Front Dana 44 conversion for your YJ
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Last month we covered swapping a Ford 9" in to the rear of a Jeep. This month we will be covering the front portion of the swap which includes a Dana 44 axle, spring-over suspension, shackle reversal, and a high steer conversion. There are many advantages to swapping a Dana 44 in the front of your Jeep, especially if you can locate a donor unit from an early Ford Bronco. The Dana 44 uses 30-spline axles, internal hubs, larger 297 u-joints, 5" on 5.5" bolt pattern, and if you can find one from a 1976 or 1977 Bronco it should have factory disc brakes. The Bronco Dana 44 also features a driver's side pinion drop and the stock width of the axle is close enough to the stock Jeep width that cutting the axle is not required. One drawback to this swap is the labor needed to cut all of the stock Ford mounts away from the donor housing.
The first step was to find a suitable axle donor. I located a complete assembly on Ebay and again thanks to Visa, my new unit was on its way to Randy's Offroad in Marysville, WA where the work would be completed. One week later the Dana 44 arrived at the shop and almost immediately we noticed a huge homemade axle truss welded to the axle that was not mentioned in prior discussions with the on-line seller. A truss that big and heavy could only mean one of two things, either it was used for snow removal or the axle was beaten regularly and the truss was now holding the whole show together. Keeping an open mind, the truss was cut off and the housing was politely introduced to the wire wheel. Once the housing was taken to bare metal, it became apparent that it had led a rough life and was beyond repair. With a new housing now on the way, the remainder of the parts were inspected before continuing.
|The front Dana 44 has arrived, there is much work ahead.||As with the rear, very little will be re-used due to it's condition.||The axle housing showed here is beyond repair, and a new housing would have to be found.||The second housing all cleaned up and ready for parts.|
The only items reused from the original axle assembly were the axles; everything else was replaced with either new or upgraded parts. Knowing that I wanted to go to a high-steer set-up, the knuckles would have to be replaced also. Remember the first housing? I found someone that was eager to trade the abused Ford housing for a Chevy Dana 44 housing complete with flat-top knuckles. In addition to the knuckles, it was also necessary to buy a set of hi-steer brackets that will be used to attach the new steering components to the Chevy knuckles.
|The ARB has arrived and will soon be installed in to the Dana 44.||The entire front end was removed to make room for the new components.||New hi-steer arms are bolted on to the Chevy knuckles.||The new tie rod is machined out of solid 1" stainless stock, threaded for heim joints, and attached to the arms.|
An ARB air locker and 4.88 gears were stuffed in to the front housing as well as new pinion, front spindle, and carrier bearings. Next, new ball joints were installed and the Chevy knuckles and mated to the Ford housing. The new Chevy (73-87) rotors, calipers, and pads were installed along with new Warn premium hubs. When paired with the new larger brakes in the rear, these should provide strong braking and stopping power for the light Wrangler.
Now that the axle is coming together nicely, it was time to shift to the high-steer and shackle reversal set-up. Randy's Offroad fabricated a new tie rod and drag link out of 1" stainless steel solid stock. The tie rod ends were internally threaded and new heim joints were installed. The drag link was externally threaded to accept a Chevy tie rod end on one side, and internally threaded to accept a heim joint on the other. With the tie rod now installed, and perches were tack welded in to place, it was time to fit it to it's new home.
|The new front hanger is welded to the frame two inches forward of the stock location.||The axle is raised under the springs for a test fitting.||A great touch to the reversal; Randy's welds A36 plate on to the front spring hanger.||The first shock location will not work, the shock must be moved to the top of the axle tube.|
With the axle now begging to be under the Jeep, the stock spring hangers were removed to make way for the new hangers. (Due to the increased axle movement, the front axle was moved forward approximately two inches to attain the correct suspension geometry). With the new hangers tacked on, the 1.5" inch lift Rubicon Express spring over springs were hung under the Jeep and mounted to the axle. A great custom touch that Randy's puts on their shackle reversal's is to weld an A36 plate on the front spring hangers to achieve a smooth surface that will allow you to slide over obstacles rather than catch them on the protruding front hangers. Because of the extended wheel base, the bumper had to be notched to allow room for the front spring hangers. With the front end now taking shape, the drag link was attached to the new flat pitman arm, and the welds were finished up.
