Project Blackbean- Old Man Emu Suspension
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By: Bill Morgan - April 2005

The Concept

As I get my 4Runner fully built to my original vision, I am left with a problem: if I use it as a daily driver, which by the way is a bunch of fun, I will wear it out on the road! If I want a separate vehicle for daily use, I really need a pickup for practicality, and if I get a pickup, I really want a 4x4 for the Colorado winters, and if I get a 4x4 I know I can’t leave it alone, it will get modified. This is known as the Morgan Wallet-Drain Dynamic, where something originally designed to save money ends up costing far more than it saves. Maybe you have your own style of wallet drain dynamic with your name on it. If so, then maybe this series of articles is for you.

Thus was born Project BlackBean. BlackBean is a 1997 Toyota Tacoma, with a mere 152,000 miles on the clock. It sports an economical yet reasonably powerful 2.7L 4-cylinder motor, an A340F automatic transmission for those coffee-drinking commutes, locking hubs, 4.10 gears, and a nice topper. Based on fluid inspection, it has been well cared-for in its life, and has many more miles to go before major service. For my purposes, it is an inexpensive and very practical commuter and all-around vehicle. Plus, it’s a classy black. However, for light wheeling, hunting, and camping, it’s not quite up to the task, with factory installed (well-worn) suspension, no locker, and stock gears despite sporting taller-than-stock 31x10.50/15 BFG All-Terrain tires.

My friends gave me two months before I started talking about my first modification. I didn’t last 24 hours. But modifications could easily create “money-contention” with my 4Runner, Red Chili (yes, I have a Mexican food theme going here), not to mention potential marital discord. So Project BlackBean will require some careful parameters to foster success.



Living With Limits- The BlackBean Project Parameters

My new daily driver...
that quickly became my latest project.

First off, the modifications to BlackBean must be minor. This will be no rock crawler; rather, the goal is to make a very drivable truck that can be wheeled on 80% or more of the trails in Colorado, and be usable for hunting and camping. Loaning the pickup to my wife should not produce a wide-eyed experience on her part. Secondly, the mods must be cost-effective, producing the greatest improvement for the least money. If using a junkyard part with a little tender loving care will work, that becomes first choice. If buying new parts is the most effective approach to solve a problem, then look for the most reasonable option that takes care of the issue. Thirdly, phase the modifications. Not only does this spread out the cost, allowing some recoup-time for the pocketbook to absorb a big item, but it forces me to deal with the most serious need first. I have to really think about what is needed, versus what is a nice-to-have. It also helps with the workload at my local service department, Morgan’s Garage, which is currently charged with the maintenance of four vehicles.


The tricky part is, what other modifications will I do to the truck? Will it sport a winch eventually, or a heavy bumper? Will I want to go for more lift to counteract the long XtraCab wheelbase? Will I use larger tires, or stay with the existing 31" ATs for a while to save money - what will this mean for gearing? These unknowns also form guiding principles; every decision should allow for choices down the road and will therefore be a compromise. It doesn't make sense to spend the same money twice, when a good decision (like doing gears and lockers together) could mean spending money once. That's part of the challenge of modifying a truck, and part of the fun. Doing stuff to a truck and not using a proven formula (such as an expensive lift kit, where all the variables are accounted for) often leads a ‘wheeler to lonely places. But I have built my confidence modifying Toyotas, and I feel up to the task. So, let’s see how I do!


Phase One- Suspension

This article is about Project BlackBean, Phase One: Suspension. As in, adding some. The stock suspension is leaky, saggy, and pretty much shot. Merely going back to stock would involve noticeable lift, measured from where it sat when I bought it. The early Taco rear leaf springs have a nasty reputation for breaking, too, so this area seems like the most urgent. Besides, going over bumps tends to launch my coffee. Totally unacceptable. For the front, various options presented themselves. There are few if any front end differences between the early Tacos, like mine, and later models (1998 on), so pretty much all of the Taco suspension options are fair game. For my purposes however, one brand stands out for cost-effectiveness and durability: Old Man Emu shocks and coils.

A call to ARB USA laid out the options for me. OME front shocks are available as part number N91SC, valved quite softly, and part number N91S for a little more control and firmer ride. The firmer shock is recommended for most off road use. These are the same part for all Tacoma front ends of my Taco’s vintage and later. The real choices come down to the coils, parts number 880, 881, and 882. T. R. told me that these springs share the same spring rate, differing only in length. The 880 coils are 365mm long, the 881 coils are 10mm longer, and the 882 coils are a whopping 20mm greater than the 881s, and 30mm greater than the 880s, for a much bigger jump and stiffer ride. The functional differences come down to preload, and ride height. If a winch is in your future, you don’t want the 880 coils, and may not want them for any but the softest road ride. They will offer some lift, but for most ‘wheelers are not the best choice. The 882 coils are for V6 double cab Tacomas, driven hard, with very heavy bumpers and a winch – far too stiff and tall for other trucks. So the 881 coils were the best choice for me.

