Project purgatory, that seemingly inescapable place your 4x4 build ends up in when your ambitions outweigh your available time and/or funds. If you’ve been messing around with 4x4s long enough, you’ve had a project parked there. With no shortage of that experience to benefit from, and with a solid axle swap plan that’s easy to replicate in your garage or driveway, our aim with Short Range was to keep progress rolling with a realistic, attainable, and comparatively simple build plan. It worked . . . kinda.
Our axle and suspension plan for Short Range, a weathered but reliable 1995 Ford Ranger (which we mistakenly called a 1998 in Part 1—whoops!), is a relatively small, easy, and affordable undertaking in the grand scope of 4x4 projects. That was precisely the point. There’s no triangulated-four-link geometry to make sense of, no coilovers, no bypass shocks, no hydraulic steering, just a simple recipe to create a reliable and capable truck for tight New England trails. Sometimes working with what you’ve got and following the rule of thumb S.I.G. (simple is good) results in a straight path to quick project completion. But as with any project, everything doesn’t always go according to plan. Truth is we shot a few holes in the budget and (consequently) the timeframe while building the axles in Part 1, but if we can chalk that up to how the cookie crumbles, Short Range still serves to prove that a champagne budget and an exorbitant amount of free time are not prerequisites to having fun out on the trail.
Our starting point was a comparatively weak and worn-out TTB Dana 35 factory front axle, a pair of seasoned 4-inch-lift coils, and a set of vintage BFG 33-inch MTs that had so many weather cracks we were positively baffled by their ability to still hold air. Needless to say, the timing for a solid axle swap was ripe.
With our early-Bronco Dana 44/Ford 9-inch axle builds ready to be slung under our 1995 Ranger, we could now marry our new solid axles to our factory IFS-equipped Ranger. The rear-axle install is fairly straightforward (we will get to in Part 3), with the most difficult part being locating the leaf-spring perches on the axletubes and burning them on with a welder. The front, however, required a little more work and a helping hand from the aftermarket. That helping hand came from James Duff, one of the premiere resources for anything early Bronco, fullsize Bronco, Bronco II, and Ranger. For anyone tackling a similar project, James Duff carries everything you need to stab a solid front axle under your 1983-1997 Ranger. From coil buckets and radius arms to radius-arm mounts, track-bar brackets, and on and on, James Duff can be considered “the easy button” for a project like Short Range. We took full advantage of it.
Our plan of attack for the suspension—which included dual-rate Bronco coil springs and Deaver leaf springs for the rear (also sourced through James Duff)—will net us a conservative 3 1/2 inches of lift and help keep Short Range low and stable on its new 35-inch Dick Cepek Extreme Country tires. We will be tackling the rear suspension, as well as all the lingering loose ends (steering, track bar, various other bits and pieces) in the next installment, so stay tuned.
Making this solid axle swap even easier than a long-arm suspension install on a Jeep TJ were certain key parts from James Duff. These included the company’s Long Travel Radius Arms and the frame brackets to mount them, combination coil/shock mount coil buckets, a pair of 3 1/2-inch-lift progressive coils, an SAS track bar mount, a dropped pitman arm, and poly 4-degree-caster C-bushings. For the rear (which we’ll get to in Part 3), we ordered up a pair of 3 1/2-inch lift James Duff progressive-rate leaf springs and U-bolts.
At roughly 45 inches, James Duff’s long-travel radius arms are 10 3/4 inches longer than factory early-Bronco arms and over twice as long as the Ranger’s factory arms, opening the door to much more wheel travel and a better overall ride. They feature stout 5/16-inch-wall DOM tube, 1/4-inch plate steel construction, and massive 1-inch-bore Teflon-lined rod ends on the frame side. They are the same application used for the 1978 -1996 fullsize Broncos, so we know they will lead a healthy, long life under our lightweight Ranger.
In order to gain clearance for the new radius arms to travel at will, the two-factory transmission crossmember frame brackets needed to part ways with the frame. Each bracket is held to the frame with three steel rivets, the heads of which need to be either ground or torched off. We chose the latter. Duff sells a heavy-duty transmission crossmember (which we forgot to order) designed to work the factory frame mounts, but for now we are using a piece of angle-iron wedged into the framerails to hold the drivetrain in place. We will tackle this in Part 3.
The next step was to hold the rear radius arm mounts up to the frame, set the mounts in the location as specified in the directions, mark the five holes (four in the face, one underneath), drill them out to 1/2 inch, and bolt the mounts on using the supplied hardware. That’s as easy as it gets. Though the mounts are fully bolt-on, we will likely end up welding them to the frame for added strength and a little long-term reassurance.
With the shocks, brakes, and steering linkage disconnected, the entire TTB front axle assembly can be unbolted from the frame in one shot—springs, control arms, and all. If yours is in decent shape, you might be able sell it to recoup a small portion of the cost. Ours was smoked, but it will add a nice bit of poundage to the scrap-steel pile.
Like the transmission crossmember mounts, the factory coil buckets are held to the frame with steel rivets. This time there are five of them, all super-easy to access. Burn or grind them off at your discretion and simply pop the buckets off the frame.
The new James Duff coil buckets are welded up from 1/4-inch laser-cut plate steel and are, like the Duff radius arms, vastly overbuilt for our little four-cylinder Ranger. They are treated to the same signature “Duff blue” powdercoating as the other components. Not only do they double as the shock mount, but they also allow the use of early-Bronco coil springs. Once the factory buckets are removed, only one rivet hole per side needed to be enlarged for installation—otherwise the James Duff coil buckets were 100 percent bolt-on using the existing rivet holes.
Instead of “piecemealing” each component, we decided to bolt the radius arms onto our freshly built Dana 44, bolt the lower coil buckets onto the radius arms, slip the new progressive-rate Bronco springs into the buckets, bolt on the new Dick Cepek wheels and tires, roll the whole shebang up under the Ranger, and lower the truck down to secure the arms and springs in their new respective homes. It worked like a charm. And yes, you’re entirely correct, we are geniuses.
All things considered, the bulk of the work on this solid axle swap was a cakewalk. Sure, we had the benefit of a lift to make the job easier, but assuming you have the basic tools there is absolutely no reason you couldn’t tackle this job in your driveway. We still have a bunch of loose ends to address (namely the shocks, steering, brakes, and transmission crossmember), but we are well on our way to a finished product. Stay tuned!