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November 2006 4x4 Tech Questions - Nuts & Bolts

Posted in How To on November 1, 2006
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Confused? E-mail your questions about trucks, 4x4's, and off-roading tech using "Nuts, I'm confused" as the subject and include a picture (if it's applicable). Digital photos must measure no less than 1600 x 1200 pixels (or two megapixels) and be saved as a TIFF, an EPS, or a maximum-quality JPEG file. Also, I'll be checking the forums on our Web site (, and if I see a question that I think more of you might want to have answered, I'll print that as well. Otherwise drop it old-school style with the envelope addressed to the address below. Letters published in this magazine reflect the opinions of the writers, and we reserve the right to edit letters for clarity, brevity, or other purposes.

Write to:
Nuts & Bolts
4-Wheel & Off-Road
6420 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90048-5515
fax 323.782.2704

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Question: I work at a ranch for troubled youth in the middle of Illinois. On campus we have four staff that like to go off-roading. There are three Jeeps and my '88 4Runner. We like to take the boys out and have a little fun. They seem to love it. We are trying to build an inexpensive off-road course, something that we can go out on and have a little bit of fun and something that we can teach them how to drive on. The land that we own is all flat with one mud creek. What are some things that we can build that would make the flat land fun?
Lenny M.

Answer: Not everyone is lucky enough to live close to some backwoods wheeling or world-class rockcrawling trails, but that doesn't mean you can't find or make some challenging off-road obstacles in your neck of the woods, or neck of the no woods. For example, I have to live in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, but I can still go wheeling within minutes of my warehome. Whether it's a loading dock to try and climb, a drainage ditch to flex out in, or a rain culvert just big enough for a Suzuki Samurai to squeeze through, there is plenty of off-roading, it's just not all completely legal.

So if you were wanting to build your own off-road course on a flat piece of property, there are many things you can do. However, you may need the help of some local construction companies or farmers. What you want to do is build an obstacle course with as many different types of challenges as you can fit. Remember that you want to challenge both drivers and vehicles.

Maybe get some logs, concrete barriers, an old train car, a big steel storage container, and some giant old tractor tires. These are all good things to climb on, but be cautious of sharp steel that can cut tires. Then see if you can get someone with a backhoe or bulldozer to come dig a few holes and build some mounds to crawl up, over, and through. Also set up some forms to build a set of concrete stairs to climb on. Then contact any local concrete companies and explain that if they have trucks with half loads they need to dump somewhere, you are looking for donations.

Next plant some wooden 4x4s or fence posts into a tight course that drivers must weave through. Want to add a challenge to it? Put an egg or golf ball on each post and tell the drivers that they can't knock any off. Need a challenge for the passengers as well? Have the driver blindfolded and make the passenger give him driving directions through the course. We recommend the vehicle be in low-range First Gear for that one. Of course you can always flood an area for a mud bog, or bring in a few dumptruck loads of boulders for a rock course, but that's been done before.

If you start looking around for items no one wants anymore, and you can find a way to get it hauled to your property for cheap or free, then you'll quickly have a place to go play. Let us know when it's all done; maybe we'll come wheeling with ya.

Question: I need advice. I'm looking for a killer road-trip vehicle. Ideally, it will have:
* High clearance, 4WD, and locking rear differential (for rough roads, trails, and beaches in Mexico, Alaska, and in between)
* A low rooftop (for easy access of the bikes, kayaks, skis, and such on the roof rack)
* Rear seats that fold down flat, and enough room behind the front seats for impromptu sleeping (6 feet or more)
* Four doors (for when we drag our friends along)
* Good fuel economy (for long highway hauls)
* Great reliability (for peace of mind when traveling in the backcountry)

My wife and I can scrape together up to $30,000 for something new or used. Whatever we buy will also have to serve as her daily driver. I've considered a crew-cab pickup with a bed-topper, and looked at a few SUVs, but I've yet to find the perfect solution. Do you have any suggestions?
Robert Kemp

