Vehicles

We’ve been crazy busy catching up on household tasks after getting back to Florida from our summer in New Mexico. After three weeks back in FL, I finally got around to doing an initial survey of the Red Jeep.

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I haven’t touched a single bolt yet but, oh boy, the things I’m finding! Somehow the various “mechanics” in Mississippi that have been working on this thing for the last several years have turned a smooth running, 20mpg, quiet little Jeep into a obnoxiously loud, 5mpg, spitting and sputtering nightmare destined to be a derelict!
The check engine light was on so first I plugged the ODBII code reader in and got multiple codes including errors on both O2 sensors, hmm, let’s have a look. Why did they cut the front flange off the nice shiny new cat-back exhaust system I installed before we gave it to Bill? Why is that piece of  pipe welded to the front of the exhaust? Where is the catalytic converter?!?! WHERE ARE THE O2 SENSORS???!!!??? Yep, a straight pipe where the converter is supposed to be and just dangling wires in the vicinities of where the sensors used to be. Oh yeah, this going to be fun! Like I said this was an initial survey, I quit and walked away mumbling expletives and shaking my head. I’m actually scared of pulling it into the garage and tearing into it; who knows what hidden “Hack Mechanic” wonders I have yet to find! Since Bill does not have the mechanical skills to diagnose and repair the problems with the Jeep, he was at the mercy of the automotive “professionals”.  To be fair there are good mechanics out there, but unfortunately they can be hard to find sometimes.  Ultimately, Bill tried several different mechanics before he finally, out of pure frustration, replaced the Jeep.
Besides the basic belts, hoses, brakes and fluids routine, (as well as a new exhaust system and O2 sensors!) I have figured out a few things that will be going on the Jeep. 235/85/r16 mud tires of yet undetermined brand, although I’m leaning towards either the Mastercraft Courser MXT like I put on the Dodge, or the Federal Couragia MT. The wheels will be late 90s era Ford, Crown Victoria, steel wheels . They will look very similar to the wheels that I put on the Dodge last Spring.  All in all, I’m going to “try” and keep this a fairly low budget build with at least one exception. After the success I had working with Ryan at AccuTune Off-Road  on the Dodge suspension, I’ll once again be tapping into his expertise on the Jeep suspension. His initial research indicates that a combination of Fox Performance Series shocks and Pro Comp 2″ lift springs will give a smooth controlled ride on the New Mexico back-roads without blowing the budget too badly.
As I dig deeper, I predict there will be more expletives and head shaking to come, but that’s how “projects” work…right? I’m sure The Red Jeep Project will not disappoint in that regard.

A little back story: back in 2000 I bought “The Red Jeep” for Pamala, used, with 14,000 miles. She drove it regularly until 2004 when she got a new Liberty, but prior to this, we trailered it to New Mexico and she drove it home to Florida visiting friends and relatives on the way. While visiting my father-in-law Bill, he fell in love with the Jeep and said he wanted to buy it if we ever wanted to sell it. After Pamala got the Liberty in 2004, “The Red Jeep” saw very little use for the next two years.  My father-in-law visited us in 2006 and we ended up giving it to him, with the stipulation that we would purchase it back from him if he ever decided to get rid of it. Fast forward nine years and a total of 90,000 miles, the Jeep was starting to show it’s age mechanically. Unfortunately the mechanics he was using in Mississippi, including a Jeep dealership no less, couldn’t seem to keep it running properly. In frustration he ended buying a car and the Jeep was destined to sit most of the time. Rather than let it sit, and since we needed a second vehicle in New Mexico, he returned it to us. So now I have another project. I needed that like a hole in my head! We are grateful for the gift, however and with a little TLC it will be back in service and better than ever.

So why “The Red Jeep” moniker? This was our driveway in 2005. With three Jeeps to choose from, it needed a name.

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In NM in 2003.

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As it was in 2006 when Bill got it.

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All loaded up and ready to come home.

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Bill having second thoughts about giving up his “baby”.

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As it sits now.

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This will be a mild build for use as a short range, dirt road/mud, run around vehicle. No crazy stuff here. I’ll “base line” it and get it running right first, then mild lift, mud tires, basic heavy duty bumpers, winch, and auxiliary lighting.

 

 

The Dodge has been through so many changes over the years, I’ve lost track. From now on any big mods are going to be cataloged by year and occurrence. So I give you “Dodge Ram version 15.1”!

