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Nuts & Bolts: Flat-Tow Woes

Posted in How To: Suspension Brakes on February 10, 2017
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Flat-Tow Woes

Ten or so years ago I bought a 1995 YJ to flat-tow behind my RV, and as is typical, I started upgrading. It started with 31s, then came power steering, lockers, 4.88s, eventually 33s, and now 35s. I noticed recently during slow, somewhat sharp turns (as in fuel stops) that the front wheels will turn in the opposite direction I'm turning. The tow bar is level, and I’ve tried different tire pressures. None of that helped. It drives great for an old Jeep, and the tires wear good, but I also wheel pretty hard in the rocks here in the South. I’m not sure when or what started it, but it has recently gotten much worse. The frontend seems to be in good shape. Any ideas? I’m on a trip now, and does it at almost every stop if I fail to make wide turns. It still drives good and tight on the highway with no pulling.

Billy M.
Via nuts@4wheeloffroad.com

Since the Jeep started out flat towing OK but has gradually gotten worse, we would bet the issue is somewhere in the suspension, steering, or front axle. The biggest factors in a flat-towed vehicle’s ability to follow the tow rig are caster and toe, so we would start there.

Caster is not really going to change on your YJ unless you’ve dramatically altered the shackle length and/or severely changed the rotation of the pinion, so we doubt that’s the problem unless the symptoms started when you installed the lift on the Jeep. We’re guessing your Jeep probably has about a 4-inch lift, and sometimes the front springs will have shims to alleviate front driveline angle. The problem is that those shims also reduce caster. If present, we would recommend removing them and then doing whatever you needed to make the front driveline happy, even if it means a locking hub conversion (which wouldn’t be a bad idea for your application anyway with the front locker).

Toe is easy to check, but it has been our experience that every flat-towed vehicle is different in terms of what tow they prefer. Start with 1/16 inch of toe-in, then try 1/8 inch or even 1/4 inch to see if that helps. We’ve even heard of some vehicles that need a slight toe-out to follow properly, but in almost each of those cases it’s a JK front axle.

Beyond these two things, the rest of our recommendations revolve around inspecting components for wear. All of the steering components must be 100 percent up to snuff, along with the wheel bearings and ball joints. Check the front shackle bushings and also the front track bar. All of these things could have gotten damaged or worn out if you have been wheeling the Jeep hard between RV trips. Did you remove the front track bar when you installed the lift? If so, try putting it back. Lastly, you might want to take a close look at the lockers, especially the front one. Lockers can break in such a way that they don’t like to unlock when going around corners, and this can end up “pushing” the frontend in the opposite direction desired.

In the end, though, you may want to consider just getting a trailer or a tow dolly. It sounds like your Jeep is getting to the point where you’re doing some pretty hard trails with it, and if you break it, it’s far easier to rake the pieces onto a trailer than it is to cobble it together enough to flat-tow home.

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