What's up guys, my name is Ryan and I've only been in the Jeep game for about 2 years now, but I've always been a motor head. I'd like to share my story in case it helps any new Jeepers, and maybe it will give a few laughs to the veterans.
I have a 1996 5.2 ZJ with a 249. It was purchased with a Rubicon Express 3.5" lift already on it. The lift replaced the front/rear lower control arms, springs, shocks, and provided disconnects for the front sway bar. I purchased it with no rear sway bar. It already had some trimming/banging done to fit 35x12.50 tires on the stock 15x7 wheels with 2" spacers.
My buddy and I took it out to the local offroad park to flex it out and were presently surprised that it was able to tuck the 35s in the rear and flex like crazy for short arms. The front was a different story. Not enough clearance, so we didn't dare disconnect the sway bar.
We worked our way through the obstacles until we got to a pretty steep one which demanded more ground clearance than I had. I ended up breaking my CV front drive shaft and had to remove it to drive home. We ordered a new yoke for the front axle so we could swap to a u-joint front drive shaft.
At full flex the rear tires were pressing on the rear bumper hard enough to pop it off on the sides. I used sheet metal sheers to trim the bumper back a few inches and touched up the cut edges with a dremel.
On another trip to the park our bravery caused us to snap both rear shocks. Apparently the shocks were the only thing limiting the rear flex. We removed the shocks just in time to watch one of my rear coils roll down a hill when we flexed too much. I measured for Beard limiting straps that go from my stock rear bump stop bolt holes to the bottom bolt of my shocks. They ended up being the perfect length (after stretching) to allow lots of flex but prevent the coils from ever falling out.
Coming from a leaf spring Chevy K10 lifted 6" on 35" tires, I was never happy with how the coils spring Jeep handled. I also hated how the axles were not centered under the Jeep. The first parts I ordered were a Rusty's Offroad steering kit and adjustable track bars front/rear.
The front track bar with the HD frame mount went on pretty easily, but getting the stock rear track bar off was a real pain thanks to the stock torx bolts that seemed to be welded on. We got one off and ended up cutting the other off and replacing both with regular bolts/nuts. Finally the axles were centered under the Jeep!
The steering kit was a little more difficult to install, mostly because we didn't know what we were doing. I ended up getting the dual stabilizer kit. Here's a tip for the new guys - DON'T BUY THIS STEERING KIT!!! The bottom stabilizer is useless and will get bashed against the first decent rock you find. I bent the crap out of the tie rod on the Rubicon too because it's hollow and can't handle the abuse it needs to when you're dealing with some big stuff.
Realizing my mistake on the first steering kit, I decided to try another one. I purchased an Iron Rock Offroad (IRO) Over the Knuckle (OTK) steering kit. Why this kit? Because it gives you additional clearance by bolting the tie rod to the top of the knuckles instead of the bottom, and because it uses 1.25" SOLID COLD ROLLED STEEL for the tie rod and drag link!!! I also opted for the 5/8" hardware upgrade which required drilling of the pitman arm and the knuckles. The drag link bolts onto the bottom of the passenger side knuckle and shoots up at an angle toward the pitman arm - lots of clearance. If you don't have much lift, you'll notice you don't need to run a drop pitman arm with this steering kit. You'll also notice some weird angles on the passenger side where the drag link meets the knuckle. I believe this is because the kit is most likely designed for long arm suspension which means the front axle would be pushed out a bit.
I had some annoying knocking/clunking noises during steering and when hitting bumps with the front end. Turns out a lot of the noise was from bad upper/lower ball joints. My buddy Joel replaced the upper/lower ball joints with Moog during the install of the IRO OTK steering kit. He also replaced the passenger side axle shaft we broke on our way out of the Rubicon. We just used a stock CV replacement for now. The Moog joints solved a lot of my problems, but I still have some noise on bumps which I believe will be fixed when I install new shocks using bar pin eliminators.
The stock lower control arm mounts on the Dana 30 front axle are weak and will definitely get beat up and bent on any decent trails. I ordered some heavy duty mounts from Rusty's and they were only around $50 for the pair. If you can't weld, it's going to cost you a bit of cash to get those babies swapped over with nice strong welds. The lower control arm mounts on my D44A rear are still stock, but eventually will be replaced with the Rusty's as well.
My stock steering box literally exploded pulling out of my garage. We replaced it with a brand new one and also opted for an eBay steering box brace which wraps around the neck of the steering box and bolts to the frame rails acting as a crossmember.
