Written by Jesse Weifenbach
Intro: The plan for this project began while I still owned my last ranger, a black '99 with the SLA front suspension. Although adequate for normal street driving and light off-highway adventures, it was soon discovered that parts were expensive and wore out quickly. By a twist of fate, that truck was sold and I acquired a '93 ranger from a friend. (Grif) This truck was already well equipped when I bought it. It had a 6 inch lift, 35's and lockers front and rear. Because of this, I decided to postpone my straight axle swap for a while and wheel what I already had. (Not before adding a winch and a Can-Back first though) It wasn't long before I began to see the downside of this front end as well. Ball joints wore out quickly under the abuse of 35 inch mud tires. Wheel bearings require constant maintenance to prevent failure and articulation was limited by design. Soon I began to think about the axle I had sitting in my garage again. It was time for a change...
Planning:The first step in a project like this is a well thought out plan. There are many factors to consider. You must examine what your needs and wants are for your truck. Is it a daily driver or just a trail machine? Does it need to be reliable for long trips? What is your budget? Are you able to do the work yourself? Another very important question you have to ask is, "What are the shortcomings of your current setup and what needs to be done to improve upon them?"
I will cite my truck as an example. It is my daily driver and only form of transportation besides my bicycle, therefore it must be reliable, get good mileage, and ride fairly decent. My first step was to address the problems with my current setup. These problems includes, small, weak ball joints, poor wheel bearing design (too close together), impossible to keep in aligned and expensive to have aligned, weak lockouts, poor ground clearance, small brakes and limited articulation. Deciding to go with a Dana 44 straight axle solved most of these problems right off the bat.
The first thing you need to decide is what axle you are going to use. Since this is an article about a Dana 44 swap, we will assume that is what you will use, although many of the ideas here can carry over to other swaps as well. For my swap, I chose to use a Ford Early Bronco Dana 44. This axle fit my needs for strength and size. It almost looks like it should have come under my truck from the factory. The Dana 44 has been under almost every major American truck at some point in time, so there are many options and variations to choose from and consider. If you are like me and choose an Early Bronco front end, be advised that the Dana 44 first appeared midway through the 1970 model year. It was equipped with drum brakes and small 260x u-joints. This axle only had disks brakes for two years, '76 & '77. Don't get discouraged though; there are many ways to upgrade older axles.
Once you decide on an axle, you must figure out how you are going to upgrade it to suit your needs. This is the time to plan for bigger shafts, disc brakes, gearing and locker options, upgraded steering, etc, etc. Now that you have your axle planned out, you get to choose how you will hang it from your truck. You must decide what springs, shocks and mounting system you want to use and how it will all work with your truck.
My plan: The plan for my truck was simple enough in theory. Buy an axle, clean it up, upgrade it and install it.
The execution: My project began with a trip to the junk yard for a friend. While there, I saw an opportunity to start gathering parts for my swap since I had already decided what axle I was going to use. My next step was to find the axle. With a bit of luck, I was able to find a shelled out early Bronco axle hiding by itself in a local yard and pick it up for a mere 50 dollars. It had one knuckle, no shafts, and an open carrier. I took it home and dismantled it down to a bare housing. After some degreasing, it was taken to be sandblasted and powder-coated. Here is the axle after power-coating:
The next step was to stuff gears and a locker in my fresh axle housing. For this step, I chose an ARB air locker and 4.56 gears.
If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you may want to make your own case spreader for the gear installation:
Here is the axle with gears setup:
My next step was to finish the axle off with all the other goodies it needed to be ready for installation. These items included doing a Chevy disc brake swap, ¾ ton axle shafts from a K5 Blazer Dana 44 and a custom steering with 1 ton tie rod ends. Many people choose to use heim joints for their steering. While I feel this is acceptable for a trail rig, they should not be use on the street. This is why I went with TRE's. This truck also needed to still look stock when finished.
Installation: Since this truck was my daily driver, I could not afford for it to be down for very long. The target time I had set aside for installation was four days, and it turned out I needed every second of those four days to do it. Here is the truck the day it went under the knife. Note: this is my friend's Explorer next to my Ranger for before and after comparisons. We did the front and rear axle swaps on this truck as well:
The old Skyjacker class II 6 inch lift:
Then I ground off the old coil buckets and prepped the frame for painting.
Then I trimmed the engine cross member to make clearance for the new axle.
...And reinforced it.
Then I rolled the new axle assembly underneath the truck. For radius arm brackets, I reused my Skyjacker mount because it
was already installed and worked perfectly with the new axle.
Next, the new coil buckets and shock mounts were installed. The coil buckets are off of a '76 Ford F-150 and were cut and
re-welded to fit the Ranger chassis. The shock mounts are F-250 units and require no modifications and even use one existing hole in the frame. Notice that I was able to reuse the stock front driveshaft without modification.
At this point, it became time to do a little bit of fabricating, in the way of a trac-bar mount to locate the axle laterally in the vehicle. ¼ inch plate steel was used and bolted to the frame via the steering box bolts and later reinforced to the engine crossmember.
Installation of the Rancho RS5010 shocks and steering. (I later upgraded to RS5012 shocks due to lack of travel from the RS5010')
Photo of braided steel brake line, vent hose, adjustable trac-bar and mount.
