When our Almighty Dime project started, it was an IFS S-10 Blazer 4x4 with an ugly red and gray two-tone paintjob. It was bought for a cross-country migration by Doug Mitchell, guitarist for the bands Margate and Costello, while he was still a young aspiring North Carolina-born musician on the East Coast. This ’96 S-10 Blazer was his family truckster. It brought him out to California, and shortly after became a second vehicle that didn’t get much use. Former OFF-ROAD publisher Jeff Dahlin—bass player of Costello—convinced him to let us have it since we had wanted an S-10 project, and this one was perfect. It was totally stock, had no rust, and Doug was willing to pay for all the little incidentals we would need.
We started with an IFS lift kit, some 33-inch Hankook tires, Metul Munky custom bumpers, fiberglass front fenders, and a flat-black paintjob. We weren’t really S-10 fans before, but this little truck quickly changed our minds.
Our favoritism for it waivered after hopping in and going for an off-road trip. While the lift kit did its job making room for larger tires (and actually improved ride and handling a little), the S-10 suspension left much to be desired. The front geometry on S-10s makes them difficult to work with, and that makes the suspension fight an uphill battle to perform well, while at the same time being costly. Even the bolt-on 4WD IFS lift kit we used cost in excess of $2,000 (without labor), and we’re told it’s no longer available. There are a couple of nice custom long-travel coilover IFS kits available for 2WD S-10s, but expect to pay double or triple of what a stock S-10 truck is worth. That can be a lot to bite off for an owner who wanted a budget wheeler. A solid-axle swap was calling our S-10’s name. …
All this left us at a quandary. We’re supposed to be the guys supporting long-travel IFS. But, the truth is that we’re also big fans of solid axles, and know only too well that you can still go fast with a solid axle and good suspension in the front of your truck.
We tallied up the pros and cons of costs and performance, but it was a no-brainer with this truck—especially when we found out no one has a 4WD IFS long-travel kit (only 2WD kits) available.
After doing some research and learning from some more experienced S-10 aficionados like the DezertDimes, we acquired parts and enlisted the help of Michael Gold at Revolution Vehicle Dynamics in Apple Valley, California. Michael has helped us on some projects in the past, and we knew RVD would be more than capable of taking on our S-10 solid-axle swap (SAS) project. And, the word project should be stressed, as any builder kit leaves lots of guesswork for first timers (which most guys are—how many solid-axle–swapped S-10s does one need?!).
While the time and labor is intensive to swap a solid front axle onto an S-10 chassis, the cost is not. Doing everything at home using Sky’s Offroad Design $220 SAS axle hanger kit, stock Wagoneer front leaf springs, some post-1980 Wagoneer axles (driver-side front diff), shocks, and some wheels to fit the 6x5.5 bolt pattern of the Wagoneer axles, you could theoretically finish your entire solid-axle swap at home for less than $1,000.
But when have we ever skipped upselling our project trucks? While the basics for our build may have come in at well under $1,000, our incidentals list got a bit pricier when we added a few high-end items like Mickey Thompson TTC Baja Claws, Classic III wheels, and Rancho Pro Series remote reservoir shocks. We like the idea of budget-built trucks, but there is no denying that a few basic high-end additions can really change the performance of a truck.
While we were able to roll this one out the door in time for a short shakedown run, we still have a number of little things to work on and finish in the October 2013 issue of OFF-ROAD.
Step By Step
The Almighty Dime, as it was affectionately named, was a 1996 S-10 Blazer with an ugly red and gray two-tone paintjob. It was totally stock, and Doug Mitchell had even swapped in a new engine. We started with an IFS lift kit, some 33-inch Hankook tires, Metul Munky custom bumpers, a fiberglass hood and front fenders, Baja Designs halogen lights, and a flat-black paintjob. We weren’t really S-10 fans before, but this little truck quickly changed our minds.
Revolution Vehicle Dynamics (RVD) helped us with our axle swap. We had almost all the pieces, and shop owner Michael Gold had the talent to get it done. We started by stripping off the old 4WD IFS kit. While most of the suspension and steering was wasted, the lift kit itself was still in good condition, and someone may want it really badly since its no longer available.
Getting rid of the old equipment and IFS brackets and crossmember may be the most time-consuming part of this project. Plasma cutters can make this removal take half the time, but most guys have Sawzalls and grinders at home for metal removal, so that’s how we did it. It definitely took some time. Michael cut off all the control arm mounts and the lower front crossmember and used a grinder to clean the frame.