Answer: This is an awesome question. I love road trips, and taking your 4x4 to explore our continent is one of the best types of vacations I can think of. I even have a goal to drive an old Jeep from Alaska to Florida with the top down the whole way, but I doubt that is the type of vehicle you are looking for. Your requirements makes me realize there is no single vehicle that covers all these goals easily, and you will either need to make some compromises or build the vehicle you want, so here is my input. As for fuel economy, I would consider a small vehicle with a four- or six-cylinder gas engine or a diesel such as a Dodge, Ford, or Chevy fullsize truck with an extended cab and a cap on the back. However the diesels are currently only available in the 3/4- or 1-tons and these can be a lot of truck for some folks, especially if this is also your wife's daily driver, so also look at the diesel Jeep Liberty. Not the manliest vehicle, but still a cool little road tripper with great economy and with many aftermarket options available. I did see a super-secret diesel Jeep Grand Cherokee at Moab last year, but I doubt it's going to cost less than $30,000 when or if it is ever available to the U.S. public. Other great gas-powered options include the Nissan Xterra or Pathfinder, Hummer H3, used Land Rover Discoverys or Range Rovers, and Toyota 4Runners, quad cab Tacomas, and Land Cruisers. Nearly all of these are available with a rear locking differential or adequate traction system, but only the Rovers and Cruisers have solid front axles. However, an older diesel Chevy Blazer could also be built into an awesome traveling vehicle on your budget and have all the aftermarket lockers, tires, and axles you want along with nearly 20 mpg. In the reliability circle I've found that every single vehicle has proponents and opponents, so no matter what you end up with also buy a good bag of tools, an auto club membership for towing, and a proper service manual in case you need to fix it yourself.

If it was up to me I would find an old series Land Rover station wagon like those you see on African safaris because I like the style and aluminum bodies. Then I would drop a long-lasting Cummins diesel in it from a Dodge truck, with a manual transmission for reliability and, of course, dual lockers in some hefty 1-ton axles. That project would be pushing the limits of the 30-grand budget. If you want a nearly stock 4x4 that the wife will love to drive when you get home, I think I would have to recommend either a small to midsized SUV or truck...though an old Flatfender towing an Airstream trailer up over the great divide would definitely make for a road trip you'd never forget.

Question: I own an '85 4Runner and I was kicking around the idea of a spool up front. To get around the steering problems, I was thinking I could run the trail with only one hub locked and then when needed, I could lock both hubs for rocks and hills. Do you think this would work, or is it a bad idea?
James R.

Answer: Do I think it will work? Yes. Is it a bad idea? Yes. I find it hard to believe that you will be getting out of your truck and locking or unlocking that single hub each time you want to turn. Then you are applying a ton of torque to just that one axleshaft. If you are dead set on running a spool, then just drop the transfer case into rear-wheel-drive only. Hopefully you are running dual cases so that you still have a single low range in two-wheel drive. Now when you do have both hubs locked, the steering won't be as rough since you are running CVs in your front axle as compared to U-joints, but it will still be difficult to steer, especially on nonslip terrain like rocks. If you only run in slippery mud or sand, then you might be OK, but I would still recommend some sort of full-time or selectable locker if you can afford it.

Question: I am 18, fresh out of school, and I want a mud monster/daily driver. I have located an '80s Chevy but it's a little rusty. Rust isn't the problem; I kind of know what I want to do, but I'm not sure which part is the best. I want a 305 because gas is too expensive up here in Canada, and I want 6-8 inches of lift. On a 1/2-ton can I run 38s and what gears should I use? Any advice given on cheap wheeling and such would be greatly appreciated...and I'm not going to ask for a license plate because I want to earn one someday.
Landon Larsback