Due to the larger brakes that the truck now has, it became necessary to install a larger master cylinder. The stock Ranger's MC is just under a one inch bore, so after much hunting around, I settled on an '86 F-250 MC (over 8500lbs Gross) with a 1-1/8 inch bore. This unit works well because of its large bore, inexpensive price, standard fitting sizes and the fact that it is the same size in all critical dimensions to bolt up to the existing brake booster. The only modification that was necessary was opening up the mounting bolt holes slightly to the inside.
Now the last steps were to install the ARB line to the axle, the Wildhorse 3.5” VR coils and bleed the brakes. After a shakedown run, it was discovered that there was something wrong with the brake rotors that was causing a horrible vibration. It turned out that despite just being turned, they were not running true. The best we were able to figure was that the guy who turned the rotors did so incorrectly. A quick trip to the parts store for new rotors and we were on our way. Here is a photo of me changing out the rotors.
Here are some after shots:
Here is a shot of the trac-bar and drag link for the steering. Notice how the two are parallel and the same length. This is necessary to achieve zero bump-steer.
Also you may have notice the square nuts on the drag link, these were temporary until I was able to buy two more jam nuts for the steering linkage.
Details: This was just a somewhat quick run down of my installation. I left a few details out since they may not apply to your swap, depending on the axle that you use.
STEERING: For the steering I used '85 Blazer tie rod ends. The links are made of 1-3/8 inch DOM tubing with an ID of ¾ inch. Special taps had to be made to thread the tubing for the tie rods. Also a tapering bit had to be bought to change the taper in the pitman arm and steering knuckles. The truck use to have a dropped pitman for the old lift. With this steering, you can run a stock pitman, which is one way to save money.
BOLT PATTERNS: With this new axle, you will have a different bolt pattern for your wheels front and rear. There are several ways to approach this. First, you can change out the rear axle with one that has a matching bolt pattern. Second, you can run two different spares or find a wheel with multiple bolt patterns. Third, run wheel adapters in the rear. This option is not preferable because it will add stress to your wheel bearings and axle shafts. What I chose to do, was to buy one wheel adapter and put my spare on a wheel with the larger bolt pattern. That way it will work on the front and if I need to put it on the rear, I just use the adapter. This is temporary. Right now, I'm working on building an Explorer 8.8 with 31 spline shafts and a re-drilled bolt pattern to match the front.
AXLE SHAFTS: Not wanting to spend the money on after market shafts, ($350+), I found an article that illustrated how to use Blazer shafts in an EB axle. So I picked up two sets of axle shafts. The short side inner shaft and stubs will bolt right in. The long side inner shaft will have to be cut down and resplined. Moser Engineering did this for me. Two long side inners cost me $95 plus shipping to be machined down. The advantage to the Blazer shafts is their larger size and bigger u-joints. (297x vs. 260x) One note: At first I tried using '78 Bronco outer stubs, but they were still too short with the disc brake swap. Blazer outers are 0.2” longer and will allow for easier installation.
RADIUS ARM BRACKETS AND COIL BUCKETS: There are a few ways to approach these two items and opinions vary on what is the best method. First, the way I did it. For the radius arm bracket, it was easiest and most logical to use the Skyjacker bracket. This unit tucks the radius arms close the frame and helps prevent dragging. If you use the Skyjacker bracket, you will have to run 7 degree caster bushing which will give you about 1 or 2 degrees of caster at the wheels. The downside is that if you want to go higher than 8 inches of lift, this bracket won't work because you will not have enough caster. Your other option is to get radius arm brackets off of a ‘70's era Ford truck. Then you will have to fabricate a transmission cross member. These brackets hang down further and give you about 3 or 4 degrees more caster depending on your setup. Because they hang down further, they will get caught easier, but with the extra caster they provide, you can obtain greater lift. Now coils buckets have their trade offs as well. What I did was to cut off the original buckets and shock mounts and install the ones that I described above. This requires more work, but it has its advantages. These coil buckets allow the use of standard EB coils with no modification. They also stick out further, so it places the top of the coil directly over the bottom and reduces bowing of the spring. The F-250 shock mounts allow for longer shocks which will help articulation, especially when combined with a wristed radius arm. Your other option is to use the stock buckets. The downside being that EB coils are slightly larger in diameter and don't fit the bucket perfectly. Also you must remove part of the coil to make it fit and the buckets contribute to increase bowing of the springs. On the other hand, if money is tight, this may be a better option for you.
The Finished Product: The finished product has turned out far better then expected. The truck drives great, steering effort has been greatly reduced and the truck tracks better then ever, with a simple tape measure alignment. The only problem I have encountered was an increase in sway going around corners. But if you want flex, you must have soft springs and VR coils are very soft. This problem could be fixed with an anti-rock sway bar, but it's not a big enough problem for me to worry about.
Off-road, this truck is a whole new machine. Even without a wristed radius arm (yet) it flexes better, has more ground clearance, and for my needs, is bullet proof.
It is possible to swap in a straight axle and still have your truck be streetable. It just takes some thought, time, and money. To do this swap like I did will probably cost you around $2500-$3000, but you must take into account that I bought top-of-the-line everything. This truck has to hold up to thousands of miles on the highway, wheel, and still make it home, all while hauling 800lbs+ of people and gear.
Photos of truck after swap: