They're still the king of cheap, popular, and easy-to-build Jeeps. If you own a TJ, you can let your fingers do the walking through catalogs or Internet sites and choose from an army of parts to make your Wrangler ride, drive, and wheel better. But there are a few common areas that require addressing on '97-'06 TJ and LJ models. We pooled our collective "brainpower" here at Jp and also leaned on the storied experience of TAG Motorsports' Jay Miller to highlight some common problems and solutions and hopefully make your Wrangler day a brighter one.
The factory saddled TJ models with a leak-prone radiator that features plastic tank caps clamped onto an aluminum core. Even if you ditch your leaky factory radiator for a stock replacement, it's only a matter of time until the new one starts weeping as well. Companies like Novak Conversions, Griffin, Derale, and Northern, as well as several others, offer leak-free, all-aluminum replacement radiators for TJ vehicles.
If you've got a 4.0L engine you're gonna have exhaust leaks of some sort. Virtually all TJ factory tubular exhaust manifolds from '97-'99 develop cracks. Aftermarket headers such as those from Banks, Borla, Gibson, Edelbrock, and others usually provide the best the fix. Miller says that on '00-'06 models with the twin catalytic converters mounted just downstream of the cast-iron exhaust manifold there's a big problem with the flange studs coming loose-it causes a leak at the collector.
He also says that virtually every aftermarket tubular header he's installed on an '00-'06 has become heat-affected by the cats and has cracked. The solution to exhaust leak problems on the these models is to first have longer studs installed in the manifold-to-cat flanges so that you can double-nut the studs. Then, add a second hanger to the downpipe between the pre-cats and the main cat. The additional stability will help take leverage off the manifold flange studs, preventing them from loosening.
The factory steering linkage leaves a lot to be desired. The stock Y-shaped tie rod/drag link assembly is not only thin-wall, small-diameter tubing, but the factory put a bend on the passenger-side to clear the knuckle when the wheels are fully turned to the right. It's usually at this factory bend or at the weenie tie rod ends themselves that you'll get acquainted with a steering trail repair. One of the easiest upgrades you can do to bend-proof your TJ steering is to replace the factory steering setup (top) with a Currie Enterprises Currectlync heavy-duty tie rod/drag link kit with upgraded tie rod ends. Miller says that while you're at it, pop on a Rancho steering stabilizer (PN RS5401). It has a larger body than what the Rancho catalog calls for in a TJ stabilizer and helps cure steering shimmy.
Fold and Tumble
The lower control arm mounts on the front axle (arrow) can fold with heavy off-roading. Several suspension companies offer pre-cut weld-on reinforcement plates to box in the factory mounts. They're basically just a square piece of 1/8- or 3/16-inch steel, so if you can cut and weld yourself, go ahead and box in your lower mounts. Once the plate is welded in, the factory mounts will serve you well.
Keep on Track
The factory rear track bar bracket can tear off the axle tube unless it's bolstered with some sort of weld-on or bolt-on reinforcement. This is especially true in lifted vehicles. Once the track bar bracket rips off, it often takes out the upper control arm mount on the driver's side. Many high-end suspension systems like this Superlift long-arm setup include some way of beefing the stock track bar bracket. Plus, companies like Dynatrac, M.O.R.E., and Rubicon Express offer new heavy-duty weld-on brackets made of sturdier steel.
So you just bought a '97 Wrangler and you're wondering why there's a big puddle on the front floorboards in the morning after a big rainstorm? Pretty much all '97 and even some other late '90s TJs suffered from a horrendous cowl vent design that allowed water to pour virtually straight into the cockpit. One solution is to add some sort of vent cover, such as Bushwhacker's vent scoop (PN 15002). Or, you can order a later-model internal cowl vent shield from the dealership to divert water. Make sure both rubber cowl vent drain tubes located on the passenger side of the firewall (one located closer to the engine, another under the battery tray) aren't obstructed by leaves or debris.
Snap, Crackle, Pop
Miller advises that if hardcore wheeling is in your TJ's future, remove the factory 10mm bolts and replace them with larger 7/16- or 1/2-inch bolts; he's seen several stock upper control arm bolts snap. If you're running the stock control arms with the rubber bushing, you can run a 7/16-inch drill bit through the steel sleeve to open it up for the larger bolt. Or, companies like Rubicon Express have started offering flex joints in their suspension systems for use with a larger 1/2-inch upper control arm bolt.
Bearings, Balls, and Joints
While not as prevalent as the newer JK models with their upper kingpin-type joint, Miller says he does see a fair amount of worn ball joints in TJ/LJ Dana 30 and Dana 44 axles on vehicles running larger tires. Likewise, the factory Unitbearings may suffer a shortened lifespan with larger, heavier wheels and tires. If you're buying a TJ that's already lifted and sporting larger tires, or if you're beginning to notice any feathering or funny wear on your front tire tread, give your joints and Unitbearings a once-over for excessive play.
Many Wrangler owners have trouble shifting the transfer case. Don't despair, though, because it's seldom an internal problem with the NP231 or NP241OR T-case. The T-case shifter bracket mounts to the underside of the floor, so if your body bushings have worn and sagged or if a body lift has been installed, a simple adjustment of the T-case shift rod may be all that's needed to regain your crisp 4WD shifting. Reach up under the skid plate and loosen the rod adjustment nut where it attaches to the in-cab shift lever with a 1/2-inch wrench, then slide the rod in or out as needed. Tighten the nut back down and test your shifter.
Tapered tie rod ends are a great thing-when used within their original design parameters. But add a heavier axle, bigger wheels and tires, or more leverage from a lift kit, and the factory front tie rod end at the frame mount usually becomes loose and sloppy or snaps altogether. Miller advises upgrading to an aftermarket track bar assembly. Currie Enterprises, Rubicon Express, and others use extra bracing and either a rod end, spherical flex joint, or even a simple poly bushing at the frame mount to better handle the rigors of hard off-road abuse.