Why go with an upgraded steering tie rod?
Going with larger tires presents more torsional resistance to the axle shafts, and that's no surprise. Everyone knows that larger tires put axles at increased risk. Most people also recognize that upgrading gears at the differential and in the transfer case also increases the torque on the axle, compounding the risk of breakage.
However, it's not as apparent that these same modifications also put the steering tie rods at increased risk.
The scary part is that it doesn't take much to put these parts in jeopardy even on a completely stock vehicle!
Take a look at this You-Tube video, to watch a steering tie rod fail on a Hummer H2:
YouTube - H2 Snaps a Tie Rod
On our FJ Cruisers, the steering is controlled by a power assisted "rack and pinion" mechanism which slides side-to-side as the steering wheel is turned. At each end, a ball and socket joint connects to a rod which goes down and out to the wheel assembly. These rods push and pull both of the front wheels side to side, in parallel, as the steering wheel is turned.
The steering tie rods receive strictly push and pull forces. Because of the highly mobile spherical joints at either end, there is really no way to apply a bending force across this rod. The only way to break one is to physically pull it apart until it snaps like fishing line.
During normal driving conditions, the forces applied to these links are comparatively moderate. Thanks to the fact that the tires are usually rolling, changing the direction of the tire on the ground is almost effortless at the steering wheel. It gets a little more resistive to turn the wheel while the car is at a stand-still, like when doing a 3-point turn in a parking lot, but it's still well within the capabilities of the parts.
Unfortunately for our tie rods, though, we like to do our 3-point turns while maneuvering in rocky canyon bottoms. Sometimes this holds onto the wheels with a lot more resistance than flat road surfaces do. Even so, we would typically be able to feel with the steering feedback that our wheels are getting bound up.
However, some of us have larger tires and lower gears. These steering wheels are also drive wheels. When the wheel starts to get traction and it's locked into a groove that levers it away from the tie rod, something has to give!
As you can see in the picture above, the narrowest spot in the tie rod is where it breaks. This is at a tapered section that leads into the inner ball-and-socket joint. You can't normally see this part because it's hidden inside the rubber boot where the tie rod comes off of the rack and pinion mechanism, through a "window" in the frame crossmember. In the picture above, the other end of the broken steering mechanism is hidden behind the sway bar, but you can see the window I'm referring to. The boot has been released and then slid out the rod to show the broken joint.
That breakage occurred at an All-Pro sponsored run out at Johnson Valley. The trail is essentially continuous bowling-ball to footlocker sized boulders, many of which are unstable, interspersed with larger steps and obstacles. This is prime territory to create just the right mechanics for a broken tie rod.
Here's another image, posted up by VegasDlr, who apparently caught this tie rod in the act of proceeding to failure:
He describes it as "bent", but the reality is that it's a tension/compression force deforming the metal. Microfractures have begun, and the forces are now concentrated asymmetrically into the metal which is still intact. With each subsequent loading and unloading, those microfractures are progressing.
Breaking a tie rod is a big deal failure. Most people are not equipped with a spare, nor with the tooling to be able to exchange one, if they had a spare on hand.
What's worse, unlike with a lot of other kinds of drivetrain failures (everything from broken gear teeth to drive shafts or even axles), having a broken tie rod makes it almost impossible to tow the affected vehicle out.
You really have to restore some semblance of steering and alignment if you're going to get the broken rig off the trail on it's own wheels.
All too often, when people break tie rods, they end up abandoning their rigs on the trail so that they can go get the appropriate part and return for the trail side repair.
... and sometimes when they come back, their rig looks like this!!!
I have always had concerns about the vulnerability of my IFS steering tie rods, and this is why I was one of the most EAGER to hear that All-Pro had an upgrade part in the pipelines.
I would strongly recommend that people prioritize the reinforcement of their steering systems as JOB NUMBER TWO, immediately following the standard first upgrades of lift, offroad tires, and skid plates.
In my opinion, no other modification matches this one by cost-benefit ratio.
This is because the broken tie rod is so likely to force an abandoned vehicle, and the risk of leaving a disabled vehicle on the trail is so extraordinarily high.
Installing the All-Pro Heavy Duty Steering Kit
All-Pro's replacement for the stock steering links are as big and strong as you can get without having to cut away metal from the car in order to make room for a bigger part. I strongly doubt that these will ever break.
I did this job in a short afternoon with time to spare before sundown. As you'll see below, I actually redid the project at a later date and it only took a couple of hours to completely rebuild both sides.
This is a 1 day do-able project for a weekend mechanic, only slightly more involved than upgrading rear suspension links, and far less involved than doing a lift kit.
Here's what I received in the box:
Not shown above is the detailed instructions with pictures that were also included in the box.
One end of the tie rod is a custom machined clevis, along with a high quality FK rod end (FK also happens to be the brand I chose for my rock crawler, so I'm very gratified to see this brand in the All-Pro kit). On the other end is a custom machined threaded stud with a taper designed to fit into the steering knuckle. This takes another FK rod end.
Here's a closeup of the custom machined clevis with the rod end in place. This is a really nice part. Not only did they have to get the clevis itself designed for production, but they probably had to have the bolt that holds it into the steering system custom manufactured as well!
I've looked these parts over carefully and the quality of the machining is really first rate. The fit up of the parts is silky smooth with no slop. There are no burrs or galls. It looks like there are 2 or possibly 3 separate operations to make each of these parts, which means that a technician's work changing the parts from fixture to fixture had to be factored into the production scheme, increasing cost. Nevertheless, the kit comes in at a very reasonable price compared to a pair of stock tie rods.
