Tag Archives: off road truck stuff

fj cruiser taillight assembly wiring

FJ Cruiser Tail light Replacement

fj cruiser broken tail lightNot that long ago on an off-road adventure we broke the tail light on our FJ Cruiser (Carnage on the trail).  Now it is time to pay the piper and repair the damage.

Replacing a broken tail light is a simple fix anyone can perform with a few simple tools.

fj cruiser taillight housingAlthough simple, plan on at least an hour to complete this repair.  It is also time to throwout all child labor laws and enlist the help of your daughter or son or anyone else who has small hands.

In order to remove the broken tail light assembly, pull back the small plastic access panel on the interior back corner of your fj cruiser taillight access panelFJ Cruiser.  Since we replaced the driver’s side we also removed the bottle jack in order to reach the third hexnut that holds the tail light housing in place.  If you are replacing the passenger side you will have to remove the base speaker and the access panel behind.

The tail light housing is held in place by three hexnuts on long screws that are attached to the tail light assembly.  A 10mm wrench will installing fj cruiser driverside taillightloosen the hexnuts closest to the back door accessible through the small access portal.  The third requires a 10mm deep socket (on a 1/4″ drive there really isn’t much room in there) and small hands.  Reach back up into the cavity behind where the bottle jack is stored.  You cannot see the long screw or hexnut so you (or your small handed assistant) will need to feel your way in order to slide the socket on and loosen the hexnut.

fj cruiser taillight connectorsWith the hexnuts removed, gently slide the old light housing off and carefully remove the wire clip connections to the light sockets.  After you have the housing off remove and transfer the light sockets (with bulbs) onto the new housing.

fj cruiser taillight assembly backNow simply reverse the process to attach the new tail light housing assembly to your FJ Cruiser.  Once you have the hexnuts hand tightened, test that the brake, reverse light and turn signal are operating correctly.  When tightening the hexnuts, be careful not to over tighten. The screws are attached to plastic and can crack the plastic housing if over tightened.  You want to a apply just enough torque to hold the tail light housing to your FJ Cruiser securely.

Think you might need additional instructions?  How about the Toyota FJ Cruiser rear light assembly instructions manual pages?  They do make it more difficult but it will provide details you might want to consider.

fj cruiser fixed taillightBecause this repair is so simple, we are not a fan of tail light guards.  The guards attach using the three tail light housings screws with the guard’s attachment points sitting between the metal body and the plastic tail light assembly.  When the guard comes in contact with an immovable object the guard is pushed in causing body damage and most likely cracks to the tail light housing.  We prefer braking the tail light housing over body damage.

comeup winch

Off-Road Winch Installation

comeup winch fj cruiserAnyone who explores the backcountry knows, a winch is one of the best recovery tools to have on your 4×4 truck when you’re on an off-road adventure.

Recently we received a new DV 9s Comeup winch.  The DV 9s has a pull line rated at 9,000 lbs, 3-stage planetary 156:1 gear train, an automatic full load Cone Brake Structure (CBS) and comes loaded with a 100’ of 3/8″ synthetic rope as well as a Hawse fairlead and mounting hardware.

Mounting the Comeup winch on most 4×4 aftermarket bumpers is relatively straight forward (Comeup winch installation manual).  Comeup includes a footprint template to locate the hole position for the winch’s four mounting bolts.  Once you have the the four holes marked, grab an 11mm bit and drill them out.

We’re installing our Comeup winch on a Metal Tech 4×4 tube bumper’s winch mount.  While Metal Tech’s winch mounting plate is pre-drilled, the holes will need to be increased in size to account for Comeup’s larger mounting bolts.  Once the holes are drilled out, a little shot of spay paint on the holes will protect your bumper against rust as you take on the elements.

Start the installation by inserting the mounting nuts into the slots on the winch’s feet.  Carefully lift your Comeup winch into place aligning it with the mounting holes.  From below, attach the winch using the 8.8 grade bolts that come with the kit.

Metal Tech 4×4 provides a set of brackets designed to mount Comeup’s solenoid pack to their tube bumper.  Attach one of the brackets to the back of the solenoid pack using the supplied hardware.  The bracket should remain loose in order to make any final adjustments when it is attached into place.  The other bracket can be firmly attached to the Metal Tech tube bumper.

Attach the solenoid pack’s “F1”, “F2” and “A” leads to their matching terminal on the winch’s motor. Using two wrenches hold the lower nut steady as you tighten the upper nut over the lead.

Next attach the thinner “green” lead from the solenoid pack and black ground cable to the bottom of the winch motor.  Now attach the motor’s lead using its pre-wired connector to it’s mate from the solenoid pack.

Work the solenoid pack into place where it will attach to the bumper.  Before screwing the two plates together ensure the leads remain untangled and can be tucked out of the way than tighten all the nuts to secure the solenoid pack in place.

Route the black ground and red power cables to engine compartment and attach them directly to the battery posts starting with the black ground cable.

Once the winch is installed and wired it’s time to run a few tests.  Prior to using your Comeup winch ensure you have read and fully understands the Comeup winch operating instruction manual.  Test that the winch free spools, then engage the clutch in order to test both power out and power in.