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After many years of ownership, countless “patch jobs”, an incalculable amount of parts and money, as well as endless hours of exhaustive research; I finally figured out how to fix the factory Dodge steering and suspension woes…

Step 1:

Remove the stock Dodge axle along with all associated steering and suspension components down to the bare frame rails and discard!

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Seriously, there are so many things wrong with the 2nd gen Dodge front end this may seem drastic but it’s where I ended up. Here’s a list of some of the problems and possible repercussions:

  1. flimsy stamped control arms with eccentric bolts for caster adjustment (adjustment bolts are prone to seizing)
  2. two piece driver’s side axle shaft with vacuum operated sliding collar instead of locking hubs(axle failure and vacuum leaks preventing 4×4 engagement, also increased drag and reduced mpg due to constant drag of rotating internal axle components while in 2 wheel drive)
  3. unit bearing hubs (expensive to replace and have been known to fail catastrophically while driving, also almost impossible to replace roadside as the center nut is torqued to 240+ ft lbs)
  4. under sized track bar with ball joint end (premature wear causing “death wobble”)
  5. undersized y-link configuration tie rods (vague steering feel and premature failure)
  6. un-braced steering box (vague steering and premature steering box failure)
  7. undersized ball joints (huge problem on these trucks: premature wear causing a myriad of problems, big repair bills and possible catastrophic failure)
  8. inadequate bushing assembly in bottom of steering column (premature wear causing vague steering feel)
  9. undersized steering shaft (premature wear causing vague steering feel)
  10. seriously low quality undersized shocks considering the weight of the Cummins diesel engine and the weight these trucks are designed to carry (premature failure and inadequate size cause poor ride and vehicle control characteristics as well as increased tire wear)
  11. I’ve also heard of the two piece, Dodge Dana 60 axle housings bending under severe use but I have not experienced this

I’m sure I’m missing something but those are the basics. This probably makes the Dodge engineering sound really bad, and it is, but truthfully most American made trucks are no better and if you actually use your truck, repairs/upgrades are inevitable.

The biggest piece of the puzzle was a custom front axle assembly built by John at Hillbilly Wizard. John answers his own phone and is more than willing to think outside the box and build you what you need. John and I agreed the stock housing was adequate for my needs and proceeded from there. In addition to the “fixes” a gearing change was needed along with a traction aiding device. What John built for me is a hybrid of Dodge, aftermarket, and 80s era Chevy K30 parts. I warn anyone trying to duplicate this axle build that John had a lot of parts incompatibility issues and machine work to do to put this axle together. This was not a bolt together project for him! Luckily for me however, the finished product did bolt in place. The two biggest drawbacks to this approach were a loss of ABS and a little less powerful front brakes, neither of which have posed a problem and the gains in strength and reliability far outweigh the disadvantages.

The axle build:

  1. stock Dodge Dana 60 housing
  2. 4.10 gears and ARB air locker
  3. 35 spline, 4340 chrome moly inner and outer axle shafts with a 1 piece passenger side shaft
  4. tube-end axle shaft seals
  5. Chevy kingpin inner C’s, kingpins, steering knuckles, roller bearings, brakes, hubs, etc
  6. bronze upper kingpin bushings
  7. Yukon locking hubs
  8. 1.5″ x .25″ DOM tie rods with Chevy 1 ton tie rod ends
  9. the high steer arm in the picture ended up not working out with my steering geometry, but that was due to my bad calculations

 

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Other parts in the front end rebuild include:

  1. Great Lake Off Road diff cover
  2. Ruff Stuff Specialties y-link steering kit
  3. custom made upper shock towers from Extreme Articulation (I had to modify these a bit but that was due to a miscalculation on my part)
  4. Borgeson steering box, pump, hoses, and billet steering shaft along with a Mr Gasket power steering cooler
  5. heavy duty replacement ends for existing DT ProFab track bar
  6. custom made PMT Fabrication adjustable control arms set 1″ longer than stock (ask for the “Dalton Highway spec”)
  7. Rock Solid Ram Truck Steering column bushing
  8. Sway-A-Way 2.5″ reservoir shocks with custom tuning from Ryan at AccuTune Off-Road (more on the shock tuning coming in another blog entry, short version: awesome!)
  9. slightly modified existing DT ProFab steering brace
  10. Buckstop front bumper that I’ve been running for several years had to be modified to clear the new 37″ tires and longer control arms
  11. Daystar bump stops

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That pretty much wraps it up for the front end. No small feat!