Good job, All-Pro!
The project starts by getting the wheels off, and exposing the steering links.
For an education, I did the passenger side with the sway bar in place to prove that it can be done. However, I also went ahead and replaced my sway bar links during this same effort, so the sway bar came off before the driver's side steering link was completed. I'd suggest that for ease and comfort, spend the extra few minutes dropping the sway bar. The extra space to work makes it much easier.
Next, I detached the stock tie rod at the outer end. This is held in place with a taper fitting, so after removing a cotter pin and loosening a crown nut, I beat the crap out of it with a pickle fork (a $9.99 tool at Autozone) and it eventually came loose. I've used a gear puller to open this joint in the past because the gear puller isn't going to destroy the rubber boot on that joint, but in this case I no longer cared about the boot.
In order to get to the inner joint, you have to pry the steel band off of the base of the rubber boot, using pliers.
Here's the inner ball-and-socket joint, exposed with retraction of the rubber boot. You can see how thin the shaft is where it tapers down and then becomes the ball.
You can also see that I've already beaten the metal tab back which folds over the flat spot on the side of the joint. That bent tab is what prohibits the joint from working itself unscrewed from the end of the shaft. Once it (and it's brother on the other side) are bent out of the way, the joint can be broken free with a wrench and then unscrewed by hand.
Here's with the tie rod removed, but the sway bar in place:
Could I do this on the side of the trail ? Absolutely, if I had to... but it would be an epic trail repair!!
Next, you beat the washer with the bent tabs back to flat(ish):
Next, the clevis goes in, over the re-flattened retaining washer, with some serious red threadlocker:
Make the clevis sit horizontal as the bolt tightens down. After the bolt is torqued, the tabs should get bent back over as best as possible, and there's a set screw to help resist anything loosening while you're not watching:
Once the upper end is established, the knuckle end hardware simply bolts through the existing tapered hole:
In order to get the tubing to thread onto both rod ends, I manipulated the steering back and forth. At some points it was easier to thread while the steering was to one side and at some points it was easier when it was to the other side.
Once I was done, it looked like this:
You can see that at this point I've dropped the skid plate and the sway bar so that I can do the sway bar links and collars too!
Here's the driver's side completed, along with the new sway bar link:
It was at this point that I noticed something slightly concerning...
My suspension had sagged to full-droop while doing this whole procedure, but in screwing in the steering links, I'd used the jack to jink the suspension up a bit. Now, while letting it sag back into full droop, it wasn't hanging down as far! In fact, the steering tie rod was now maxed. The outer joint was metal-to-metal.
If you recall, I stated above that the tie rods receive only push and pull, and that they never receive any levering... due to the miracle of the spherical bearings in the rod ends. Well, it turns out there *IS* a way that you can exert leverage across a tie rod. It's simple. All you have to do is to max the angulation on one of the joints... and then keep going.
So... I called Terry at All-Pro, to see if he could help me figure this out.
It turns out that my Walker Evans coilovers and All-Pro UCA's allow more than the stock amount of front suspension droop. So much so, in fact, that they exceed what would otherwise be the capability of the rod ends supplied with my new HD steering kit. I needed the upgrade to the upgrade!
Terry had the fix on my doorstep in two days. It was a set of joints intended for use with "long travel" suspension:
Now *THESE* are sexy parts!!!
Let's look at them a little more closely. Here's the inner part. The long side is the stud that the rod end goes on, the short side is the taper that goes into the knuckle:
Notice the angle? That's the key!
I stared at this part for a good while and I have to say, they've really outdone themselves here. Not only does this part require a minimum of two and possibly three operations, but someone must have had to build some kind of wild fixture to hold the part at an angle in the lathe!
If I had to build this part, I'd have had to make it in two pieces and weld it together!
...but wait! There's MORE!!!
Unlike the previous joints where the rod ends had a built-in spacer, this joint came with a set of parts called "high misalignment spacers":
Here's how high misalignment spacers work.
They fit into the ball, and the surface of the spacer is continuous with the surface of the spherical bearing:
This allows the ball to rotate very far over. In fact, it can go so far over that the spacer starts to become part of the bearing surface:
How cool is THAT!?
Back on the vehicle, here's the suspension exposed again, and the weight is partially supported on a jack:
Notice, in this close-up, that the joint is basically already metal-to-metal, where if it wasn't for that, my suspension would otherwise still let me have a few inches of down travel. Also, notice that this version of the joint sits directly below the steering arm on the knuckle:
Here's the replacement long travel part. Notice that it angles inward:
At this point, I had some concern that the links would end up too long now that the joint was angled inward. I decided to shave a little off of the length of the tubing. I chose to remove slightly less than the width of one of the jam nuts at each end. I wasn't sure this was needed, but I was quite certain that if the links were too long, the people at the alignment shop weren't going to trim them.
Here's the cut that I did, compared to original length:
Finally, I put the link back on and I was able to let it fall to full droop without the tie rod joint getting maxed:
Here's the final setting on the link and the jam nuts after bringing it home from the alignment shop. As you can see, there's a small amount of thread exposed at either end, so trimming the tube length was probably not needed at all:
In the end, I'm extremely happy to finally have these. I consider it cheap insurance against major disaster!
If you drive your FJ at all like I do... put some serious thought into reinforcing this known weak point.