A properly installed winch is a powerful tool for self recovery on any off-road adventure.  If properly maintained your Comeup winch should provide years of service on your off-road adventures.

toyota fj cruiser forest

BFGoodrich’s KM2 Mud Tires First Impressions

new bfgoodrich km2 tiresOur off-road adventures take us to places where AAA is not an option.  On our adventures we drive our FJ Cruiser over dirt, boulders and rocks that eat tires for breakfast.  In addition we usually have to cover thousands of miles of asphalt to find the end of the road.  Well built, tough as nails tires are not an luxury, they are a necessity.

A few days back we received a set of BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A KM2 tires to test out on our off-road adventures.  The KM2 is BFGoodrich’s second generation of their toughest “E” rated off-road tire.  The KM2 protects against punctures with three layers of polyester and two more belts of steel.  In addition BFGoodrich wraps the KM2 with three ply sidewall construction to resist cuts and bruises in order to take the edge off of rocks and other off-road hazards.bf goodrich km2 and zep

We chose to mount the 285x75x17 KM2 tires on our Walker Evens beadlock wheels and balance the mud tires with Dyna Beads.  The first thing we noticed is that these tires look good on our Toyota FJ Cruiser.  Aggressive tread blocks and 34″ stance, these BFGoodrich KM2 tires seem to weep testosterone.

In order to get a good first impression of these BFGoodrich tires we decided to leave the state and head over to Browns Camp Off-Highway-Vehicle (OHV) area in Oregon’s Tillamook Forest.toyota fj cruiser bfgoodrich km2

Mud tires are notoriously loud on the highway however BFGoodrich’s KM2 Mud tires were surprisingly quiet and smooth as we motored the 300 miles of highway down to Browns Camp.  The tires provided good road feel as we navigated the twisty asphalt that leads through the foot hills of the coastal range to the trail head.bfgoodrich km2 fj cruiser

At the trail head we aired down allowing the tires to soften the bumps and ruts of the trails.  On the dirt and gravel we easily made our way as the KM2 Mud tires dug in and carried us over the 4×4 trails.

When it came to the tougher rock crawling sections of firebreak 5 we discovered that we had left way too much air in the tires.  At 28psi the tires could not conform and grab the boulder’s edges.  The smart thing to do would have been to bleed off 10 psi and let the tires work for us…  that would have been the smart thing to do.  We kept the tires at 28 psi, worked back and forth through the steep boulder infested hill and climbed to the top.bfgoodrich km2 mud tire

For this initial impression we drove 600 miles of highway and spent a full day driving several levels of trails (easy, moderate and difficult, we stayed away from the extreme and sever rated trails…  after all we still had to drive home).  Our first impression is that the KM2 provides solid performance on and off-road.  The KM2s are well behaved on the road and deliver good footing off-road (next time we’ll give firebreak 5 a try with 18 psi). Over the next few months we’ll count on these tires to take us on several more off-road adventures and we will let you know how they perform.

stock fj cruiser and modified fj cruiser side by side

Before You Modify Your Vehicle For Off-Road Travel

total chaos long travel fj cruiserDon’t modify your truck!  No, I mean it! Don’t MODIFY Your Off-Road TRUCK!

Ok, let me explain. No showroom vehicle is perfect for serious off-road adventures so depending on your adventure you will most likely need to make some modifications to your vehicle.  However, before you start, be clear on why you are making the modification, what you are looking to gain and what effect it will have on the entire vehicle.  Based on our experience, we put together a few thoughts to consider before modifying your off-road vehicle.

Suspension plays a critical role on and off-road. Suspension is responsible for handling in normal driving, emergency situations and maneuvering through obstacles on the trail.  It is important to keep in mind the manufacturers geometry ideals when deciding how you will achieve increased lift and articulation.  Good quality suspension component upgrades in the right configuration will improve off-road performance and allow your vehicle to drive down the highway as well mannered as it did right off the showroom floor.  It won’t do you any good to be able to crawl up 18 inch rock shelves if you cannot swerve to avoid hitting a cow on the road in Baja.  Your goal should be to increase lift and wheel travel while keeping the center of gravity as low as possible and maintain on road handling performance.land rover d90 toyota fj cruiser 4x4 trail

Keep the tires sized right.  Suspension provides lift but tires give you ground clearance.  Larger tires add weight, which in turn puts stress on steering components, reduces gas mileage, strains performance and often contributes to broken axles.  The ground clearance difference between 33″ and 35″ tires is less than an inch and it decreases more as you air down.  If you absolutely need 37″ tires for your adventure, make sure all your steering and suspension components are matched to safely drive highway speeds and still perform emergency maneuvers.  Choose a durable, high quality tire, with strong sidewalls and tread matched for the terrain without over sizing it. We ran 33.5″ (according to the tape measure) tires for both adventures through Rubicon and ground clearance was never the problem.