When the shocks were re-installed and the jeep was ramped, it was quickly discovered that the shock mounts were not going to work where they were. Due to the articulation of the new springs, the shocks would have to be mounted near the top of the axle housing. Raising the lower shock mount meant that the top shock tower had to be removed, and a custom mount would have to be designed. Randy's quickly went to work fabricating a new tubular shock tower that would not only hold up to any amount of abuse, it gives me the ability to add an additional shock if the need arises. With the new tower assembled on the bench, it was welded to the frame and checked for any clearance issues. With the final weld bead completed, a coat of gloss black was applied and the Jeep was ramped one additional time to ensure that there were no further issues to address.
|The new shock tower allowed the axle shock mount to be raised up.||The shock hoop is then welded to the frame of the Jeep.||This shows the elevated position of the lower shock mount, keeping it out of harm's way.||The new steering set-up allowed the use of a flat pitman arm.|
With the new front end under the Jeep, it was time to install and plumb the ARB compressor that will power the front and rear ARB air lockers. Because of their susceptibility to getting torn or ripped off, the ARB air lines that came packaged with the air lockers were replaced with ARB's heavy duty air line kit (HDAL) for both the front and rear. The ARB compressor mounted perfectly where the stock jack had been mounted on the inside fender-well. A home was found for the three ARB switches that would be installed in the dash, and the complete ARB wiring harness was used to connect everything neatly together.
The last step was to order a new front drive line. Due to the articulation that the front now has, I had to order a 14-inch travel "rock crawler" shaft. The new driveline resembles a PTO type shaft with approximately 6 inches of splines protruding out from the tube end. One big drawback to using this type of driveline is that rather than having grease zerks, the shaft must be disassembled and greased manually to ensure trouble free operation. In order to clear the drive line movement, the exhaust had to be re-routed from the front of the oil pan to the top of the pan, and a notch was cut out of the transfer case skid plate to accommodate the downward travel of the shaft.
|The 1" solid stainless drag link was externally machined to accept a Chevy end.||Now sporting Warn premium hubs, the troublesome vacuum unit is out of the picture.||The bumper was notched, allowing the front hangers to be mounted forward.||Using the ramp, the front is articulated one final time to look for potential issues.|
I knew from previous experience that it would be necessary to protect the front differential from rocks and damage. Having used the "football helmet" type guards in the past, I wanted something that would protect the differential and not get hung up on trail debris. I contacted Tim Plamondon with Crane High Clearance in Littleton, Colorado and ordered a new "High Clearance" differential cover for Dana 44. After a mere couple of days my new cover showed up at the door complete with all of the goodies needed to install it. In addition to the cover, Crane supplies the fill plug, Holo-Krome button head cap bolts, sealant, and instructions.
The installation was quite simple, and can be done with hand tools; Un-bolt the original cover and remove it from the housing (You will want a drain pan underneath). With the old cover now removed, and the oil removed, simply apply the provided sealant, bolt on the cover using the supplied hardware, and add some gear oil. This cover is bullet proof (literally), it does not have any lips or edges to catch on rocks, and comes with a lifetime guarantee on both materials and workmanship.
|Make sure you have a drain pan handy when removing the cover||Allow the fluid to drain before attempting to install the new cover.||The new cover is beefy, and will no doubt withstand any punishment.||Due to the shaft movement, a longer drive line was a necessity.|
After driving the Jeep on both pavement and trail, I can say that this project was well worth it, and I can drive down the highway without the 10 and 2 death grip on the steering wheel. The braking has been improved due to the larger diameter front and rear brakes, and the off-road capability of the Jeep has increased significantly. With the rock solid ARB's in both the front and rear, I am able to drive on the pavement without the adverse effects of a non-selectable locker, and at a simple flip of a switch I have solid traction at all four corners of the Jeep. All this, while at the same time enjoying the thought that there is not a "clunk", or a "bang" awaiting my foot as it is applied to the pedal on the right (at least today).
As part of the conversion in the front, it was decided early on to not re-install the front track-bar, sway bar, or steering stabilizer shock. I have to say that it drives better and straighter than it ever has before. I can't say that I will miss disconnecting my track bar and sway bar before hitting the trail either.
|The exhaust was routed away from the drive shaft.||Notching the skid plate was necessary for shaft clearance.||The ARB switches mounted nicely in the dash.||The completed front end. Strong and ready for the trail.|
Please Note: Although many of the front components were removed with this build up, the steering was carefully engineered. Do not attempt to change any of the factory steering components without the assistance of a highly qualified mechanic.