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"Never Go Full Retard"Building the Ultimate JK 44 Front End
Story and Photos by Gil "usmcdoc14" Fortin


If you have watched the movie Tropical Thunder, then you understand this phrase. This analogy also applies to our next installment of the Doc JK build: Building the Ultimate JK 44 Front End.
This is in part a "member request build" as I asked JKO members to tell me what they wanted to see built/ done. They said they wanted an axle upgrade and build. Here at JKO we listen, so I got to work on this project.
I wanted to take a next generation 44 front axle and push it to the limits of what I could do in my garage, with what was available on the market at the time. I would correct as many weaknesses in the design that I could.
Could I make it as strong or stronger than a stock Dana 60? Sure.
Make it handle 37-39" tires? Definitely.
Make it have higher clearance than a 60? Totally.
Not bend or blow up? Heck ya!
So is building a Dana 44 to these stats fully retarded? Lets find out!
Part 1: Anchors are for boats.
The next generation Dana 44 is a nice improvement over the older 44's with the addition of larger shafts, larger ring and pinion, high pinion in ALL front applications and a bunch of other design changes. Those of you who picked up a Rubicon model JK already have this sitting in the front of your Jeep. I got a Sahara so I was not so blessed, but I did get painted fenders!
Those who want to install a Rubicon 44 front will have to hunt one down at a junkyard and maybe get lucky with that. I on the other hand took the much easier route and ordered a MOPAR Rubicon Dana 44 from www.Quadratec.com. And a short time later, a crate showed up for me to molest in my garage!
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Quadratec was even nice enough to include some shower caps on the ends of it in case I wanted to keep my "do" dry while washing off the garage funk. (Make sure to keep them away from small children or those with the mind of a child like shown.) But on the serious side Quadratec was able to answer any and all questions I had with the axle. They are a great company who is very established in the Jeep community and carry just about everything Jeep.
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One of the huge perks of a Rubicon Dana 44 is the Tru-Lok differential, also known as an electronic differential lock (EDL). It provides the ability to solidly lock up the front axle and return to an open dif for normal driving at the push of a button.
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ATTENTION!! Ok guys, there is going to be welding on this axle. Sorry, there will be a LOT of welding on this axle. So if you fear welding on a shiny, happy, new, zero mile axle then it is best you walk away now.
I have no fear of welding and hacking. It may bite me sooner or later, but for until it does, I will continue to go for it!
Part 2: A smile does not always make you happy.
Axles are supposed to be straight. They like being straight even under pressure for political correctness. They have been straight for many years and they see no reason to change. Their fathers were straight, their grandfathers were straight, even back when tires were stone they liked to be straight.
It works for them.
JK front axles on the other hand have this problem with staying straight. After a few weekends of heavy wheeling or maybe even going to the mall too many times, they start to smile. They are not happy, it's a farce, don't believe it. In case I've totally lost you, I'm referring to your axle housing bending due to heavy loads. Get it? The housing bends, and it looks like it's smiling. So we have to stop or fix this problem. The tubes are too small and combined with heavy tires will take its toll. This is inevitable so you may as well fix it.
There are two ways to make a tube stronger using the same material. Make the walls thicker or make the outside diameter bigger. There are a lot of internal sleeves to make them thicker but this does nothing to the outside diameter. You could press out the old tubes and bore the center section and C's out to take a larger tube, press in new tubes, jig it, weld back on the C's and all external bracketry but this is not exactly a garage builder option. That is a LOT of work for something that has a much simpler solution.
Enter Rock-Slide Engineering (R-SE) www.rockslideengineering.com with their external sleeve system. The kit includes external sleeves that fit around all of your existing brackets so there is no need to cut anything off. It also includes C-gussets to prevent the outer C from flexing. (more on this later) They also offer an internal sleeve as well so you could in essence run both of them for a LOT of wall thickness. Seeing as my 44 will also be externally trussed I found that to be overkill. Yes I know I am going for overkill but that was un-needed overkill, in my opinion.