A big part of keeping the center of gravity low is to avoid putting weight on the roof.  It’s easy to pack a large roof rack with fuel cans, storage boxes, spare tire, roof top tent, awning and even a kitchen sink.  But all that weight becomes a liability in off camber situations or in an emergency maneuver to avoid the cow.  We’ve watched several trucks easily drive through a tight trail section only to see an identical truck with a heavily packed roof rack take a ding as it leaned into a over hanging tree or rock face everyone else slipped by.  Additionally all that wind resistance up top has a very negative affect on your fuel mileage and highway driving manners.  Select a light weight roof rack and use it sparingly, limited  to lighter items such as a shovel, camp chairs or duffel bag of cloths.  If you cannot pack all the items you need for your adventure in the back of the rig, you may have the wrong off-road adventure vehicle.ultimate fj cruiser trail flexing

Recovery gear is extremely important and an often overlooked modification.  A good winch can be an invaluable tool for getting you unstuck or pulling a fallen tree clear of the trail.  A winch should be considered in conjunction with an aftermarket bumper.  Select a bumper that gives you a clear view of and easy access to the winch.  Like any tool, it is very important that you know how to use your winch properly before you need it and follow all the safety precautions.  There are situations that will not require a winch or a winch it not appropriate.  The right tool for the recovery may be a shovel, hi-lift jack, snatch strap or traction device such as Maxtrax. When your stuck, a good situational analysis and well developed recovery plan is far better (more productive and safer) than hastily grabbing your favorite item without a thought.

land rover d90 toyota fj cruiser airing downWhen it comes to electrical modifications, keep them on separate circuits using properly sized fuses and relay switches.  To make troubleshooting and maintenance easier, clearly label the wires and auxiliary fuse box for your CBs, off-road lights, HAM radios, compressors and fridges.  Poorly wired electronics can cause fires, drain batteries or damage other electrical components including your vehicles engine control unit (ECU).

Weight is the enemy.  Heavy bumpers, sliders, full skid plates, winches,  and steel guards of all kinds add a lot of extra weight.  This weight effects handling, performance and reduces the carrying capacity for your other stuff.  A fully loaded truck ready for an adventure should not exceed the manufacturer’s gross vehicle weight rating.  Ideally it should be less than 90% GVWR.  We’re always looking to pair down the weight while still maintaining the right level of protection.  We run a skid, but only for the engine.  Our Metal Tech tube bumper is significant lighter than a shell style bull bar.

FJ Cruiser on the rackLower gears, after market transfer case, beefier third member, air lockers,  or super charger can increase your truck’s off-road capability but it comes at a very high price.  For us these items take you across a very real line in the sand.  By modifying your engine or drive train you now have a maintenance intensive truck that will require a significant amount of work to keep running smoothly.  You also go from carrying a basic tool set to hauling a full mechanics chest and a host of spare parts in order to make adjustments and repairs in the field.

Stronger is not always better.  For example we’ve talked about how the half shaft on an IFS vehicle is a weak link.  However if you opt for beefier CVs with stouter axles you have now moved the breaking point from an easy to fix IFS field repair into the differential gears which were never design for field repair.  The same is true for beefing up tie rods that than pushes the weak point into the rack and pinion.fj cruiser rear suspension components

A poor quality modification component is worse than no modification at all.  For example: if you attach thin walled, flimsy sliders that cannot carry the weight of the vehicle, you run the risk of significant damage on the trail.  On the trail your spotter, who assumes your sliders are more than looks, will guide you through an obstacle that may involve using them. Better to not have them and take an appropriate line than drive with a false sense of security.

One of the best investments you’ll ever make has nothing to do with your off-road vehicle.  Spend as much time as you can driving off-road.  Start out on easy trails learning how your vehicle behaves and build your skills as you progress to more complex off-road adventures.  A good off-road driving course  such as Bill Burke’s 4-wheeling America, can also help jump start your adventures, better than most vehicle modification.  Nothing beats seat time, the more experienced you are behind the wheel, the less modifications it will take to safely complete your off-road adventure.

Modifications are part off-road vehicles.  Every modification has both positive and negative effects on your vehicle’s performance. To get the most from your modifications it is important to understand their full impact in order to choose the ones that are right for your next off-road adventure.

metal tech 4x4 red eye bumper toyota fj cruiser

Installing Metal Tech’s Red Eye Bumper

Toyota may have plans to end production of the FJ Cruiser but the aftermarket continues to bring out new off-road products for the FJ Cruiser.  Metal Tech’s Red Eye rear bumper is one of the latest rear expedition bumpers available for the Toyota FJ Cruiser and your off-road adventure.

The Red Eye bumper debuts after more than a year in development where CAD technology was used to remove weight were possible and strengthen areas where necessary.  Metal Tech used advanced engineering principles, modular design and a deep knowledge of metal fabrication to create a swing-out expedition bumper that does not require welding or drilling into the frame.  All parts have been engineered to work with Toyota’s structural design.

The Metal Tech 4×4 Red Eye rear bumper is one of the most innovative expedition style rear bumpers to come out for Toyota’s FJ Cruiser in years. Features include:

  • swing-out spare tire
  • hi-lift jack mount
  • dual fuel-can carrier
  • modular integrated design

As this video shows, installation is simple and straightforward allowing any FJ Cruiser owner with a few wrenches and a little time to install it themselves.