The rear leaf suspension is where the options drastically narrow for the early Tacomas. For the ’95.5 through ’97 models, Toyota used shorter-length rear springs than the later Tacomas. Most of the lift kits out there are made for the later models, leaving us early birds to mere worms. But T. R. suggested one option: the OME rear leaf kits for ’89-’95 Toyota XtraCab pickups are just the right length for the early Tacomas, and if a leaf is removed they will offer a 2-3 inch lift. OME does not provide a shock that would be ‘just right’, but having used and enjoyed Rancho RS9000X shocks, I mentally held those as my preferred option. Brian Ellinger of Front Range Off-Road Fabrication offered yet another affordable option for leaf springs: the junkyard. Since the stock springs from a 1989-1995 XtraCab are taller than the near-flat Tacoma springs, these should offer a 2” lift all by themselves, for as inexpensively as I can find them. This sounded like it met Parameter Two (cost-effective junkyard parts), so I chose this option.

With a plan in mind, I ordered a set of OME front shocks with 881 coils, and explored the local junkyards for springs for the rear.


Rear Suspension Install

Since I seem to have about half the time I wish I had to work on vehicles, I decided to install some rear leaf springs from a 1993 XtraCab I had procured. I might be driving a funny-car wanna-be for a few days, but that was better than having a hood I couldn’t see over. Besides, the coilovers came with the coil springs separate from the shocks, so I needed time to find a good spring compressor to finish them. The parts gathered dust in the garage. Did I mention I have no free time? Then an unforeseen free Saturday afternoon emerged, with just enough time to swap leaves. I had noticed that the local Checker Auto stocked Rancho RS9000s, available in just about any length, so I figured I would pick some up when I knew what length I needed, perhaps using the stock shocks temporarily. This would turn out to be a Parameter Violation prompted by a Hurry-Up-Tactic, but we will get to that later.

The stock leaf springs came off without much ado, thanks to an air wrench and some penetrating oil for the U bolts. The new leaf springs installed just like the originals. The ’93 XtraCab springs definitely have more arch than the stockers, and when I lowered the truck off the stands, I discovered I had about 2” more height in the rear than the stock front – not as much as I had hoped, but this was with stock shackles. The first disappointment was that the leaves were sitting nearly on the overloads with my topper mounted. Assessing that situation, and coming up with a shock absorber solution, would have to wait for the next day.

Sunday afternoon allowed me an opportunity to engineer some temporary shock arrangement so I could drive to work on Monday. Oops. The stock shocks would barely reach to the mounts – one serious bump would lead to horrendous possibilities. Temporarily not using shocks would earn me the nick-name Oingo Boingo and possibly launch me into another lane. How would I get to work? I called the local Checker Auto and discovered while they do carry Rancho Shocks, they carry something less than a full selection, and the 4x4 shop that DID carry a full selection would not open until the next (work) day. I had a choice between Barely Long Enough, and Too Long But Appealing Droop.

I broke my shock rule number one: never buy shocks without measuring the articulation first. But I had to get to work, so … I bought the Too Long But Appealing Droop model of Rancho RS9000X, figuring I would relocate the shock mounts fairly soon anyway, like I had on Red Chili and my son’s truck, or use aftermarket shackles to gain a little lift. The drive to work the next day made plain the error of my ways, as the Coffee Bump bottomed out the shocks without using anywhere near the full up-travel of the springs. Project BlackBean was off to a rough start. At work I often tell subordinates, “we can’t afford the time it takes to hurry up”. I broke my own rules; decisions made on the fly in a panic can have high-cost outcomes. Now I was into this project with a wrong set of shocks, and some of the more expensive variety just to add insult to injury. After a few days of evaluation, I went to the 4x4 shop, swallowed hard, and bought another set of shocks that measured reasonably for compression and droop. At least I combined it with a “four for the price of three deal”, buying them with my son who needed shocks. What did I learn? I should have welded some temporary shock mounts to get me to work, until I could methodically measure articulation and order the right shocks. And if I do not have the time to do the job, start to finish, I should not attempt it.


Front Suspension Install

Securely support the truck on jack stands, on level ground. An air wrench makes the job very simple. Fortunately, the top nuts came off easily. Don't remove the big middle nut though!

With that painful learning experience behind me, I set about working on the front end. This time, I had most of a weekend to finish the job. I rented spring compressors from the local auto parts store, and tore into the front suspension on BlackBean. The Old Man Emu coilovers come with complete install instructions, detailing assembly of the shocks. They re-use the bushing retainer from the stock shocks, which means you must disassemble the truck’s front suspension and disable it while you assemble the OME shocks. This creates a time crunch, which can be avoided by ordering a new bushing retainer from the dealer. I chose not to do this, since I had the tools I needed.

