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Find and Fix Your Steering Woes

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John Cappa | Writer
Posted March 1, 2001

Tips for Eliminating Death Wobble and Other Handling Problems

Step By Step

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  • The most common culprit of wobble and erratic handling is worn-out components. Tie rod ends and ball joints should have dust boots intact. Grease the joints periodically if they have fittings.

  • You can check for slop in your steering by jacking up the front of your Jeep and grasping a tire at the nine and three o’clock positions. Wiggle it front to back. Slop will be noticeable. It helps to have a buddy watch the tie rod ends for looseness.

  • Loose or worn wheel bearings can also cause poor handling. They can be checked by grasping the wheel at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions. If there is any movement, the bearings should be repacked or replaced in the case of later-model Jeeps with unit bearings.

  • Here’s a common problem on CJs and YJs with spring-overs. The drag link on this Jeep has been bent to clear the spring and a drop pitman arm has been installed in an attempt to correct for the lift. This won’t cause the frightening wobble, but bumpsteer will result. The drag link should be close to parallel to the tie rod and axlehousing.

  • TJs are notorious for bent steering linkages. They come from the factory with a bend for clearance around the axle (arrow). It’s often hard to tell if it has been bent more after a rough trail. Always inspect your steering linkages for impacts and bends after a trail ride.

  • Loose U-bolts will wreak havoc on your Jeep’s handling. Keep ’em tight and check them frequently after installing a lift kit.

  • Rubber bushings may flex better than urethane but rubber will rot and fall apart. Inspect control arm, leaf spring, and shackle bushings. They locate the axles, so any slop will affect handling.

  • The ’76-’86 CJs have a slop-prone steering shaft. The slop will cause the Jeep to wander all over the road causing the driver to saw the steering wheel back and forth to go straight. The shaft can be upgraded with a U-joint–style unit.

  • If you install longer shackles on your leaf-sprung Jeep you will probably need shims like these on the front axle to correct the caster. Shackle-reversal kits often provide increased caster, which improves high-speed control.

It starts out as a slight shimmy from side to side that you can just barely feel in the steering wheel at about 25 mph. As the side-to-side action gains momentum it practically rips the wheel out of your hands. It feels and sounds as though the front axle is going to get tossed out from under your Jeep at any moment. Looking out the window at the frontend reveals the tires dancing back and forth like a couple of cancan girls. Other motorists scatter at the sight of your out-of-control Jeep. Speeding up to around 50 mph or bringing your Jeep to a complete stop is usually the only way to stop the shaking. But not for good.

To permanently eliminate the death wobble and avoid other handling problems, here are a few tips.