the bolt by tapping it with a hammer. If the nut is left on when hammering the bolt out, the less likely the threads will be damaged.
We supported the front axle with a jack and removed the shocks. With the shocks off, we lowered the jack and pulled the coil springs out. Removing the shocks and coil springs on solid axle rigs is as easy as it gets.
Removing the shocks and coil springs on solid axle rigs is as easy as it gets.
This Rancho kit comes with new bumpstops so that the axle won’t bottom out. We drilled a 5⁄16-inch hole in the spring pad to secure the bumpstop and then bolted it in place.
Before the factory lower control arms (links) were removed we marked the adjustment washer so it could be reinstalled in the same position. The mark is a good place to start but may need some adjusting after the list is installed.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of the new Rancho Suspension short arm bars for our Jeep TJ. The bend in the arms gives the new suspension proper geometry for a better ride.
With the Rancho links in place we were ready to start raising the axle up so we could get the new coil springs, shocks, track bar, and sway bar bolted on. The system comes with shims for the links, but the factory bolts will need to be reused. The bolts shouldn’t be tightened to specs until the complete system is in place.
The system comes with shims for the links, but the factory bolts will need to be reused. The bolts shouldn’t be tightened to specs until the complete system is in place.
The new Rancho sway bar endlink use quick disconnects. Removing the disconnects when off-road will give a rig more wheel travel and articulation. We recommend keeping the little grease on the disconnects because it will keep them from freezing up and make them easier to remove.
We recommend having the vehicle aligned after a lift is installed especially on a daily driver. A new Rancho steering Damper is highly recommended too. It will help control larger tires and stop death wobble. After installing the new coil springs, shocks, and sway bar links we can start on the Jeep's rear end.
The rear suspension installation is a lot like the front. The rear track bar is removed along with the shock and coil spring.
The lower short arms will also be replaced in the rear; the factory upper arms remain in place. New bumpstops and sway bar brackets are also included in the system.
A set of transmission crossmember spacers are included in and kit and need to be installed.
These help with driveline angles and allow the frame of the Jeep to gain height while the transmission stays in the factory location.
The ATX Mojave 17x9 wheels and 35x12.50x17 Nitto Trail Grapplers give the Jeep its new height and better trail clearance. The wheels have a 0 offset, which is necessary so the 35-inch tires won’t rub on the front lower control arms. The 0 offset worked perfectly; we didn’t experience any rubbing, even on a full U-turn. The tires are designed for mud, snow, dirt, rocks, and serious off-road performance with low road noise. Stay tuned for more performance testing.