They're Not Rocket Science
To beat an old saying to death, it's the little things that count. Literally thousands of little components, wires, gizmos, and gadgets help power your 4x4, but it's a few of the smaller ones that really count. We know you have a few burning questions about those little cross-shaped joints in your driveshafts and axles, so here's the scoop. a u-joint (universal joint) is basically a flexible pivot point that transmits power through rotational motion between two shafts not in a straight line. The u-joint needs to be flexible to compensate for changes in driveline angle due to the constantly changing terrain under the vehicle. This theory of the u-joint has been around since ancient times, but a real working universal joint wasn't offi cially created until the 1670s by scientist and inventor robert hooke.
If you are new to automotive tech, then we need to tell you that in most cases you will find u-joints in your driveshafts at the output shafts of your transfer case and at the pinion shaft (input) of your front and rear differentials. if you have a solid front axle, then u-joints are likely used to join the inner and outer axleshafts.
At the end of each output and input shaft is either a yoke and/or a flange. The yokes that hold the u-joint bearing caps are sometimes referred to as ears. The bearing caps of the u-joint are pressed into the yoke (ear) and held in place with a c-clip (half circle), an internal snap ring, or a full-circle snap ring. vehicles that see heavy off-road use should use an internal or full-circle snap ring. if c-clip-style u-joints are only available for your application you can have them modified by a qualified machinist to accept fullcircle clips. Over time and under harsh conditions c-clips have a tendency to wear into irregular shapes and fall out. When the c-clip falls out eventually the u-joints bearing cap will work its way out of the yoke. if left unattended the trunnion (pin) of the u-joint will damage the shape of the yoke. This damage is very diffi cult to repair and usually requires the purchase of a new inner or outer axleshaft or costly driveshaft repairs.
Standard u-joints aren't designed to run at extreme driveshaft angles unless they are specially constructed. as a rule of thumb, the angle of a driveshaft should not exceed 22 degrees. however, some manufacturers do make quality high-angle driveshafts that operate dependably from 22 to 80 degrees. Extreme-angle driveshafts are achieved by using a double cardan constant velocity joint. This is basically a joint with two u-joints.
U-joint maintenance isn't too much of a factor today for the occasional off-road enthusiast. Most over-the-counter u-joints are sealed and nongreaseable and require little maintenance. keep in mind that sealed, nongreaseable u-joints can be contaminated, which will greatly reduce their lifespan. They aren't the best choice for harsh off- road conditions. greaseable u-joints will last far longer when properly maintained.
When performing general maintenance on your vehicle, it's not a bad idea to visually and manually check your u-joints for unusual wear, play, and missing clips. Engage your vehicle's e-brake and chock the tires. Place the transmission in Neutral, crawl underneath and rotate the driveshaft back and forth, stopping quickly. also try to move the driveshaft forward and rearward. if the u-joints are worn you will be able to feel movement in the joint. a bad driveshaft u-joint can also be indicated by a clunk when accelerating or decelerating, especially while backing up. an unusual vibration while driving is also a good indicator that the u-joints should be checked.
Numerous high-strength-alloy u-joints are built for extreme off-road use. Metallurgy has come a long way and some of these aftermarket guys have turned u-joints into an extreme science. Traditionally u-joints are made with needle bearings, which offer extended lifespan under not-so-harsh conditions, but u-joints are also available with bronze alloy bushings, which seem to last longer under extremely harsh conditions.