The R-SE sleeve will weld on without having to cut any thing off. But I am running a Rock Krawler suspension system that deletes the passenger side upper control arm mount. So I had to cut this off and get some 3" OD .250 wall tubing to fill the gap where the RSE sleeve stops at where the UCA mount used to be. No big deal, but if you are also running something similar as a suspension it is something to keep in mind.
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The R-SE sleeve is a clamshell design with holes bored for plug welds EVERYWHERE ! Once attached it is not moving at all. I used some large C clamps to hold it all in place while welding.
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Weld shrinks, this is a property of the process. So you need to plan for it or you will warp something. I am using the R-SE sleeves and an external truss so I knew there would be a lot of welding on the top half of the axle. So I pre-loaded the axle with a jack and some chains. This is my style and may not be yours or your fabricator‘s. It has worked for me in the past so I will continue to do it, I have also used it to get rid of the "smile" on an axle before welding as well.
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Lots and lots of pretty welds. Just remember to weld a few inches and let it cool unless you plan on pre-heating the axle. I wanted to save my seals and weld it exactly the way you guys would be doing "under the Jeep". I welded a 2" section at a time. Then I would switch sides and then ends stopping when it felt too hot. Kinda sucks the R-SE cutout will be hidden by the truss but oh well.
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And just in case the R-SE sleeve is not strong enough I tossed in a full long side truss and a short side truss where I could fit it. It actually flares into the housing to spread the load on the welds better, well that and it looks cool. I mean why else would I put speed holes? No, I do not have brain damage.
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Some quick paint before I move on because rust sucks. I am not lucky enough to live in SoCal or other warm places with no salt on the roads so everything is painted inside and out. The R-SE sleeves were sprayed with a weld through primer on the inside as well as the truss to prevent rust from creeping out from under it. I recommend you doing the same.
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The fit was nice and follows along every factory bracket allowing you to weld it solidly to your factory tubes.
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With lots of plug welds, the sleeve is permanently part of the axle. With the number of welds you can see why R-SE recommends you replace the factory seals when done. I had a set on stand by but because I was very patient in welding it up and in no rush to finish mine survived just fine.
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Part 3: This episode is brought to you by the number 2 and the letter C.
Another weak point in the JK 44 is the outer C's. The lower C is beefy and nice but the upper has this hourglass shape to it. This allows the C to flex and cause all sorts of issues.
The usual sequence of failure is:
You are getting some
You hear a loud "crack"
The U joint at the axle fails
The ears of the shaft and stub push against each other
The C flexes
The upper ball joint pops out
The wheel falls off
You no longer have fun.
Enter the world of suck!
So by making the C's as ridged as possible I hope to prevent this.
R-SE includes these solid cut C gussets to reinforce the upper C, it's a nice design that fits perfectly.
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But two is better than one, right? And seeing as I am getting stupid I decided to toss more beef at the problem.
Some PolyPerformance C gussets get tossed into the works. A nicely made set of formed and welded gussets that by themselves should have no problems keeping bending in check.
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Could I run R-SE by themselves? Yes, But one is such a lonely number.
First weld in the R-SE C gusset.
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Then notch the PolyPerformance gusset to fit.
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And then you have a gusset INSIDE another gusset. Overkill? Perhaps. Retarded?
Getting there.
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Part 4: Locked up without parole.
A front locker is in my opinion the best traction adding device you can add to a vehicle, end of story.
But people will say "But Doc, the rear wheels get used more?"
Yeah that's nice. But I can do things with my brakes to solve that problem. You give 2 drivers the same vehicle and one has just a rear locker and the other a front locker and the knowledge on how to control wheel spin with brake modulation and the second one will own the first. You ever look at the E-brake setup on a JK? Its begging to be turned into cutting brakes and THAT with a front locker is a killer combo. (Watch the modified forum for that write-up) And I can always toss a non-selectable locker in the rear quite easily.
