You don’t have to be involved in the Jeep community for very long at all and you’ll hear about “it”. Much like the boogeyman, its shady reputation precedes it deep inside the inner circles of the Jeep world, secretly inciting as much fear and anxiety as any horror movie monster ever could. “It” is the dreaded “Death Wobble” and no other mechanical phenomenon is responsible for alienating more “enthusiasts” from their beloved hobby than this. I’ve even heard of people walking away from their almost-new JK, leaving it on the side of the road, too afraid to drive it again. Who can really blame them? Afterall, do YOU really want to drive around in a vehicle that is obviously possessed by the devil himself?? If you have ever experienced “Death Wobble”, you can relate. If you haven’t experienced it, say your prayers that you never do. On second thought, let’s put fear aside and try to put this infamous condition into some better light and maybe we can diminish some of the anxiety people may have
What is “Death Wobble”? Well, I am by no means a rocket surgeon but it can be best described as an oscillating condition that occurs in the front drivetrain of any vehicle with a solid front axle and coil springs, usually one that relies on a track bar for the centering of the differential. By “oscillating”, I mean that the front end of the Jeep moves from side to side, on an less-than-stable axis, in such quick succession that it will feel like it is going to eject itself from under the vehicle in a very violent fashion. Loss of vehicle control is a side effect of the dreaded death wobble; however, restoring the integrity of your basic steering controls IS the key to eliminating death wobble. As your steering and suspension components age or are exposed to the harsh service conditions of off-roading, they are no longer as tight as they need to be, all of which are accentuated by larger tires. The cumulative total of all of the ‘play’ in these components could result in this condition or it could be a critical failure in just one or two components.
If you experience “Death Wobble” in your four wheel drive vehicle, first ask yourself if this happened out of nowhere or can it be associated with a recent event, like a recent off-roading adventure or the installation of a new lift kit. This will help you decide what components to check first. Contrary to popular opinion, steering stabilizers are not usually the cause of “death wobble”. The installation of a quality steering dampener can minimize the symptoms making you think it has been remedied but it will be back as the underlying problem still exists.
The fundamentals of your front suspension are the first things to check out and, to our satisfaction, don’t usually cost a thing. Are your tires properly inflated to the manufacturers specs? Do you notice any troubling wear patterns on your front tires or are they wearing evenly? Has the vehicle been treated to a proper front end alignment, especially after the installation of a lift kit or steering components? Make a thorough visual inspection of your front steering linkage and look for anything that is bent, damaged or loose.
My first investigative task in a such a case of ‘Whodunnit’ is to identify the most likely suspect based on my prior experiences- when it comes to death wobble, this seedy character is clearly the Track Bar. On a leaf sprung suspension like a Wrangler YJ or CJ, you can toss the front track bar in the scrap bin and drive down the road with no significant issues. The leaf springs linear design keeps the differential pretty well centered under the Jeep and perpendicular to the frame rails. On Jeeps with coil springs however, the track bar is absolutely vital to maintaining steering and vehicle stability. Any ’play’ in the bushings, sleeves or even loose attaching hardware can be cause for great concern and would need to be addressed. Often you will find that the bushing is wallowed out around the metal sleeve allowing it to move slightly. The same methodology can be used inspecting both upper and lower control arms, checking for any degraded bushings or loose hardware. Keep in mind, the lower control arms are used for setting the front end alignment so a trip to an alignment shop should be on your short list of things to do if the control arms are replaced. The steering linkage can then be examined for problems. While a helper slowly turns the steering wheel back and forth, you can observe the steering linkage, checking for any excessive wobble in any of the tie rod ends. You can also grasp the tie rod end by hand and try moving the outer tie rod end up and down looking for movement of the ball in the socket. Inner tie rods should be checked for forward and rearward movement and replaced if suspect, again, with a visit to the alignment shop after replacement.
Lastly, check the upper and lower ball joints for excessive play. This can be done by jacking up the front wheels and setting the axle tube on a jack stands with the tire a few inches off the ground. Have a helper place a section of 2 x 4 or a short piece of pipe directly under the tire and pry upward from the face of the wheel while you examine the ball joints for any movement, also listening for any clunking or clicking from the joints. Any excessive movement or noises calls for replacement ball joints which, due to the level of involvement this job requires, should be replaced as a complete set by a skilled, experienced professional.
While it is possible that there may be multiple root causes for your particular case of “Death Wobble”, it is crucial that each component be evaluated thoroughly and not bypassed based on any preconceived opinion. For example, “I just replaced that track bar a year ago, there’s no way it could possibly be faulty”…think again! As you identify issues with your steering and suspension and resolve them, short test drives can be taken to evaluate your progress. It’s possible that the speed at which the wobble occurs may change or it may develop into an occurrence that is only triggered by a bump in the road or dip of the suspension. Stay the course and remember to give attention to the details. Persistence will surely prevail and you can then return to enjoying your Jeep without fear.