1997 Jeep Cherokee XJ - Building The Ultimate Cherokee, Part 1Posted in Project Vehicles on July 1, 1999
As many readers already know, classic Jeep Cherokee XJs are some of the most capable new 4x4s available today. In addition to winning our 1997 Four Wheeler Of The Year competition, a Cherokee can be modified to excel on both the street and in light trailwork, as we've shown with our Project "Road and Trail.''
This time, we'll address the hardcore trail contingent. Equipped with solid axles front and rear, Cherokees already have half the battle licked. However, when locking differentials and larger tires become part of the mix, a swap to some stronger axles makes sense. ARB locking differentials, 4.56:1 gears, and 33-inch tires are a part of our plan. And when you combine these hardcore parts with the stock Dana 35C rearend, you get hardcore snappage. The Dana 35 uses C-clips to retain the axle shafts, and under extreme use, these can break and slide the axles out of the tubes. Thirty-fives also use 27-spline axleshafts, which are not designed for the stresses of locking differentials and big tires. A custom Dana 44 rear axle is a good swap candidate because it not only has an 8.5-inch ring gear and beefy 30-spline axle shafts, but it can also be equipped with disc brakes for increased stopping power.
While the frontend is the smaller Dana 30, it really is quite a decent axle. It has the same U-joints (Spicer 5-297X) as the larger Dana 44. The weakness of the Dana 30 is in the super-small 7-inch ring gear, the 27-spline axles, and the lighter axlehousing. Our Project "Teal J'' runs a locked Dana 30 with 4.10:1 gears and 33x14.50 tires, and has lived so far under some fairly extreme trails. However, since we'll be running 4.56:1 gears on this vehicle, and since we . . . um . . . happened to snap our Cherokee's Dana 30 housing in half on a 'wheeling trip (don't ask), we decided a matching front Dana 44 with beefier axle tubes and inner axleshafts would fit the bill.
We decided to have Currie Enterprises, renown for their stout Ford 9-inch and new high-pinion 8.8-inch axles, build us some custom Dana 44s. Currie uses a special forged alloy steel to build its axleshafts. These have a deeper case hardness than stock shafts, and when compared to the stock 27-spline rearend, offers an easy 40 percent increase in strength. Currie is expanding its line of stout custom axles and now offers custom Dana 44s and Dana 60s. It has also expanded its manufacturing facility and can now perform installations.
To save costs we elected to stay with the stock 5-on-41/2 bolt pattern. This allows us to retain our stock front brakes and unit-bearing inner axles as well as upgrade the rear 44 to disc brakes from the Grand Cherokee. Though the unit-bearing hub is a full-time setup, we've had good luck with them in the past. For those wanting manual hubs, Warn's Manual Hub kit is easy to install and is available for any full-time Dana 30.
When building custom axles for any vehicle, altering width from stock is easily feasible. However, we consulted the Off-Road General Store, as it will be building a custom suspension for our Cherokee. It determined our Cherokee's stock axle width--combined with their suspension and the proper offset wheels--will allow 33-inch tires to fit at full articulation, albeit with slight fender trimming. We've driven the store's Cherokee with these same modifications, and it seems to be the perfect setup for hardcore trail use and comfortable streetability.
NEXT TIME: SUSPENSION
In the next installment, we'll address the custom suspension for the Cherokee and the installation of our Currie Dana 44s. We'll also solve the rear driveshaft angularity problems with a tailshaft conversion kit for our NVG 231. Once it's all dialed in, we'll head out to the trail to give the new setup a thorough workout.