Answer: Good day, northern wheelin' brother! So you want to build a boxy Chevy from the '80s, eh? That truck is a great entry-level wheeler, and tons of options are available to you. First you need a plan. I think 38s will be fine on your truck/Blazer, although I would lean toward 36s or 37s to help reduce breakage with your 1/2-ton axles. In addition, I would only go with a 4-inch lift and then trim your rusted fenders to help clear the big tires. This should be cheaper, as well as making it a nicer daily driver with a lower center of gravity and reduce issues with steering and driveshafts. I prefer suspension kits that come with all new springs, not lift blocks. However, lift blocks are OK for a budget lift in the rear, but never use blocks in your front suspension. Though I'm not convinced that the 305 is going to greatly improve your fuel economy over a 350, it should be slightly better and parts for it are readily available and cheap. But at the same time you may need a little lower gearing to help it turn the big tires. I would go with 4.10, 4.56, or 4.88 if you don't have an overdrive transmission-4.88, 5.13, or 5.38 if you do have an overdrive. I would also get a locking differential or two.

Question: I know this is the wrong way to go about this project but it's just too hard to resist the urge. I've got a '96 ZJ with a 5.2L and at the moment it's 100 percent stock. I would like a Jeep that's ready to walk up anything Moab can throw under it. That's where you guys come in.

This is my first project, and I don't have a clue what I'm doing. To start, I'd like to use T- Rock axles (but they cost too much so something similar), a 7-inch long-arm Rock Krawler lift, 35x13.5x16 Baja Claws, a new tranny and transfer case (maybe Advance Adapters), and an ARB Bull Bumper. The engine? Mostly just bolt-ons such as heads, intake, and headers. I can't find anything. So if you guys could help me out and do a little research it would be a great help.

My brain is almost mush from surfing the Internet and finding nothing, and from not having nearly enough experience in gears, transmissions, transfer cases, or suspension components. By the time I get done I would like it to be a little overkill from bumper to bumper, rubber to roof. All the help, ideas, and suggestions are greatly needed.

Answer: You've made two very good decisions. First you chose an excellent vehicle to start with-solid axles, coil-sprung suspension, and V-8 power make for a great-performing off-road vehicle and one that won many years of our 4x4 of the Year competition. And second, you are honest in that you don't know exactly what you need to do and are willing to ask for advice before diving headlong into your project. As such, I'm going to award you with the Tech Letter of the Month.

I can see many ways to improve your '96 ZJ, especially if you want to run 35-inch or larger tires. Your truck probably has a Dana 35 rear axle and a Dana 30 front, neither of which is incredibly stout, so upgrading to Dana 44 or Dana 60 axles would be wise depending on how extreme you want to get. I personally like putting Dana 60 axles under my trucks, since I would rather be wheeling the trail than wrenching in the dirt, but if you are only going to run 35-inch-tall tires, Dana 44s should be fine. The '86-'95 fullsize Jeep Wagoneer Dana 44 axles can be used. Either way you will need to swap all the brackets onto your new axlehousings and change the gearing to something in the 4.56 to 5.13 range. Don't forget lockers.

Your Cherokee probably has an overdrive automatic and a full-time transfer case. I don't see any reason to swap out the transmission, but I would probably change the transfer case. If you keep the front driver-side axle you will need either an aftermarket transfer case like an Atlas (800.350.2223) or Stak 4x4 three-speed (915.584.2400), but you can also look into a Dana 300 with a flip kit such as those being made by Stak 4x4.

There are numerous suspension systems available for ZJs, and your choice of a long-arm kit from Rock Krawler (518-270-9822) is sound. I like the long-arm kits since they have fewer negative affects on the pinion angle than some short-arm kits.

The 5.2 motor isn't bad and personally I like to leave a solid running engine alone until after I have a working suspension and drivetrain. I feel the use of gearing and lockers can often make up for a lack of motor, but there are times such as in deep mud and sand when having gobs of power is helpful.

Finally look around both your hometown and at Cherokee clubs on the Internet for guys that have built a truck like the goal you have in mind. Ask them their advice, what they would do differently, and what parts really worked.

This month's winner of the Tech Letter of the Month will receive a free Nylon Jacket from Wolverine Boots' new line of clothing. This heavy-duty jacket is perfect for work, hunting, camping, and of course four-wheeling.

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