For more information on the Metal Tech 4×4 Red Eye bumper for the Toyota FJ Cruiser contact Metal Tech 4×4 and let them know you heard about it here on Last Great Road Trip.

metal tech 4x4 fj cruiser rubicon trail

Metal Tech’s Rear Long Travel Review

fj cruiser little sluice rubicon trail Metal Tech 4×4 is known for its leadership in off-road protection, suspension performance and 4-wheeling innovation.  We thought we’d look at their recent suspension contribution.

The first big advancement in long travel for the Toyota FJ Cruiser  and 4-Runner came  in 2008 from Total Chaos taking the front end from eight inches to 12 inches of travel with their front 2″ long travel kit.  This step forward provided a big improvement to the front IFS but left the rear-end unattended.

Realizing the need for balance in off-road suspension performance, Metal Tech 4×4 introduced their rear long travel and has created the next evolution in FJ Cruiser and 4-Runner suspension. Eleven and half inches of rear shock travel translating into 27 inches of wheel travel to help maintain four points of contact with the ground as you motor over all sorts of terrain.

To achieve this impressive range of motion, Metal Tech’s long travel kit includes offset lower links that eliminate binding, bump stop relocaters, longer stainless break-lines and taller two stage progressive springs.  Metal Tech has teamed with Icon to create longer rear shocks specifically designed to take advantage of the new geometry.

The Metal Tech long travel kit offers two progressive spring options:metal tech rear long travel spring

  • Standard long travel springs have a free standing 19 1/4″ spring height that maintains a 2″ lift in the rear.  The bottom half the coil is rated at 250lbs of spring rate and the upper portion is at 105lbs of spring rate.
  • Expedition rated long travel springs have 3″ of rear lift. The bottom half of the coil is rated at 300lbs of spring rate and the upper portion is rated at 140lbs of spring rate to maintain ride height with the heavier loads associated with overland expeditions.

Using a progressive spring combination allows the spring to stay in it’s compressed position at ride height and expand out to it’s full free height on down travel keeping the wheels in contact with the ground.

But how does all this spring rating translate into seat of the pants performance? We tested both Metal Tech spring types and found some very interesting results.

Full disclosure here: we run the Metal Tech 3-link setup with their lower links, springs, bump stops, extended bake line and Sway-A-Way 2 1/2″, remote reserve, 12″ travel, triple by-pass shocks on our setup.  Travel numbers are for a 4-link set up and some of the test were using Metal Tech’s FJC running a 4-link set up and their long travel kit.  Both springs were tested on our rig to provide same/same comparison over a longer duration to see the difference in ride comfort, sag and spring response. We also left the bypass shocks at the same setting for all the spring tests.

First we tested the standard springs on some forest roads and local trails which offer a number of different levels of challenge.  Driving on highway, around town or on wash board gravel the standard long travel springs provide an amazingly comfortable ride.  While the heavier rated bottom half of the coil keeps a level ride height, the softer upper portion gives and takes the impacts of pot holes, cracks and bumps in the road.  On the 4×4 trails the springs open up nicely, allowing the rear wheels to travel their full arc keeping the rig steady as you crawl over large rocks or drop a wheel into a hole.  The three wheeled wave so familiar to FJC drivers who play on the bigger obstacles is a thing of the past (within reason).  Carrying lighter loads on the local logging roads (a few spare parts. tools and camp gear) the springs provide the stability needed to move quickly down half dirt, half gravel twisty terrain and absorb all the bumps and ruts allowing for solid control and comfort.fj cruiser rubicon

The expedition long travel springs are new…  in fact we were the first to grab a pair off the rack and test them.  These springs were designed to support the heavier loads of overland expeditions without sagging and giving up ride height (translate ride height into upward wheel travel).  In order to run the new expedition long travel springs through their paces we piled all the gear needed to be self sufficient for six days on the famed Rubicon Trail… and it was a lot of gear. On the big Rubicon rocks of Little Sluice, Big Sluice and Cadillac Hill the expedition springs carried the weight and still granted the rear axle full travel along the length of its arc allowing the wheels to remain in contact with the granite as we crawled up and over obstacles.  On all the obstacles the springs kept the rig stable, never feeling sloppy or sagging under the weight of all the camping gear, food, tools, spare parts, camera gear and gallons of water and fuel.

Of course you have to give up something with these heavier springs right…  These springs are designed to ride level with a load so empty you will notice your FJC has a bit of rake like it did when it came off the show room floor. Driving around town with the expedition springs and an empty rig reminds you you’re a driving a truck. Not harsh, looking for a kidney belt, rattle your teeth loose ride but not the supple smooth ride of the Metal Tech standard long travel springs either.FJ Cruiser little sluice

When we first upgraded the front end to the Total Chaos long travel we had one complaint…  the rear end just could not keep up as we took our rig through the Baja, Rubicon (the first time back in 09) and the backcountry discovery routes of Utah and Washington.  Now with the Metal Tech long travel and their choice of springs we have the balance we’ve been looking for as we travel the road less traveled.

