Solid axles are simple and strong. And while swapping a driven-beam front axle into a modern 4x4 may seem like a step back in time to an automotive engineer, we don’t care. We know how we will use a vehicle. While an independent front suspension could be built to withstand our use and abuse, it wouldn’t be cheap or easy to build and would probably be quirky at best while on-road (where we spend a lot of time). Solid axles are readily available and are a well-known item with a variety of suspension setups that afford differing performance, so we can hone a project to behave the way we’d like. Sure, a few recent factory 4x4s have solid front axles, but each has a downside that makes converting an otherwise reliable and desirable older 4x4 to a solid front axle more sensible.
Our platform of choice begins with a few simple criteria: We wanted four-doors (and seats) and enough space for some gear, a body-on-frame construction for durability, and a vehicle that has some familiar parts that aren’t too expensive to replace or maintain. We don’t want anything too rare or expensive, for a couple of reasons. First, we’d like the engine and transmission to be easy to adapt to 4WD parts we like. Also, we’d like to be able to get an alternator (or other parts) at just about any parts store in the nation if need be.
Our 2001 Chevrolet S10 was the perfect car to start with. It was an “old man car,” meaning it was driven calmly by some old dude not looking to go anywhere fast. With a GM 4.3L V-6 bolted to a 4L60E, we knew it would be dead-reliable and easy to get parts for. It was also an Arizona car, which means it has almost no rust. Working on it is easy because all the nuts and bolts turn as expected rather than seize and snap. With a body-on-frame construction and an existing Saginaw power steering box from the factory, the solid axle swap is made a bit easier.
We have owned fullsize trucks and tiny Jeeps and knew we wanted something near the middle in terms of size so the rig would fit on trails without being too cramped inside if friends and family were to accompany us on our adventures. We didn’t want to spend much money for the initial purchase of a vehicle that we knew would shortly be under the knife.
That limits us to a few SUVs from domestic and Japanese automakers. Many would have worked, but for some reason we were drawn to a bright red 2001 Chevy Blazer LT 4x4 we found for sale online. The truck had had an easy life, low miles, and had been owned by an older couple who liked to go fishing (and didn’t smoke). It was an Arizona car, which meant it was rust-free, albeit a little sun-faded. The price was good. Parts are available everywhere. The nearly new tires on the Blazer were the same size as those on our trailer. The truck looked kind of dopey with its factory “Krull” wheels and bug shield but had a ton of potential.
With that, we took it home and started planning our build with hopes of having a capable family wheeler that we could drive to and over most any trail in the country.
We had done our homework and looked at a few S10 solid axle swaps on the web and in person. We were pretty familiar with the idea and knew what we liked or didn’t like about what others had done. To keep things simple, we decided to run leaf springs. We contemplated getting one of the available DIY SAS kits but figured that in the end we could piece together the parts we wanted to use for the suspension. We dug up a pair of Jeep Wagoneer/J-truck front springs from our secret personal junkyard (and they call us a hoarder!). These would serve as the basis for our front suspension while the rear of the truck would retain the factory springs with a few modifications. Late 1970s, early 1980s Waggy/J-Truck springs have offset centerpins that will allow us to push the axle forward while getting as much flex as possible from a simple old leaf-spring suspension.
Our axles of choice are a high-pinion Ford Dana 44 front from a 1970s Super Cab F-150 and a similar-year Ford 9-inch rear, both with Detroit Lockers and 5.13:1 gears. For more info on the specifics of what we did to the axles—including RCV axleshafts, Warn locking hubs, Reid knuckles, a RuffStuff Specialties differential cover, and more—check out “Full-Width Junkyard Axles” in the May 2017 issue of 4WOR.
We pulled the Blazer into our garage and gutted the front end of the truck, removing all of the suspension and front axle bits along with the truck’s original electronic-shift, full-time T-case and some of the front sheetmetal. To replace the electronic-shift NP236 that our S10 Blazer came with, we built a junkyard-fresh 1997 S10 NP231 with a six-gear planetary, a wide chain, and a slip-yoke eliminator from JB Conversions. Check out “Digging In” in the Jan. 2017 issue of 4WOR for the full story on the T-case (fourwheeler.com/how-to/transmission-drivetrain/np231-rebuild-and-beef-up).
To shift the NP231, we talked our friends at Novak into sending us one of their shifter assemblies (PN SK2X) for the GM NP231 bolt pattern. The main bracket for the shifter wanted to share space with our Blazer’s fuel lines, so we cut a 1 1/2-inch hole in the bracket to clear the lines.
With the shifter assembly bolted to the transmission via the T-case mounting bolts, we used a hammer and punch to locate the best spot to drill a hole for the shift rod through the floor of the Blazer. After drilling with a hole saw, we used half of a reproduction twin-stick Jeep CJ shift boot to cover the hole and clean up the interior portion of the shifter. These shifters are simple and work well, offering a positive shift feel that is easy to operate.
Getting back to installing that solid axle, we had made a call to RuffStuff Specialties for a bunch of fabrication parts that would make this conversion go as planned. We ordered the Dana 44 Front Axle Swap Kit (PN D44FSS, $125) for 3-inch axletubes and 2 1/2-inch springs. We also ordered a pair of 3-inch-inside-diameter leaf spring hangers (PN 3-HANG, $33 a pair) and shackle hangers (PN WBHGR, $44) with small 4-inch shackles ($29 extra) for the front. Shown are the shackles and shackle hangers along with some outriggers we made of 2x4x0.188-wall rectangular steel tubing and some gussets we had cut by our buddy, Rob Bonney, of Rob Bonney Fabrication.
