LIVE-AXLE CON­VER­SIONS

THE LIVE AXLE IS ALIVE AND KICK­ING, EVEN IF THE CAR COM­PA­NIES DON’T THINK SO

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents -

THE live axle is the un­ques­tion­able off-road king. It was in first place for decades before second place was even thought of and it earned that po­si­tion due to its un­com­pro­mis­ing strength, ease of main­te­nance and su­pe­rior off-road abil­ity. For some, they’re the defin­ing fac­tors for what makes a real 4x4.

De­spite all this they’ve been drop­ping like flies from new car line­ups. If you’re in the mar­ket for a brand new 4x4 with a live axle up front, your choices are limited. The Land­cruiser 70, Jeep Wran­gler, GU Pa­trol and Land Rover De­fender are the only factory op­tions and they’ve stopped mak­ing both the Nis­san and Land Rover, leav­ing buy­ers with even fewer choices.

Enter the live-axle swap. Pre­vi­ously the home of the com­pe­ti­tion truck crowd, live-axle swaps are gain­ing in pop­u­lar­ity among newer ve­hi­cles, pick­ing up where the fac­to­ries dropped the ball. The idea is sim­ple: get the 4x4 you know and love with all its mod­ern re­li­a­bil­ity, then lose the in­de­pen­dent front end and re­place it with a live-axle to give you the best of both worlds.

But what’s in­volved in the process, how does it per­form, how le­gal is it and how much is it go­ing to hurt the back pocket? We’ve teamed up with Steve Et­cell from Au­to­mo­tive Et­cel­lence and Bud Dry­den from Bud’s Cus­toms to bring you ev­ery­thing you need to know.

THE BA­SICS

THE in­tro­duc­tion of in­de­pen­dent front sus­pen­sion in 4x4s was seen as a step forward by the road-go­ing crowd and a gi­ant leap back­wards by re­mote-area trav­ellers. While IFS dras­ti­cally im­proved ride and han­dling it came at the cost of com­plex­ity, with the un­in­tended side ef­fect of less off-road abil­ity due to lifted wheels. When one wheel is lifted on a live axle the weight of the 4x4 phys­i­cally pushes the op­po­site wheel into the ground al­low­ing it to con­tinue grip­ping, whereas an IFS set-up will leave one wheel dan­gling – even if ar­tic­u­la­tion is sim­i­lar.

A live-axle con­ver­sion aims to fix both of these is­sues by phys­i­cally re­plac­ing the com­pli­cated IFS set-up with a much sim­pler and stronger live axle.

The process in the­ory is sim­ple: the ve­hi­cle is put on a hoist, the orig­i­nal sus­pen­sion re­moved and the chas­sis rails ground clean. From here it’s as sim­ple as ei­ther mount­ing leaf springs or a link and coil ar­range­ment, de­pend­ing on your goals. That’s the the­ory any­way, but as with most things in life the the­ory rarely touches on all as­pects.

“Live-axle swaps in­volve pre­ci­sion brack­etry, ex­cel­lent weld­ing and an in-depth un­der­stand­ing of the forces in­volved on in­di­vid­ual com­po­nents,” Steve stated. “The tricky bit is to sort out the steer­ing and sus­pen­sion ge­om­e­try, as well as spring weights, so your ve­hi­cle doesn’t ride like a pig,” Buddy added.

While a leaf-spring con­ver­sion on older ve­hi­cles is essen­tially a paint-by-num­bers af­fair, coil spring and link ar­range­ments re­quire painful fine tun­ing and a deep un­der­stand­ing of sus­pen­sion ge­om­e­try. If you’re per­form­ing the con­ver­sion your­self, a fine-tuned kit from an es­tab­lished sup­plier can re­duce a lot of po­ten­tial is­sues and be pur­chased for around $10,000. If you’re leav­ing it in the hands of the pros it can cost up to $20,000, de­pend­ing on the up­grades cho­sen.

UP­GRADE OP­TIONS

A LIVE-AXLE con­ver­sion is eas­ily one of the most ex­treme mod­i­fi­ca­tions you can carry out on your 4x4, so it makes sense to do it right from the be­gin­ning. Start with a clean slate – a dis­as­sem­bled (if not com­pletely new) front axle and no ex­ist­ing mounts to con­form to. This means that the only re­stric­tions are your imag­i­na­tion and bud­get.

