When it comes to modifying our 4x4s, the Four Wheeler staff loves low-buck stuff that works. We agree that if an item is inexpensive and solves a problem and/or offers an advantage, we’re all over it.
In this story, you’ll read about three low-buck 4x4 modifications from each Four Wheeler staff member. We each have our own opinion about our favorite mods and they range from items you can simply toss into your rig to simple bolt-ons to parts that help with custom suspension fabrication, and everything in between.
The purpose of this story is to give you ideas and alternatives that help make your 4x4 more reliable and capable, while allowing you to keep more of that cash you worked hard to earn.
John Cappa, Editor
Why: Sturdy rocker guards are one of the first mods (if not the first mod) I always install on vehicles I plan to take on any sort of rough trails. The rocker guards protect the body when climbing ledges and when crawling over and around rocks, stumps, and logs. There are plenty of aftermarket bolt-on and weld-on versions available for some vehicles. Owners of fullsize trucks and less common 4x4s will need to get creative and fabricate their own or modify the tubular rocker guards available from companies like All-Pro Offroad (www.allprooffroad.com). I have built my own stout home-job rocker guards using 1¾-inch and 1½-inch DOM tubing with great results. The rocker guards allow the vehicle to glide over obstacles and help keep the doors opening and closing smoothly. Adding a small tube to the outer edge actually helps push the body of the 4x4 away from the obstacles in many cases, avoiding door damage.
2. ’74-’86 Ford F-150 (’78-’86 Bronco) 9-inch rear axle
Why: The Ford 9-inch is an incredibly stout rear axle that can survive well with up to 37- and even 40-inch tires. It’s about 65 inches wide at the wheel mounting surfaces so it works well when swapped into Jeep FSJs, vintage fullsize 4x4 builds, imports, and even smaller Jeeps. It features a common older Ford/Jeep 5-on-5.5 lug pattern, but that can be altered simply by re-drilling the lug pattern or swapping in aftermarket ’shafts. Speaking of aftermarket, the 9-inch is probably still the most modified axle in history and has enjoyed an unbelievable number of aftermarket upgrades for decades. The F-150/Bronco axlehousing can be easily upgraded with up to 40-spline axleshafts using only bolt-on parts. I’ve pulled several used axles straight from the wrecking yard and slapped them into projects without even rebuilding the brakes. Earlier, less-desirable 28-spline versions can be found in two-wheel-drive Ford trucks. Look for the 4x4 and ’80-and-later 4x2 models with 31-spline ’shafts. The F-150 Camper Special Ford 9-inch is also a good find and typically has a stronger factory nodular iron third-member along with 31-spline shafts. The nodular third-member can be identified by a large cast “N” on the top of the center chunk. It’s common to find 4.10:1 gears in ’74-’79 axles. The ’74-’86 van version of the Ford 9-inch is nearly identical and can also be used as well, however it is 68 inches wide at the wheel mounting surfaces.
Why: Every 4x4 should come with solid tow points, and most do. But if you don’t have a towstrap, these tow points are absolutely worthless. That being said, I think every 4x4 should always have a proper towstrap stored somewhere in the vehicle. A towstrap will allow you and a buddy to confidently traverse further up a trail or down a snow-engulfed road without the fear of being stuck and stranded. Of course a winch would be better, but most situations where a vehicle is stuck only require a quick tug from a another 4x4 via a strap. If more advanced trails are your thing, or you like wheeling alone, a winch and a complete winch accessory kit are a good investment. Select a towstrap that makes sense for your 4x4. Most situations don’t require any more than a 20,000-pound 2-inch by 20-foot heavy-duty nylon strap, which is offered by many different companies such as Pro Comp (www.procompusa.com) and ARB (www.arbusa.com). Avoid cheap, poorly-made towstraps and those with metal hooks. Also, be sure that your towstrap will fit the tow points on your vehicle, prior to an off-road outing. Some 4x4s have enclosed tow points that will require more gear for proper rigging. If you frequent deep snow, mud, and sand, you should look into a snatch strap like those offered by Bubba Rope (www.bubbarope.com). A snatch strap will stretch during the recovery process, making it less of a shock load for both the recovering and recovered 4x4. The built up kinetic energy in the stretching rope also helps the stuck vehicle pop out of the stuck situation.
Ken Brubaker, Senior Editor
Why: It’s silly that 4x4s only come equipped from the factory with forward-facing lighting. Nighttime driving is standard operating procedure, yet most manufacturers don’t offer strong side and rear lighting, even as an option package. And what vehicle would benefit the most from increased lighting than a 4x4? There are many aftermarket lights available, but if you’re looking for an ultra low-buck solution, feast your eyes on the Harbor Freight work light (www.harborfreight.com). For only $12.99 each at time of print, you get a light that features a weatherproof rubber housing, H3 halogen bulb, glass lens, and mounting hardware. At a price like this, you can add all the lights your rig’s electrical system can handle, pointed in any direction you want. Best part is, if you destroy one you won’t be annoyed at the thought of shelling out big bucks for a replacement.