With the Blazer’s frame cleaned of all the factory suspension brackets, we placed the front spring hangers from RuffStuff. To help strengthen the spring hangers, we also added a few more of the plate-steel custom brackets we had Rob Bonney Fabrication cut on a plasma table.
For steering, we sent our factory S10 Blazer box to West Texas Offroad, which cleaned, rebuilt, and plumbed the box for hydraulic ram assist. Then the shop shipped the box back to us with a ram, rod ends, hoses, and mounting hardware as part of a kit it calls the Complete Kit, starting at $549. We bolted the box in place and mounted the ram per the instructions, and soon our Blazer was ready to steer 37s. We have previously used Redneck Ram on several of our vehicles, and the system always performs great, even with tires aired down in heavy rocks.
To help support the frame, we planned on adding a bunch of gussets and plating, but first we added this 2x4x0.120-wall rectangular tubing between the framerails near the front leaf spring perches. We also added bumper mounts and a 1.75x0.120-wall DOM crossmember below the power steering box from framerail to framerail.
With the shackle hangers and outriggers tacked together, we measured twice, eyeballed the shackle angle, and tacked the shackle hangers in place right as the frame curved to its lowest point behind the back of the front tires. If you were using YJ leaf springs as opposed to the Wagoneer/J-Truck springs we used, these hangers would need to sit a bit farther forward from where we put them to keep the centerline of the axle where ours is.
For the rear we ordered up the Ford 9-inch Simple Swap Kit for big tubed 9-inch and 2 1/2-inch springs (PN 9SS25-BIG, $125). The kit includes U-bolts, spring plates, axle perches, and shock mounts. We installed the Ford 9-inch under the factory Blazer rear leaf springs (spring over). The axle is spring-under from the factory. The nice, long spring plates from RuffStuff allowed us to push the axle back 1 inch and will help reduce axlewrap on the long factory Blazer packs.
If there is ever a theme to our builds it’s keeping things cheap and simple, because we’re cheap and simple guys. But we also stick to what we know works. One aftermarket company that we always turn to is Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts. The parts are as bulletproof as you can make driveshafts, and they always fit. The folks at Tom Wood’s are professional, shipping product fast, which is exactly what we want when we are so close to being done with a new trail rig. With the Blazer sitting on its new axles and with the transfer case in place, we could now measure for driveshafts.
We like keeping our rigs as low as possible and fitting big tires. The result is a good-looking truck that is stable and confidence building. To help clear a set of new 37-inch Nitto Ridge Grapplers, we removed the front inner fenderwells and trimmed a much larger opening in the Blazer’s front fenders. We used a plasma cutter and an air saw to do the trimming after marking up the fender with permanent marker and some blue painters tape.
Chevy S10s are known for having a firewall that is close to the back of the front tires. On a stock truck this area of the firewall can get in the way of any tire much over 33 inches in diameter, but with wider axles and the axle pushed forward, a little air saw and some hammer work gained plenty of clearance. You can also see the 2x4x0.188-wall rectangular tubing and 1/8-inch plate reinforcement that will serve as a stout rock slider mount. We also plan on adding a rollcage that will be partially outside the cab of the Blazer, and it, too, will mount to this leg someday.
There is not much room under the hood of an S10 Blazer. Many items mount to the inner fenderwells, which had to go from our truck for tire clearance. To hold items like the computer, radiator overflow, and power distribution center, we built brackets that are welded to the shock towers and bolted to what’s left of the fenders. We used 2x1/8-inch and 3/4x1/8-inch plate steel to make the brackets. We will run a conical air filter in place of the bulky air box and unfortunately lost the windshield wiper fluid reservoir. Oh well.
We drew up these frame plates to beef up the factory hydroformed frame, the thickness of which is somewhere between 12-gauge and 1/8 inch. Our plates add 1/8 inch to both front framerails, making the outside of the frame about a quarter-inch thick. Again we turned to Rob Bonney Fab to have our cardboard templates turned into steel plates. The plates were then MIG-welded to the frame using our Miller Electric Millermatic 211 welder.
With the frame plates cut, we welded and hammered them into place. The framerails on these trucks have lots of contours that we tried to match using our press brake and a big hammer. The 1/2-inch holes throughout the plates help secure the two pieces of metal together, adding strength.
For brake hoses and shocks we went with Skyjacker’s front and rear braided stainless steel brake lines (PN FBL88, front; RBL88, rear). These brake lines intended for a 1988-1998 Chevy pickup and fullsize SUV with 4-6 inches of lift were perfect for our SAS Blazer with a Ford 9-inch rear axle (we may have swapped around the supplied adapters). For shocks we ordered four of Skyjacker’s new M95 Monotubes. After digging through the catalog we asked for two of the PN M9541 shocks for the front (15 1/2 inches collapsed, 26 extended) and two of the PN M9583 shocks for the rear (16 inches collapsed, 27 extended). Front and rear we used the factory frame-side shock mounts and the RuffStuff shock mounts on the axles.