And what do you know, the JK 44 front has a selectable locker already! But it comes with some problems. We will fix that later.
The E-locker has an electromagnetic engagement system to lock both sides of it solidly when 12 volts is applied and an open differential with no power. Shown below is the locking collar of the E-locker with no power applied. Its location is where the black mark on the Quadratec magnet is.
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When 12 volts is applied to the unit the locking collar slides in and the lugs engage to lock the differential. The movement is not much, only like ¼". You can see the amount of movement based on where the "unlocked" mark is.
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The locker is powered from a plug on the top of the external housing. There are 2 plugs, one for the locker and one for the indicator plunger to tell you its "locked". The locker power one is the one on top held in place with a bolt. The downfall is the plug is not a "universal" plug, so unless you feel like spending the cash on a factory replacement you can follow my route. Quadratec does offer factory plugs and wiring harness for those who wish to go a "factory" route.
The plug is really a ‘plug in a plug' as shown here.
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That makes life a lot simpler as I can still unplug the wires from the axle should I ever have to remove it. But I still needed to make a connection so I can control the locker. I found that female micro speaker terminals fit perfect. Those are the ones they use on car audio speakers so you keep negative and positive correct. Two of them fit perfectly just make sure you captured the post when they are slid in.
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Some wires that are color coded for my reference. (more on this in a bit)
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Some epoxy and high quality heat sealing shrink wrap to seal it all waterproof and solid. I literally filled all the open spaces in between the terminals with epoxy, it will never fail.
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Here is some valuable info for those running a new JK e-locker or re-wiring an old one.
The wires are not polarity specific, run whatever one you want hot.
The locker does NOT require a pulsed power, that is for the JK computer to be happy.
The locker will need a fuse, I ran a 10A circuit breaker, it seems happy.
The indicator plunger is just a plunger switch, run it in-line like you would any switch to turn on a "locked" light.
By by-passing the computer you can lock the front at any speed and any drive selection.
Now I have a front locker that I can turn on any time I need or want. I recommend running it to a ‘covered switch' so it is not accidentally turned on while you are going down the highway. That may not prove to be fun to have a non-protected switched bumped on when you don‘t want it.
Part 4: Women like a hefty shaft.

Wife: "Delivery guy left a box for you, do you want me to bring it in the house"
Doc: "Yes, thank you my lovely wife, you are so kind my dear" or something like that.
Wife: "Holy #*&$, this is heavy! What is this?"
:eek:pens box:
Wife: These are nice, are they for my JK?"
Doc: "Umm no, those are mine"
Wife: "But I like them, they are hefty and have an orange boot"

Oooooh Yaaaaaa, the orange boot ! Welcome to the glorious creations of RCV Performance CV axle shafts. StackPath When you are done messing around with broken U-joints or pretty much broken anything shaft related this is where you go. RCV shaft on top, stock junk on the bottom.
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The strength of a Dana 60 shaft in a Dana 44 with the smoothness of a CV joint can not be beat. This is pretty much the pinnacle of Dana 44 axle shafts. You know that steering wiggle when turned full steering lock while in 4wd? That is from the U-joint binding. With a CV (constant velocity) joint, that is a thing of the past. The CV is also just as strong in a turn (where a U-joint is at its weakest) as when it is straight. So from 0* to 45* you have the full beefiness of an RCV shaft. And they stand behind their shafts with a plain and simple "You break it, We replace it" warranty. They are even offering a shaft upgrade for those with a Dana 30.
You saw how I just upgraded the living daylights out of the axle C's. Its primary job was to keep C flex down when a U-joint breaks. Well now there is no U-joint to break, no ears to push the knuckle off, just RCV goodness. Competition proven and loved by hardcore off-roaders world wide, it is the ultimate replacement shaft.
But enough with my shaft love, lets install them.