If your looking for an upgrade that will provide you with gobs of rear travel and you want to be able to carry all the gear you need to be self sufficient on long expedition in a Toyota 4-Runner or FJ Cruiser then give Metal Tech 4×4 a call to talk about their six different rear long travel kit options.

cam can gear boxes

Cam Cans Can

mounted cam cansLong off-road adventures mean you are carrying what you need…  tools, parts, recovery gear, fluids or anything else you may require to be self sufficient.  But where do you put it all so that you don’t have to dig through your entire truck to get to it when you need it?

We are always looking for ways to store stuff so that is it organizes, accessible, and safe.  Our friends over at Auto Anything sent us a set of Daystar Cam Cans to try out.

Cam Cans are an ingenious way of providing storage space for liquids (antifreeze, water, oil, and other fluids) or trail tools on the outside of your rig so they remain easily accessible.  Their tech says “All containers are constructed of Daystar’s patented polyurethane construction which makes them resistant to warping, crushing, or degrading from UV rays and the elements.” We found them to be pretty durable as they got kick around the garage for several weeks while we waited for our off-road FJ Cruiser to return so we could mount them up.

The containers mount to the spare tire where you can carry one or two Cam Cans locked together.  We opted for a water storage  (you can go a long time without food but run out of water and it gets ugly fast) and the blaze orange tool box.  There is a green for other fluids.cam can tool box

Mounting them up is simple and only takes a few minutes to replace the lugs on the spare with Daystar’s mounting kit hardware.  Each container slides on, twists and their cams (hence the name) locks into place.  No tools required to access them on the trail, just twist and slide off.

We have started carrying our basic recovery kit (tree strap, shackle, gloves, and winch remote) in the tool box so that what we need most to get unstuck is quickly and easily accessible.  We can also throw a muddy strap back in the Cam Can tool box when were done and not worry about making a mess in the back of the rig.

And while we hope we are not digging into our recover gear too much, it is nice to know it will be right at our finger tips when we need it and out of the way when we don’t.

If you want to see their introduction at SEMA, here you go


race truck parts currie axel fj cruiser springs ford 9 inch

Thoughts Behind The Change

fj cruiser flexingThe second universal truth of the Buddha, and off-road adventures, is that everything is continuously changing. Our rig has been going through immense change.  Sure the changes are very bad ass…  but what is important, is to understand why we’re making these changes.

Read through our website (go ahead, we’ll wait) and you will see our rig, the Blue Bunny, has successfully taken us on many amazing off-road adventures so why would we change it.  Seven years ago, in order to go to the North Slope, AK we upgraded the suspension with a three inch lift relying on Sway-A-Way (SAW) coil-overs, rear shocks and springs.  We needed a suspension that could provide lift for larger tires, take constant jarring and improve the handling of our FJ Cruiser. These changes fit the bill for driving over 2,000 miles of nasty unpaved roads. But we wanted more travel to soak up the endless jarring of long off-road adventures.

currie axle with ford 9"Chasing our desire for more travel and a smoother ride we upgraded to a  Total Chaos long travel kit and bigger set of SAWs coil-overs that extended the front travel from eight  to about 12 inches.  This upgrade made a huge difference as we crawled the Rubicon, bombed down Baja and wound our way on the Utah Backcountry Discovery Route or any number of local NW 4×4 trails.  But this front suspension upgrade left us wanting more for the rear.  While the front remained confident in everything we threw at it, the rear just couldn’t keep up.  That is when we turned to LT from Metal Tech 4×4 and arranged for them to build a custom rear suspension that was worthy of our adventures.

LT went to work replacing our original axle with a Currie that was four inches wider than stock so it would match the width of our extended long travel front end.  The Curie is a bullet proof housing with huge axles that we will be hard pressed to damage.  A Ford 9″ third member  with 4.56:1 ring and pinion gears was mated up to the Currie.  We needed the gearing to gain back the power that has been lost with the bigger tires, armor and all the gear needed for long expeditions. A Ford 9″ is used extensively in desert racers because of it dependability and parts are readily available throughout the world.  An ARB air locker replaced the stock E-locker that was left behind in the stock third member. A custom rear drive shaft to direct power back to the new rear end completed the circuit.  All these changes were in response to our request for rock solid dependability.  But what about the suspension.Atlas transfer case

Stock FJ Cruisers come with a 4-link rear suspension and nine inches of travel.  LT replaced this with a custom 3-link.  Starting with Metal Tech’s long travel lower link design, LT lengthened the design for our setup while still retaining all the engineering that has gone into Metal Tech’s original design.  Our links incorporate 2 1/2″ forged Johny Joints® with 1 1/4″ threaded studs and tube steal capable of supporting the weight of the rig if it is drug over a rock, ensuring the lower links will remain true regardless of where we go.  The links were paired with Metal Tech long travel progressive springs and bump-stop off sets to maintain proper positioning as the rear axle travels the entire arc.  When it came to shocks we knew we needed both length and girth to give us the travel we desired and the stamina for endless rough dirt roads without fading.