Using the Toyota jack, inverted, is a handy way to lower the control arms and take pressure off the coilover. Rented spring compressors worked on the stock coilover - barely! They would NOT work on the OME springs. The stock bushing retainer / washer is reused on the OME shock. To minimize downtime, you can order a new one from the dealer.

I jacked up the BlackBean, securely supporting the frame, and removing the wheels. Lifting both wheels at the same time makes disconnecting the sway bar unnecessary. An air wrench made short work of the lower strut bolt, and removing the top three bolts from the strut tower was straightforward. A convenient trick to take the pressure off the lower suspension arm is to use the Toyota tire jack, inverted, to push down the upper control arm assembly. This is easily turned by hand, to just the right position, and makes removal of the stock coilover much easier. It is nearly a requirement for reinstalling the OME coilover, since it is noticeably longer than the stock unit. The auto part store spring compressor barely worked on the stock shocks, but I was able to disassemble them easily enough. I then ?robbed? the stock coilover for the bushing retainer/ washer mentioned above. The real challenge came when I tried to compress the OME coils. These coils are much beefier than stock, of good quality, and would not fully compress using my rented tool. I spent a fair amount of time struggling with them, and suddenly the adequate time I had budgeted became inadequate. Rather than try some kind of heroics to make them work, I gave up and decided more thought was called for.


Innovative Solutions Stolen From Friends

This 'SST', welded from DOM tubing scraps, 3/8" steel stock, and a modified torque rod bracket from a solid axle, worked great.
The 'SST' held the shock eye so it did not move, and the press was JUST large enough for an air wrench to tighten the spring nut beneath.

Brian Gallus, “BKG” on 4x4Wire's Toyota boards, offered the suggestion of using a press to compress the springs. With twelve tons of force, the tool was powerful enough, but stability in this VERY dangerous operation was the real hurdle. As I thought it through, I came up with a tool that positions the shock, prevents it from slipping, and as it turns out, works quite well. I made it from some scrap DOM tubing to fit over the press rod, a piece of 3/8" plate for strength, and a leftover torque rod bracket from a Toyota solid front axle. Some quality time with a MIG welder and I had a tool that would prevent the shock eye from slipping off the press. Keeping the larger, flat part of the coilover spring from moving was easier, with the press plates arranged such that the shock rod would extend between them as the press was operated and the spring compressed. This allowed just enough room for an air impact wrench to tighten the shock rod nut, retaining the compressed spring. Using an air impact allowed tightening the nut without having to hold the shock rod. Oh, and one more very important detail: be sure the top shock mounting plate is correctly 'clocked', so that the lower eye lines up correctly on the lower A-arm, while the upper studs line up with the shock tower holes. Its not hard to do visually, but you won't be happy if you forget to do it and have to undo the shock to line them up. Ask me how I know that.

WARNING. Please note, compressing coilover springs is an EXTREMELY DANGEROUS operation. There is tremendous force stored in a compressed coilover spring, which can KILL you if it suddenly releases. Please be certain you know what you are doing, and should you choose to compress your own springs, DO SO AT YOUR OWN RISK. If you have any doubts at all, please take your OME shocks to a shop and have them compress and install the springs. It is not that expensive, especially compared with the loss of limb or life.

Reinstalling the coilover shocks is as straightforward as removing the stockers, except that the lower control arm must be pushed even further down. As mentioned, the Toyota jack makes this a snap to do.


Results

The Old Man Emu coilover installed.

The OME shocks lifted the truck over 2" from where it began, making the front end slightly higher than the rear, but almost imperceptibly so. CV angles are not extreme, and require no modification especially with the locking hubs. The coilovers offer a firm ride, yet big bumps get soaked up effortlessly. Cornering is much improved, so much so that I am toying with the idea of removing the sway bar – but remember, this truck must be wife-friendly, so that may not be an option. These front springs can handle a light winch/bumper assembly with the 4-cylinder Taco, so while they could be very slightly softer, they keep the options open. The improvement in the ride and handling is really remarkable.

The rear springs are certainly an improvement, but they could be even better. They only have a little travel before resting on the overload, and therefore tend to be a bit harsh unless a heavy load is on the truck. Options include swapping the earlier overload leaf for the Tacoma leaf, but this would permit the spring to reverse-arch a bit more than it was designed for, perhaps not a great idea. Another option is using Rancho Add-A-Leafs designed for the ’89-’95 truck, probably the route I will take, but this makes the junkyard leaf springs no longer cost-effective. In hindsight, I should have ordered the OME rear springs for the earlier truck, and removed a leaf like ARB suggested. Perhaps you should too. In the long run, it would have saved me money.

I have not yet had the opportunity to take the truck off road – I intend to report on this when I do - but overall I am much happier with its handling and its load capacity, and I have every expectation it will perform nicely in every situation. And, my coffee no longer launches! Come back for the next installment, where we explore Gears and a Locker- on the cheap!


Contacts Related Links
  • ARB USA
    20 South Spokane St.
    Seattle, WA 98134
    Phone- (206) 264-1669

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