This pretty much brings you up to speed on where my ZJ is right now, but you should also know that it has MAJOR rocker panel damage on both sides from the Rubicon, the transmission crossmember is folded like a piece of paper, and it leaks oil from just about everything that contains oil. It also has an MSD external coil, K&N cold air intake, Flowmaster 40 series muffler, brand new CA legal cat converter, aluminum radiator, and an electric fan to replace the stock clutch fan. It has stock gears and no lockers. It has fresh motor mounts, trans mount, and fuel filter. It only blows AC/heat out of the defroster setting and always tells me the tail lights are burnt out.
Parts in the mail right now:
• Bar pin eliminators for front shocks (hopefully cure some of the remaining knocking noises)
• Front/rear coil isolators (stock ones are shot)
• Coil spacers (temporarily using 2" coil spacers on my 3.5" Rubicon Express springs to end up on 5.5" with short arms in the rear on stock drive shaft, and long arms in the front with u-joint shaft)
• Front/rear Doetsch Tech 8000 Prerunner shocks (need new shocks to support additional lift)
• Iron Rock Offroad front long arm kit with bolt on sub frame (this will replace my bent and hard to find OEM transmission crossmember while also allowing me much more flex in the front and keeping the axle more centered in the wheel well to resolve clearance issues. Long arms will also work better with my IRO OTK steering.)
• JKS quicker disconnects for front sway bar (needed to allow the sway bar to be connected with the additional lift, and I went with JKS because they are easier to connect/disconnect due to tapered ends)
• Front/rear extended stainless steel brake lines (additional lift and flex requires longer/stronger brake lines)
• Water pump (preventative maintenance, don't want to overheat on the trails!)
• Upper/lower radiator hoses (why have a new water pump with old crusty hoses?)
• Timing cover (mine has a large hole in it which we believe is from an idler pulley that flew around in the engine bay once)
• Timing chain (if replacing the cover, may as well replace the timing chain and gears)
• Oil pump (preventative - going to higher pressure/volume than stock)
• Front/rear crank seals (no more oil leaks!)
• Thermostat with fail safe (if the thermostat malfunctions it will stay open instead of closed)
• Aluminum thermostat housing (preventative to reduce chance of leaks)
• Power steering pump (no more leaks, help with the large tires)
• Full headlight/marker/turn signal kit (replace dull/faded/broken front lights)
Plans for the axles:
Some of you veterans will disagree with me on this, but I want to keep my Jeep as close to original as possible, so no axle swaps at this point. I'll be keeping the Dana 30 front and Dana 44A rear. I'm switching from 3.73 to 4.88 gears with Aussie lockers front/rear. I'm going to run u-joint front axle shafts from IRO with their "almost alloy" kit and 760X Spicer u-joints. Both axles will eventually get trussed toward the end of the project. I'll install some heavy duty differential covers to protect the new gears/lockers.
For beginners: Stock CV axles are weak and WILL snap eventually. Running stock 3.73 gears with 35" tires will cause your ZJ to feel like a slow tank (not in a good way) and it will not want to stay in overdrive. Gears will bring it back to life. Yes, you will still be able to drive on the highway with 4.56 or 4.88 gears on 33" or 35" tires.
Plans for the damaged rocker panels:
My rockers are FUBAR - Google it if you don't know what that means. If you have nice pretty rocker panels right now, do yourself a favor and buy rock sliders right away!!! You will bash them up and wish you had spent the $400 or so to protect them after the fact. Once your pinch weld is screwed you can say bye bye to most off the shelf rock sliders and don't bother going to a body shop for an estimate.
I'm having a fabricator completely remove my stock rocker panels and replace then with 2"x6" .25" box steel. Several supports will run between the steel box tubing and the unibody frame for strength during impact. Everything will be enclosed and painted to prevent any future rust.
Plans for tires:
I'll be replacing my worn out tires with 35x12.50 Goodyear MT/R with Kevlar sidewalls. My buddy ran these on the Rubicon in his CJ7 and they did great. The kevlar sidwall is a big perk when dealing with rocks and branches. Of course I will get a set of 5 so I always have a full size spare.
Once everything above has been taken care of I will install long arms in the rear and steel bumpers front/rear. I'll replace the 2" coil spacers with adjustable JKS ACOS front/rear. I will have a heavy duty 2" hitch receiver welded to the front so I can have a quick release 8,000lb winch that can quickly be moved from front to back as needed. I will install the Bushwacker cutout fender flares for a nice look and additional tire clearance. I will install a roof rack to hold things like shovels, jacks, camping gear, etc. I'll install onboard air from IRO so I can run air tools on the trails and air up my own tires any time I need to. I'll install a power inverter so I can charge my camera equipment, lap top, etc.
If I forgot anything I'll add it later. Hopefully this helps at least one fellow Jeeper because I wish I had come across this when I first bought my Jeep. If you'd like to monitor the progress of this project, check for updates here or on my YouTube channel. Thanks guys