With the extra width of the Currie, LT add outboard shock hoops to hold 2 1/2″ triple by-pass, remote reserve shocks from Sway-A-Way that are capable of 12″ of travel. Sway-a-way triple bypass shocks By increasing the shock diameter from the 2″ to 2 1/2″ we equaled the dampening power of two, 2″ shocks and effectively doubling our previous setup’s stamina. The by-pass feature will let us dial in both the rebound and compression dampening to match the terrain we are traveling on.  And what is good for the rear…

Up front we added another set of 2 1/2″ triple by-pass, remote reserve Sway-A-Way axillary shocks to our Total Chaos long travel so we can tune the front and share the load with the coil-overs.  And since the front transfer case was going to be pulled apart to match the gears in the rear, LT added an ARB locker up front giving us complete wheel locking capability front and rear if needed.

new gear shiftsThe Blue Bunny is a six speed manual and driving a manual off-road is all about having options in the gears.  We’d been thinking about changing out the transfer case for a number of years and since we had everything pulled apart it was time to make a decision.  High and low are pretty standard transfer case options and we could choose some crawler gears to improve control over gnarly trails but that is still a compromise since we face mud, sand and crawling over rock on our off-road adventures.  In order to ensure we can crawl slow, pull a load up a steep hill and still run with speed where we want, we chose an Atlas 4 speed.  The Atlas’ planetary 2.72:1 reduction gear along with the 3.8:1 low range gear provides all sorts of options: H-H, H-L, L-H and L-L along with the ability to engage front or rear independently. You can do the math with all the gears involved to figure out our final crawl ratios but what it comes down to is we can now ooze slower than molasses over rocks, climb a tree fully loaded, sail over sand dunes and still drive to work.

There is a price for all these high end off-road modifications.atlas transfer case mounted

  • You’re running with mods that take adjusting to get right and tune it all in.  These are not just drop in and forget it components.  But get it all right…  and wow!
  • No parts store has spare parts on the self for any of the custom work.  You are running a one of a kind rig.
  • You need to know how it all fits together, comes apart and then goes back together because no one else will.
  • You need to learn your rig all over again…  it’s new sounds, feel and driving capabilities…  but that is half the fun.

When it comes to our off-road adventures we aren’t satisfied with one style of wheeling, we love it all. Sure you can put together a purpose built rig that will exceed the Blue Bunny’s capability on any one terrain but we think we’ve built a solid rig to conquer all terrains.  Of course there will be times when we’ll have to finesse a situation or let a faster rig pass but with the trade offs we’ve made (like IFS for the desert over straight axle for rocks, or a short wheel base for maneuverability over tons of room for expedition gear that comes with a longer wheel base), the Blue Bunny should get us through anything we encounter as we continue to look for the last great road trips left in the world.

FJ80 repair rubicon trail

Don’t Be Cheap!

father son wrenchingFriends will tell you we’re cheap…  hold onto a nickel until the buffalo squeals cheap… after all it is difficult to part with hard earned money. However that does not mean we’re not willing to pay for value and there are somethings you just can’t put a price on.

The internet is a great resource.  You can find cheap parts, how to instructions and lots of opinions on what ever widget you have to have for your rig.  You can find it all but that doesn’t mean you’ll get everything you need.

So what constitutes value?  For us it is a shop that takes the time to work with us, explain options, spend the time needed to educate us and do what it takes to make sure we can make an informed decision.  And if things don’t go as planned the shop works to make it right.   Usually these shops are run by and filled with guys (gender neutral non-specific use of the term guy) who are real wheelers and car guys.  If you listen, they will impart wisdom to you that you can’t buy.  Whether you’re headed to Rubicon, the Baja or a road trip to Key West, they want to make sure your experience behind the wheel is one you wont forget.

When you find a shop that delivers great value don’t squander the opportunity.  Develop that relationship…  and that relationship goes both ways! When you find a shop that provides personal support, impeccable service and great value for the price be loyal.  — Rant time: and by loyal we mean, don’t work a shop by asking for a lot of how to help or expert advice and then cruise the Internet for cheap parts that the shop sells.  Yes talking with customers and helping them with advice, recommendations and insights from years of experience is good for business but don’t forget it is customer service so be a good customer if you take them up on the service.

sumter automotive

photo by bskolb

We’ve been extremely lucky…  we have found two great shops. You know that Metal Tech 4×4 are our go to guys when it comes to our rig.  Metal Tech produces and sells top quality aftermarket protection parts for your Toyota rig.  They will spend the time to make sure you get the information you need to pick the right protection and suspension components for your style of wheeling.  They will install the parts or help you understand how to install them yourself.  In fact it was Mark, one of the owners who helped us get into wheeling and has been instrumental in developing our skills…  He has probably forgotten more about wheeling Toyota’s than we’ll ever know.  A big part of us taking on Baja was based on the skills Mark and LT taught us when they let us tag along with them on the Rubicon a few years back.

