The plan was fairly simple. Go out to the desert, bend a tie rod intentionally, and shoot an article for "What Now?" on how to get a Jeep with a bent tie rod off the trail. The problem is that that's not all we broke, but more on that later. To get back on topic, the fact is that all TJs and many XJs came from the factory with a weak, bendable steering setup. If you have spent much time on a trail, you probably have seen a bent stock TJ/XJ tie rod, and if not, you probably will. The most common part that bends is the thin tubular adjuster that goes from the driver-side knuckle to the cast drag link that spans from the pitman arm over to the passenger-side knuckle (which can also bend). We've bent these tubes, and we've seen others bend these tubes. It happens and you need to know what to do when it does. Also these tips can be used on other model Jeeps with other steering systems if they bend. So we loaded up in Project Ground-Up that runs a '98 XJ front axle and steering system and hit a local off-road area looking for a nice pointy rock that was just the right size. Well, we found the rock, and while it was pretty good for bending a tie rod, it was also pretty good at finding another weak link in our front end. The result was a bent tie rod and a broken front axle U-joint. Good news is that we know how to fix both to get us off the trail. Follow along and we'll show you how to fix that bent tie-rod and to limp off the trail if you broke a U-joint.
Danger, Danger, Danger
There is another way to straighten a bent tie rod, but it's more than a little dangerous. Still sometimes it's all you can do to get your tie rod straight so you can get off the trail. This method involves two sets of locking pliers and a winch with a hook. The trick is to have the tie rod rotated so that the bend is facing away from the winch. The locking pliers help keep the hook in place and with the tie-rod end clamps locking the tie rod in place the winch pulls the tie rod straight. There are many ways that this can end in disaster, if you try this it should be as a last resort and everyone stay in a safe zone clear and away from the front of the winch/fixed vehicle while the winch is pulling on the tie rod.
Step By Step
This is our bent tie rod. The factory part is pretty thin-wall tubing, and it will usually hold out just fine until it gets bent once or gets nicked on a rock. Once that happens, the tubing will have a weak spot and it will bend again, usually once your driver-side tire gets bound up against a rock and you try to turn. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to get off the trail. The first step is to remove the bent part.
Loosen the clamps on either end of the tie-rod tube. Then remove the cotter pins and loosen the castle nuts on the tie-rod ends. Whack the cast knuckle with a hammer while prying against the tie rod. This will allow the tapered tie-rod end to come loose from the knuckle. Now you can take the tie rod off and use something to straighten it. We used the bracket that sometimes holds our tow bar for flat towing. We have seen people use the ends of open bumpers, trailer hitches, trees, even a rock and a big hammer. Either way, get it as close to straight as you can.
Next remove one of the tie-rod ends by unscrewing it and pry the tie-rod end clamp off that side. This will allow you to slip the handle of a Hi-Lift Jack over the tie-rod end. Then reinstall the tie-rod end clamp and finally the tie-rod end. Both tie-rod ends must be in about the same place as they were before the part bent in order to avoid drastically changing the toe of the steering.
Now you have a temporarily beefed up tie rod. It should work well enough to get you off the trail, and maybe, just maybe, down the road to home. Once back in civilization, you need to replace the tie rod with something more substantial. You can either add a custom steering system (we like the Currie Enterprises Currectlync) or get a new factory tie rod and sleeve it like we did in “Jeep Wrangler Destructive Testing,” (Oct ’12).
After climbing just far enough up a fairly unassuming rock to intentionally bend our tie rod, the Jeep slipped and got more than a little bit hung up. We turned the wheel and tried to back up and wham, something popped—our driver-side axle U-joint. It seems that the rear tires were in loose sand and the passenger-side tire was off the ground. The only traction we were getting, and on that tire we were getting a lot, was the driver-side front. Poop.
Since the plan was to bend some steering parts we had an extra tie rod, drag link, and new tie-rod ends. What we did not have was a spare front axleshaft or U-joint. So when we got done fixing the steering we had to deal with the broken U-joint. The bad news is since this axle does not have locking hubs we had to pull the inner shaft in order to drive off the trail.
Once we got the Jeep off the rock and into a level shaded place we started pulling the broken front axleshaft to remove the broken parts. To do this we removed the wheel and tire, caliper and rotor, and the three bolts that retain the unitbearing. Then the unitbearing and axleshaft were removed. Then the rest of the broken U-joint and inner axle was yanked. If our Jeep had locking hubs we could have just unlocked the hubs, shifted to 2WD and limped off the trail, but our CJ is more like a modern Jeep without locking hubs.
Next we stuffed a rag into the axletube to keep the gear oil from spilling out on the way home and reinstalled the unitbearing with the outer stub shaft in place. Unlike ’07-up Jeeps that can drive with the stub shafts removed, earlier Jeeps require the stub shafts to keep the unitbearings from separating. This allowed us to limp off the trail in 2WD and on back home where replacement parts awaited. If you leave the inner axleshaft in place, the U-joint will bind up and eventually cause more damage.