The First Steps: Making A List And Gathering Parts
Where does one start when planning a major makeover of a 10-year-old ex-project vehicle? By making a list or an outline of some of the parameters we wanted to use to make our Grand Cherokee even "Grand-er."
1. We wanted just enough lift to be able to clear 33-inch tires without limiting wheel travel and, most of all, without major fender surgery. Yes, 35s would be nice but we wanted to keep a Dana 30 up front due to cost measures and simplicity, and didn't think that it would be up to hard usage with 35s. Because this Jeep is a daily driver, we also didn't want to have height issues when getting in and out. However, having both done and said this, we did find some really cool fender flares from Iceland Off-Road that we may consider at a later date that will allow 35s at our present ride height.
2. Stronger driveline components with locking differentials, but not to the extreme of an expensive Dana 44/60 combination.
3. A long-arm suspension system for improved suspension geometry, which will in turn enhance the ride quality.
4. More positive steering than the Jeep Y-link setup offered.
5. Better seating.
The first item on our list was tires and, naturally, new wheels. Once we had our tires, we would have a better idea of just how much lift and minor fender trimming were going to be necessary.
Our friends at Mickey Thompson came up with not only tires, but matching wheels. These 33x12.50-15 MTZs are the latest in tire technology, with three full polyester sidewall plies, three more in the tread, two steel belts, and a rim guard, plus a great looking tread design. These will make a great all-around tire for our usage. Our choice of rims was the 8.5-inch-wide Classic Lock with 3.5 inches of backspacing. Yep, a full 1.5 inches less than the factory backspacing. This was to provide us with more clearance for a couple of crucial items that we will go into with more detail as we progress. Why the fake bead locks? Because they give some added protection from rock damage to the bead flange, and they really do look like true bead locks ... cool!
With tires and wheels set, we now need axles. OK, aftermarket Dana 60s would be cool, but way overkill. But we do need something a bit stronger than the CV-shafted Dana 30 front and the ill-fated bastard aluminum Dana 44 rear. We considered axles from Scouts and Jeep Wagoneers, and finally settled on a high-pinion Dana 30 from a very early Jeep XJ. Why this housing? Mostly because it was free, a discard from a Washington Jeepin' buddy. Besides, the proper mounts were already in place from the factory-well, most of them.
While smallish, the Dana 30s have a reputation for being quite strong, especially with the upgrades we had planned. The gears in a "high pinion" mesh in proper contact when used up front instead of on the backside of the ring gear, as in a low-pinion version. This makes the high-pinion 30 almost as strong as a low-pinion 44 would be running on the back side of the ring gear, plus it offers much better clearance under the differential housing due to its smaller size.
Our research led us to Motive Gear for a 4.11:1 gearset and installation kit. Motive has long been a supplier of quality gears to both OE manufacturers and the aftermarket, and past experience gave us confidence in their strength. We could have kept the present 30 and, most likely, it would have worked just fine in stock form. But in the end we wanted something just a bit better.
We had decided "for now anyway" to keep the full-time 4x4 system, so this meant some type of a disengaging locker. The new 30-spline ARB Air Locker fit the bill perfectly. No longer do you have to cut a notch in the main bearing cap for air line clearance, and there are some new internals that we will detail. Yes, there are a lot of extras that are needed to make it work, such as two switches, a relay, an air line, and the compressor. We spent extra time in routing and mounting these items to ensure problem-free service. In Cherokees, underhood mounting space is quite restrictive, and even more so since our Grand has the V-8 engine. Luckily, we found space next to the K&N filter/intake system that we had previously installed some 10 years ago.
With the ARB and Motive Gears in place, we went shopping for 30-spline axleshafts and found some great chromoly units from Superior Axle & Gear. These 44-size axleshafts took a while to arrive due to some production difficulties, but when we got them, we weren't disappointed in their quality. We thought about some strong aftermarket axle U-joints, but finally settled on some Spicer OEM-quality joints. These will be our "fuseable links" in the system. The downside to these stronger axles is that there is no way to mount the tone wheel for the ABS signal, so for now, anyway, we've lost our ABS brakes.