More recently, we picked up a used commuter car while the Blue Bunny goes through its latest incarnation over at Metal Tech 4×4.  I can promise you, any 24 year old car needs a little love to stay in top form and our “new to us” commuter car was no exception.  Sure we enjoy working on cars, just check out or videos, but there is a lot to be said for having a shop that you trust who will take care of your car like its their own. Especially when your daily commute is 150 mile round trip every day.

When it came to finding a repair shop for this car we called a couple, then made an appoint for them to look at the car and provide a recommendation for its care and feeding.  Sure it was their chance to checkout the car but it was also our opportunity to see what they would find (we already knew a couple things they should find), how they would present a prioritized work list and see how they keep the shop looking (especially at the end of a busy day). The shop that stood out for us was Silverdale Autoworks. They found what we expected and a little more.  They gave us estimates for the different work and ranked the work according to priority based on what we told them was important to us.  Now with some 25,000 more miles on the car and a few trips to the their shop to repair an oil leak, refresh the cooling system and change more oil than we thought one motor could hold, Silverdale Autoworks has proven their value and earned our loyalty.

Is there a moral to this story? Yes. Take the time to find a shop that will provide you with great value and reward that shop with your loyalty.  If you work with the shop, your car guy will do his best to make sure your car or rig can take you on the adventure of a life time.

toyota fj cruiser drive shaft splines and snap ring

FJ Cruiser Front Drive Shaft Replacement

old drive shaftOn an off-road adventure, spare parts are great but if you don’t have the tools or the know-how to complete the repair… those parts aren’t going to change themselves.

You’ve heard us preach: “If the rig you drive off-road has independent front suspension (IFS) carry a spare drive-shaft”, can I get an AMEN. The CV Joint provides a great deal of movement over a wide range of angles but it is a weak link that we don’t do any favors for when we add larger tires, re-gear our differentials and provide additional articulation with suspension lifts. The problem occurs as you put large amounts of torque on the joint when it is at a maximum angle. A classic case is where the wheels are spinning and the driver turns them to gain traction to climb a rock. As the tires catch traction all that spinning force is thrown directly into the CV which usually explodes under the immediate transition of force.

Some folks have opted for beefier CV joints. Our philosophy is a little different. When driving off-road you will always have weak links. We prefer to keep those weak links where they can be repaired in the field. Beef up your CV and now the differential gears have to absorb all the torque that the CV was previously protecting them from. A drive-shaft replacement in the field (or just pulling the axle and limping in 3WD) is manageable, replacing differential gears in the field not so much.

We recently had a CV boot on one of our drive-shafts start oozing lube while on the Utah backcountry discovery route (UTBDR). We managed to bandage it up with zip ties and duct tape in the field but upon arriving back in the garage it was time to make a proper repair by swapping out the damaged drive-shaft.spare drive shaft

The process of swapping a drive-shaft is pretty straight forward with the right tools and a little planning. The old Toyota Trails Team used to brag about changing out a drive-shaft in under 30 minutes. For us mere mortals it can be accomplished in about an hour or so with a few basic tools under reasonable conditions. But who breaks anything under reasonable conditions? 

Most of us carry a small assortment of tools when we wheel. You will most likely need to add a couple of items to your tool bag if you are going to complete this repair. Here is the list of bits and bobble to have on hand.

  • 1/2” socket wrench
  • 12mm, 14mm, 17mm, 19mm sockets
  • 35mm socket (for the axle nut. This repair lacks entertainment value without a 35mm socket)axle hub
  • Big flat head screwdriver
  • Pliers
  • Slide hammer (not something we carry) or small crowbar
  • Small mallet
  • Breaker bar (or a pipe that fits over your socket wrench to get leverage on that axle nut)
  • brass bar
  • Torque wrench that will go to 175 ft/lbs (if you want to do it right)
  • Gear oil (some is going to spill out)
  • Funnel hose (have you seen where the front diff fill is located)
  • Shop rags, tarp or plastic sheet, trash bags (you’ll be making a mess)
  • Gloves, hand cleaner, baby wipes (unless you’re ok with grease all over your steer wheel on the drive home)
  • Flashlight (always carry a good flashlight)

The parts:extra parts

  • Preassembled spare drive-shaft (sort of the point)
  • Steering knuckle oil seal – recommended but optional
  • Hub dust cover (Toyota calls it a hub grease cap) – recommended but optional

On the optional parts, you can be careful and reuse the dust cover and seal but it’s hardly worth the frustration when your in the field. It will save you time and trouble if you carry these extras.

The method we’ll describe here is with field repair in mind. It may not be pretty but if we could get by on our good looks, we’d have a chase truck and a team of mechanics on our off-road adventures.

outboard drive shaftFirst and foremost, secure the rig. Try to limp to a flat, dry spot. Chock the other wheels to keep the rig from moving. This repair is much easier with a floor jack and a couple of jack stands. In the field we carry a bottle jack and a hi-lift.

Grab your spare drive-shaft and give it a look. Double check for cracks or leaks in the boots or assemblies… You really don’t want to put in a broken part. And if your spare is bad, begin considering your options.