You will need a 35mm socket to get the axle nut off, toss this in your trail bag to help out those on your next off-road adventure who do not have RCV shafts.
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Another "specialty" tool you will need is a 13mm 12 point. A socket is shown but I recommend a 12 point ratcheting wrench from a quality manufacturer. It is much easier to get in the tight space next to the shaft.
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Remove the brakes, rotor, unit bearing and anything else in your way. The CV boot goes INSIDE the knuckle, this picture is to show you that once it is on the shaft it will NOT fit through that hole. This is also to prevent you from installing the boot before you put the RCV shafts in to take some pictures to impress your online buddies.
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Boot inside the C and a bunch of quality grease to lube the seal inside the housing. Not doing this could allow the seal to run dry, melt and then leak.
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RCV also includes a nifty little tool to help you install the boot.
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Both shafts installed and gaze upon my sexiness.
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Oh and you can not skimp on the armor, it would suck to ruin your new axle because you crushed the flimsy stock dif cover. So some River Raider Off-Road steel should keep the rocks at bay.
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Part 5: Pain is weakness leaving the body.
Swapping out a Dana 30 for a Dana 44 is not exactly "hard". It's physical, it can be tedious, it can also mess up your lower back but its not "hard".
It did on the other hand kill a $600 Nikon lens that I forgot on the bumper in between shots. I would like a moment of silence for the lost comrade who brought you many enjoyable pictures of Jeeps and female body parts. You will be sorely missed.
Rollers come in handy. The same with an engine hoist. I recommend both.
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Removal is so much easier than install. Just save all the hardware as you will need it later and drag that pig out from under your JK.
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I like to keep a heavy duty ratchet strap around for locating the control arms and panhard/track bar. It is one of those things that will make your life suck A LOT less.
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(BTW, this is about where the lens took a swan dive off the bumper.)
Part 6: Looks can be deceiving.
It looks like a Sahara so it must be one, you know the same one with side steps to make getting the kids in the back easier? And everything is all clean and shiny to look good for the pictures because it will never see a rock, right? Do you have any idea how much work it is to get this pig clean enough for these images? Then again just because I paint and finish everything does not mean it is only made to look good for you guys. I am just a detail freak. But then again, it does look good.
Its even got shiny things too look good. That is all they do right? Like this shiny new item from TeraFlex. It clearly says "Speed Bumps" so it has to be made for the mall.
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If you believe any of my sarcasm then you have found the wrong JK project. We don't build to primarily "look good", never have and never will.
This is my ultimate daily driver/weekend warrior and built to handle whatever I throw at it. And now it can cash the checks my tires write. The only thing missing now is my upgraded tie rod and hydro assist steering while I figure what route I want to go with that.
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And of course you need a parting shot.
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Part 7: Did I go "Full retard"?
I don't know yet.
I mean I built a JK Dana 44 as far as you can build it without hacking off all the factory parts. I don't know what else to do to it.
We will find out that answer if I ever manage to break or bend it. Watch our JK tech forums for updates and any changes. I will keep you readers informed of any abuse, breakage, and "testing". Winter is coming soon and snow wheelin' can be deadly to axle shafts.
But if you want to give it a shot yourself and see what you can break. Give these guys a call. They are all vendors here on JKO. Any of them will gladly help you with any questions you may have.




CONTACTS
Quadratec Inc.(complete MOPAR Rubicon Dana 44 axles and pretty much everything Jeep)
1-800-745-6037
1028 Saunders Lane
West Chester, PA 19380www.quadratec.com
RCV Performance(The ultimate in performance axle shafts)
815.877.7473 EXT 307
611 Beacon St.
Loves Park, IL 61111www.rcvperformance.com
Rock-Slide Engineering(external sleeve kit and a lot of cutting edge JK products)
(435) 752-4580
286 N 850 W
LOGAN, UT 84321www.rockslideengineering.com
 
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