A lot of other things got done on version 15.1 also:

  1. rear axle received new 4.10 gearset, ARB air locker, and Great Lake Off Road cover
  2. Sway-A-Way 2.5″ reservoir rear shocks
  3. transmission was overhauled with billet torque converter and shift kit added
  4. transfer case was rebuilt
  5. 37×12.5×17 Mastercraft Courser MXT tires
  6. stock 3rd gen Dodge 17″ steel wheels
  7. LED backup and driving lights
  8. air tank and ARB compressor to activate lockers and inflate tires
  9. re-installation of camper box that I built a few years ago
  10. new windshield
  11. unplanned was a radiator, hoses, thermostat, and oil pan gasket replacement
  12. I’m sure there’s something I missed after almost 6 months of work

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So good for another 16 years and 180,000 miles right? We’ll see, I was actually still working on the truck 2 hours before we left! Reports on whether or not this round of modifications worked are coming soon.

Many thanks to John at Hillbilly Wizard and Ryan at AccuTune Off-Road for listening to what I needed and delivering awesome custom work!

 

I probably made a mistake trying to show the evolution of the Dodge from the beginning. After 15 years of ownership there are just too many photos to sort through/resize and too many modifications to catalog. So in the interest of brevity I’m going to pick up from where it is now and document the latest round of upgrades as these will be extensive.

The truck as it was at the finish of the Alaska trip.

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As you may notice the truck is also stuck (for the first time ever!) and I had to winch myself out. Worn out tires, nasty slimy clay laden New Mexico mud and a lack of traction aids led to this predicament. It was almost impossible to walk and stay on two feet on this road it was so slick.

After 180+ thousand miles of highway and backcountry exploration, the poor Dodge is just worn out. Also needing to be addressed are a LOT of Dodge design flaws and shortcomings. I seriously considered (very seriously) selling it and starting from scratch. It’s only left me stranded on the side of the road once, and only been stuck once in 15 years so in the end I decided to keep it and breathe some new life into it.

Here’s where we are now: the 5.9 Cummins is stock except for a Supertuner reprogrammer and Magnaflow 4″ turbo back exhaust system and will stay that way. The 47RE transmissions in these trucks are notoriously inadequate. This one is stock and started acting up during the trip. It will need rebuilding and upgraded. The axles are stock 3.54 ratio with limited slip in the back (worn out) and open (no traction aids) in the front. These issues will be addressed. The biggest problem with these trucks, aside from the transmission, is the entire front end! The vacuum operated CAD front axle, track bar, ball joints, and just about everything else involving the front suspension and steering is…well…crap (to put it nicely)! A few years ago I threw quite a bit of money at the front end in the form of DT Profab products which helped some but didn’t address all the problems. All the front end and steering issues will be addressed in a big way. The truck has been running 35″ tires and aluminum wheels which will also be getting the boot.

All of this went under the truck a few years ago along with some custom rear leaves.

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I will be keeping the DT Profab track bar and upgrading it with their new heavy duty ends. I will also be keeping the DT Profab 3.5″ lift coils, and DT Profab steering brace. I may keep the Fox steering damper but I’m not sure yet. The rest is going bye bye. Yes, that includes the ENTIRE front axle assembly and everything associated with the steering beyond the steering column (and even that is getting a modification)! Okay I may keep the pitman arm if I can get it off the steering box.

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Call it a Backcountry truck, Overlanding truck, Adventure travel truck, Expedition truck, or whatever you choose. My wife calls it a “big, ugly, loud Dodge”. Regardless of your choice of terms, when I purchased this truck it’s current form was the farthest thing from my mind. I bought this 2001 Ram 3500 new in the fall of 2000. It is an SLT, loaded with everything but heated seats, 5.9 Cummins, auto, 4wd, etc. It started out as a tow rig to haul materials back and forth between our home in Florida and our cabin in New Mexico. It has been in a constant state of change ever since.

New in 2000.

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As it was for a few years of towing duties. The cabin in NM is 22 miles from pavement so the mud tires are a must when it rains.

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After a few more years it was time to make it a little more “Backcountry”.

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To be continued…