The Sky’s Offroad Design S-10 solid-axle swap front hanger kit is $220 on the company’s website. It comes with the front hanger, shackle mounts, and shackles. The hanger kit is meant to use Jeep Wagoneer front leaf springs, along with a Wagoneer front axle. Most people advise to use a 2-inch-lift Wagoneer spring, but we used stock leafs. We also got some Sky’s Toyota front shock hoops for $69 and some Sky’s S-10 rear lift shackles for another $69.
These are 1980-and-later Jeep Grand Wagoneer Dana 44 axles. Pricing varies greatly, from just a couple hundred dollars all the way up to a thousand for the pair. They are ideal axles for S-10 solid-axle swaps as they’re built with a centered rear differential and driver-side offset front differential—perfect for a driver-side drop T-case of an IFS 4x4. On top of that, these axles are robust and add only a couple inches of width to the S-10’s original track width. We didn’t even bother unbolting our front leaves from the axle since the kit calls for Wagoneer springs.
After all the IFS was removed and the axles were ready, Michael tack-welded the front hanger in place to check measurements. There are no boltholes for lining it up, so careful measurements are required when placing it.
Once we liked where the hanger kit was placed, Michael lowered the S-10 down to sit over the front axle. We took note of where the front leaf springs’ shackles should be placed and found that it was in-board of the framerails. This was not good news, but fabricating things like hanger mounts is to be expected with a builder kit. After all, the Sky’s hanger kit is just that: a leaf spring hanger kit for front leaf springs. Everything else is really just custom work and research.
RVD took some 1/4-inch steel plate, bent it to fit the slight frame bend, and mounted the shackle hanger in the appropriate location. Bracing and gusseting were done on the inside of the frame to reinforce the hanger plate.
We used the Sky’s Toyota shock hoops and welded them to the frame over the front Dana 44’s stock lower shock mounts. We squeezed the smallest Rancho Pro Series remote reservoir shocks in there that we could—a 12-inch-stroke version—but with only a few inches of compression at ride height, so we might end up lowering the shock mount on the axle.
The hole in the tie rod was also drilled out to accept the draglink’s lower 3/4-inch rod end.
The hole in the tie rod was also drilled out to accept the draglink’s lower 3/4-inch rod end.
In the rear, we ditched the stock S-10 axle and the lift blocks from the old suspension, and kept the rear stock S-10 leaf springs. Sky’s rear S-10 lift shackles are constructed from 3/8-inch plate and give 1.5 inches of lift. The 7-inch-long shackles allow for more articulation than the springs could ever have with short stock shackles.
The factory Wagoneer spring perches on the rear Dana 44 were cut off and we picked up some weld-on 2.5-inch-wide perches at a local speed shop. Everything was bolted together and the pinion angle was checked carefully before welding the perches in place. We suggest tack-welding the perches, putting weight on the leaf springs, and rechecking the pinion angle at ride height before fully welding them in place.
The stock shock mounts on the Wagoneer Dana 44 just happened to be in the perfect position to allow a Rancho RS9000 Pro Series 12-inch-stroke shock to meet up with the stock shock mounts on the S-10’s frame. With weight on the stock leaf springs with Sky’s shackles, the shocks had about 6 inches of shaft showing.
Michael’s son, Gavin Gold, mounted our 35-inch TTC Baja Claw radials on Classic III polished 16x8 wheels like a pro. That experience comes from growing up with a dad who owns a 4x4 shop.
Fifteen-inch wheels often have a larger offset than 16-inch wheels do (even for the same lug pattern). Since the bolt pattern changed to 6x5.5 (necessitating new wheels), we took the opportunity to go up to a 16-inch Classic III wheel (even though 15s will fit on Wagoneer Dana 44s). We did this because tires for 15-inch wheels are getting harder to find. We lost some wheel offset by moving to the 16-inch wheel, but remember that we also added axles that were a couple inches wider. All in all, the wheels and tires remained in about the same place.
We left the bay of RVD and headed for the nearest dirt for a shakedown run. Initial impressions: The stock Wagoneer leaf spring choice, combined with 12-inch-stroke Rancho shocks, was right on. And it fit the 35-inch Baja Claws well (with the fiberglass fenders we have). The ride feels OK, but we haven’t gone very fast yet. A track bar will likely be needed in the front. The brakes feel like they could use some work, too. And we still need a front driveshaft. All things to address next time.