Steve and Bud both gave their in­sights into the up­grade paths often taken by their cus­tomers. “Gen­er­ally, when a cus­tomer be­gins the process the main ques­tion we ask is what will you be us­ing the ve­hi­cle for,” Steve told us. “The an­swer to that dic­tates the build. If it’s go­ing to be used as a rock crawler rather than tour­ing we’ll rec­om­mend a 3link [two lower links, one up­per and a Pan­hard rod] with Johnny Joint rod ends, long­travel coil-overs and small, hard bump­stops. If the ve­hi­cle is a re­mote tourer we’ll sug­gest a ra­dius arm set-up with a spring and shock combo sim­i­lar to a GU Pa­trol, as re­place­ment parts are eas­ier to source in the mid­dle of nowhere.”

Bud added: “The con­ver­sion it­self gen­er­ally uses a front axle that is fabricated or sim­ply taken from an­other ve­hi­cle. In­vari­ably this re­sults in mis­matched diff ra­tios. If new diff gears are re­quired there’s never a bet­ter time to fit a locker as it can be done at the same time for very lit­tle cost.”

Bud’s Cus­toms favours coil-overs for their in­creased ride and sus­pen­sion travel, but they’re often teamed up with a match­ing link and coil-over ar­range­ment in the rear to fur­ther im­prove off-road abil­ity and com­fort – al­though, this can be done at a later date.

AVOID THE JUNKYARD

THERE’S no skirt­ing around the fact that a sub­stan­tial reimag­in­ing of a 4x4’s sus­pen­sion sys­tem isn’t ex­actly a cheap pro­ject. New springs and shocks, new sus­pen­sion arms and new mount­ing points, so it’d be a bor­der­line tragedy to then bolt a 30-year-old axle right in be­tween it all. Thank­fully the af­ter­mar­ket is filled with brand new re­place­ments from here or abroad.

If you’re aim­ing to keep your dol­lars in Aus­tralia, Bud’s Cus­toms in Queens­land and JMW En­gi­neer­ing in NSW both of­fer re­place­ment fabricated hous­ings. They’re built to or­der so can be made to spec for your ap­pli­ca­tion. They can then be op­tioned up with other new com­po­nents such as swivel hubs, spin­dles and diff cen­tres. They’re often based on ei­ther Nis­san Pa­trol or Toy­ota Land­cruiser axles, mak­ing sourc­ing spare parts a sim­ple exercise.

Al­ter­na­tively, if you’re chas­ing a crate pack­age, there are op­tions avail­able from the United States for com­plete units built to your spec from Dana-based axles. Dy­na­trac, Cur­rie En­ter­prises and even Dana of­fer hub-to-hub axles with your choice of diff ra­tios, lock­ers, axles and ar­mour. Off-the-shelf pack­ages are avail­able to run just about any wheel and tyre com­bi­na­tion with­out the stress of com­po­nent fail­ure, al­though the price tag can be al­most as high as the con­ver­sion it­self.

LEGALLY SPEAK­ING

DUE to our over-reach­ing and over­com­pli­cated road laws, ve­hi­cles un­der­go­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions like these must be cer­ti­fied dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on the state they’re be­ing reg­is­tered in. This can cause some is­sues trans­fer­ring ve­hi­cles be­tween states, but it’s some­thing that can be achieved.

While the pa­per­work and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion will be dif­fer­ent in each state, the ve­hi­cle test­ing will be univer­sal. We spoke to Robert El­liot from VMC En­gi­neer­ing, who spe­cialises in cer­ti­fy­ing ex­ten­sive ve­hi­cle mod­i­fi­ca­tions, to find out the ex­act process to fol­low.

“Peo­ple should al­ways call a local en­gi­neer before they get started,” he said. “I’ve been to a few places and they’ve pretty much had to cut ev­ery­thing off and start again be­cause they’ve got it slightly wrong.

“I’ll work with the owner as closely as they need me to, com­ing out after all ex­ist­ing brack­ets are cut off and guide them through where and how to make new mounts. Then I’ll come back once it’s all tacked in to check noth­ing will foul, the ge­om­e­try is right and im­por­tant com­po­nents like sway bars are al­lowed for. When it’s all welded to­gether we’ll road test it, then take it to a track for a day for a brake test and swerve test.”

The process gen­er­ally costs around $2500-$3000, de­pend­ing on how in­volved the en­gi­neer needs to be through­out. How­ever, it’s a vi­tal com­po­nent to en­sure the ve­hi­cle is le­gal and safely built.

et­cel­lent A live-axle swap is an ex­treme mod, so make sure you know what you want and you get it done by peo­ple with ex­pe­ri­ence.

King Shocks and hy­draulic bump stops un­der Ray’s Hilux, for ex­treme re­mote-area tour­ing.

ready to rock The Dana 44 in the front of Jarad’s Tri­ton came ready to go from the USA.

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