Start by removing your spare tire (yes, the spare tire) and set it aside for a moment. Now loosen the lugs on the wheel with the bad drive-shaft before raising the rig with the Hi-lift. Once you have the wheel off, lay it flat, slide it under the rig and stack the spare on top. You are creating a jack stand out of the two tires so position them under the frame toward the front of the rig and lower the rig off the hi-lift onto the tire stack. You will need to put lot of torque on some of the nuts and you don’t want to have a hi-lift holding the rig in the air as you’re pushing an pulling things around. Now throw down a tarp or plastic sheet to catch the gear oil that will seep out from the front differential as we move to the meat of this repair.outboard drive shaft removal

Pry off the hub dust cover. Toyota says you can pry the cover loose… We just punch through it with a big screwdriver and tug at it, but then again, we carry a spare cap. Remove the cotter pin and locking nut cap setting them is a safe place. Removing the axle nut takes that 35mm socket, a breaker bar and a little muscle. Have the rig in 4W-Lo to keep the axle from turning as you wrench off the nut.

Remove the nut and cotter pin holding the steering tie rod in place and wiggle the tie rod free from the steering knuckle. It might take a light wrap or two with the mallet to free the tie rod.

inboard drive shaft removalFree the two bolts holding the lower ball joint to the steering knuckle. These bolts are a bit tight so put some muscle into it and take care to set them in a safe place… finding a lost bolt, a nut or god forbid a cotter pin in the dirt can be harder than any field repair.

At this point the steering knuckle and wheel hub can be swung out of the way and you can slide it off the outboard side of the drive-shaft. Be careful not to pull on or stress the ABS sensor plug, its wire or the brake line. Once the shaft is pulled out, rest the hub back down on the lower ball joint attachment.

steering knuckle oil sealTo remove the inner portion of the drive-shaft from the differential, Toyota recommends using a slide hammer and hook to pull the drive-shaft free. A slide hammer is not in our tool kit on the trail, and we’ve found a small crowbar works well to pry (really more of a pop) it out. In either case you are putting enough force on the drive-shaft cup to pop the snap ring free. Be careful not to damage the transfer case’s oil seal. As the drive-shaft comes free, gear oil will start to leak out and you will want to catch it in a tin can, bucket or what ever is handy in order to protect the environment.

Ok… take a breath, grab a few swigs of water and relax, you’re half way through the repair.

Take a look at the steering knuckle oil seal on the inside of the steering knuckle. There is a good chance it is chewed up, dirty and worn out which is why we carry the spare. Replacing the seal involves pulling the old one out with a pair of pliers and then working the new one into the steering knuckle. Tap the new seal in using a soft touch with the mallet, hammer or rock on a brass rod working your way around and tapping it into place. The seal is a tight fit so take your time until it is snugged into place and flush against the knuckle.

On the FJ Cruiser a single drive-shaft will fit either passenger or driver side, but there is a clear inboard and outboard side to the drive-shaft shaft. As you prepare to install the new drive-shaft notice the snap ring on the inboard side. An extra set of hands will make this much easier if they can swing out the hub holding it out of the way while you install the drive-shaft. In order to install the drive-shaft align the shaft splines with the differential and have the snap ring open side facing down. Slide the shaft into the differential. It will take some force to get the snap ring that holds the drive-shaft in the differential into place. If after a couple of strong nudges the drive-shaft does not pop in, take the mallet and brass rod and drive it into place using the notches on the inboard CV cup.

insert drive shaftOnce the inboard side of the drive-shaft is in place you can slide the outboard side through the wheel hub and start buttoning everything back up and hand tighten the axle hub nut, snugging it up to hold the drive-shaft and hub together. You’ll be torquing it tight later.

Torque down the front lower ball joint attachment that holds the knuckle to the lower arm. Reassemble the tie rod torquing the nut and replacing the cotter pin. And now torque up tight the front axle nut with the required 175 ft/lb. Slide the nut locking cap over the axle nut and put the cotter pin back in. Tap the hub’s dust cover  (grease cap) into place and your just about done. 

Before putting the wheel back on, look over the whole IFS. We will put a bottle jack under the lower control arm and raise it a bit to simulate how it will sit when the tire is back on and the drive-shaft is relatively horizontal. Tug, pull and push on everything to make sure the entire assembly is snug and fit. If your not sure about the play in a part, check it against the other side. Remember your other side is under weight and will react a bit different but yodust coveru will understand what parts have play in them and what do not. 

You will want to top off your front differential with gear oil to make up for what has seeped out through the repair. The easiest way we’ve found to fill the front differential on an FJ Cruiser is with a funnel and long hose run from the differential fill port up to a location where the gear oil can be pored into the funnel and run down to the differential. The amount of oil required depends on the angle your rig was at during this repair and the amount of oil that leaked out.

Once you’ve topped off the oil and reinstalled the fill plug, the final step is to put the wheel back on, clean up your mess and continue on your way.

No… those parts aren’t going to change themselves but with the right parts and tools, there is no reason you can’t make a field repair and continue your off-road adventure.

Bonus resources: You might want to print these off, put them is a zip lock freezer bag and tape to your spare drive shaft.