Why: I think that whether you travel on- or off-road, your 4x4 should have a winch. The benefits of this incredible tool cannot be understated. A winch will allow you to recover your vehicle, or someone else’s, quickly and easily. Thanks to the influx of low-buck winches I think it’s easy to justify purchasing one even if you only use it a few times a year. Companies like Smittybilt (www.smittybilt.com) and Rough County Suspension Systems (www.roughcountry.com) are two companies that offer inexpensive winches, as is Rugged Ridge (www.ruggedridge.com). The Rugged Ridge 8,500-pound winch (pictured here) is only $319.99 at time of print. If you need something with more beef for a larger vehicle, the company offers a 10,500-pound winch for only $419.99 at time of print. Keeping with the low-buck strategy, you could skip the pricey front winch bumper and mount the winch to a cradle. This will also allow you to remove the winch when you know you’re not going to need it. Harbor Freight (www.harborfreight.com) offers a 9,000-pound capacity winch cradle for $69.99 at time of print. The cradle will mount to a bolt-on front-mount receiver hitch, which we saw on eBay (www.ebay.com) for as low as $120 (late model GM fullsize truck application). Compare the price of the cradle and hitch receiver to the cost of a new front winch bumper for the same GM application (approximately $600 to well over $2,500) and you see the low-buck advantage.
6. Axle vent tubes
Why: The vent tubes for your truck’s front and rear differentials are set up from the factory for the average user. Most of us are not the average user. We throw our rigs into deep water and mud that can overtop the vent tubes, which can allow water and/or mud to enter our rigs differentials. This water and mud has a devastating effect on the internals of the axles, annihilating just about everything. Depending on the amount of water or mud ingested, the internals may die slowly or quickly. An easy way to avoid this problem is to extend the length of each differential vent tube. The length of these tubes vary by manufacturer, so check the length on your rig. We prefer to run a completely new, longer hose instead of splicing a new piece to the factory hose. This eliminates the potential for leaks. Hose is inexpensive and can be purchased from just about any hardware or vehicle supply store.
Ali Mansour, Technical Editor
7. Jeep Cherokee XJ front driveshaft
Why: Most factory Jeep 4x4s are equipped with a slip-yoke-style rear driveline. In a stock configuration, the ’shafts work OK, but as you modify your suspension for more travel or lift, the angle of the stock driveline increases. This not only causes a driveline vibration, but the plunging effect of the slip-shaft sliding on the yoke as the suspension travels can actually become a major weak link. We’ve seen more than one transfer case output busted or broken due to a slip-yoke shaft. Upgrading your transfer case to a fixed output yoke with a slip-yoke eliminator is pretty common and affordable. The biggest expense often associated with the conversion is a new driveshaft. For those looking to save a buck, we suggest taking a drive out to your local pick-and-pull and grab a stock front driveline from an ’84-’01 Jeep Cherokee XJ. Since the XJ’s stock front shaft is already fitted with a 1310 CV-joint (constant velocity), all you will need to do is have the shaft cut or lengthened by your local driveline shop.
8. WJ steering knuckle
Why: The factory T- and Y-link steering systems placed on the ’84-’01 Jeep Cherokee XJ, ’93-’98 Grand Cherokee ZJ, and ’97-’06 Wrangler, leaves plenty to be desired. Upgrading to an aftermarket high-steer knuckle is a great investment, but not cheap. The low-buck alternative is to grab a set of steering knuckles from a ’99-’04 Jeep Grand Cherokee WJ. Since the WJ’s passenger-side knuckle separates the draglink and tie rod, it allows you to improve the steering angles and overall function of the steering system. You will need brake calipers and caliper mounting brackets from the WJ (which is an upgrade as well), along with steering knuckle flanges, such as those offered by JKS Manufacturing (www.jksmfg.com), part # OGS930. This isn’t for the novice wrench since it will require a new track bar and track bar mount to be fabricated. You will also have to craft steering links, but there is a tremendous amount of aftermarket help and options in that regard.
9. Ford OEM shock towers
Why: Not everyone is a master fabricator, but that doesn’t mean your build has to be limited to your growing skillset. We don’t often suggest going to the dealership for parts, but taking a trip to your local Blue Oval dealer might save you some time and money. The Ford shock tower (part # E5TZ-18188-A) is an easy-to-attach shock mount that can be trimmed to fit your specific application. We’ve used these on more than one occasion and traditionally paid around 40 bucks for a pair.